A Useful (For the Teacher) Writing Exercise

(Originally Posted Monday, November 12, 2007)

I was browsing through a Swahili dictionary last night, admiring the usefulness of parakacha (the sound made by dried leaves), the whimsy of pingyinyika (to move the buttocks in a circular motion when walking or dancing), the musical cadence of mchachatochachato (slow and careful walking), and the poetry of gaagaa:

Roll from side to side,
Turn restlessly, as a man in pain
Or in delirium,
Or as an animal wallowing on the ground,
Or a ship in a swell.

All of which inspired me to share with you the only teaching exercise I ever invented.

Way back when, I had time to burn and was occasionally talked into teaching an afternoon workshop for high school age aspirant writers. When first I agreed to this, I asked my more experienced friend Gregory Frost for advice. “They want writing exercises,” he told me. “Because they want the chance to read their own work out loud.”

Fair enough. But when you’ve got three hours to work with and thirty students who want a chance to read, that eats up the free time fast. So I borrowed one exercise from Greg and assigned it to them all to take home with them. And midway through the class I gave them my invention:

First I read some examples from Joanna Russ’s “Useful Phrases for the Tourist,” a story in phrase-book form, containing such sentences as “This is my companion, he is not meant as a tip” and “Is that meant to be erotic?” and “If you do not cease doing that I shall call the police.” Then I instructed them to come up with (and write down) the definitions for three alien words. Not the words themselves, just the definitions. After however many minutes, I called on them one by one to stand up and give their definitions. Which, flush with various degrees of excitement and embarrassment, they did. Then the papers with their names and definitions were passed forward to me.

Here’s the exercise Greg gave me to assign at the end of the class: Go home, I said, and write one page from the viewpoint of something that’s not human. It can be an elf, a robot, an alien, a chair, anything. Without having it say anything about what it is or looks like, convey to the reader through its voice alone, what it is.

This is a far more useful exercise to the beginning writer than mine was. In an hour, it makes one a better writer. But it would have eaten up the entire afternoon and left me not one minute in which to pontificate. So I made it homework.

I too had homework. I carefully selected at least one definition from each of the students organized them into a brief dictionary. I added subheadings – At Work, Dealing With Others, Romance – and arranged it all so that the weak contributions didn’t stand out. Then I added a couple of definitions of my own to give the whole an overall shape and point. The last one, in particular, had provide a joke ending and so give closure to the lot. Then I gave it all a good title. Something better than “A Brief Lexicon of Planet Zorch,” though I forget what.

Penultimately, and most importantly, I wrote beneath the title and before the lexicon, “by . . .” and the names of all the students and myself in alphabetical order. Single spaced, it took up half the page. I’d arranged beforehand with the organizers for them to Xerox copies of the story and mail them to everybody who participated. Which they did.

The final product was of course nowhere near as good as Russ’s story. But it was adequate at least and maybe a little better. Everybody got to contribute to it and everybody got proof that they’d collaborated on a story with a published author.

I mention this so that if you find yourself in a similar situation, you’ll know what to do.


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