I spent the majority of last weekend at the Salem Literary Festival, participating in workshops and feeling like a writer again. It was so fun. I LOVED my writing classes in college. The amount you learn in a workshop is invaluable, even if it's not your piece that is being workshopped (most of the time it isn't). Talking about specific words, word order, word choice, tense...in a nutshell, craft, is, believe it or not, fun. And inspiring. I'm such a dork.
The workshops I took at the festival were not specific to a piece, they were specific to a genre. But they were small and so informative, and by the end of the day my hand hurt and my head was spinning...you know, in a really good way. In both workshops we did exercise after exercise, writing and sharing, writing and sharing. So I want to share here what I wrote last week...with the caveat that these were 10 minute exercises that I have not polished since scribbling them in a journal. But I'd love to hear which ones catch your curiosity, and decide if there are any here that I should pursue further.
Really. 10 minutes. I'm not kidding. Keep that in mind before you laugh. The exercise and goal are written at the top of each.
Random Word Throw Exercise: Started with “I haven’t been the same since…” were thrown the words Squid, Gelatinous, and “The phone rang” while writing.
I haven’t been the same since yesterday, when I decided to get a cup of coffee. He stood at the register, smirking, like I had a blob of grape jelly on my face. I actually reached up to check, my hand fluttering over my lips: my jelly, my nose: no hanging boogers, my hair: no bird poop. I looked quickly down at my chest to make sure I wasn’t exposing a nipple, and then glared back at his smirk. It didn’t change when he said:
“Excuse me? I asked.
“You’re not squid?”
“Ummmm…no.” I started to laugh but turned it into a cough because I didn’t want to insult the man. He clearly had mental problems.
“I’m sorry,” He said. “Can I get you something? I don’t recommend the coffee cake.” He pointed at a sagging frosted ring in the case. “It’s gelatinous.”
I laughed this time. “Just a cup of coffee,” I said, still smiling.
“I can do that.” He turned, and while pouring my cup he asked, “do you know Squid?”
“No.” I couldn’t handle the 5 seconds of awkward silence. “…Is squid a person?”
He turned, the smirk smacked back on his face like a red colorform. He placed the coffee in front of me. “Squid,” he said slowly, “is not a person. Squid…”
The phone rang shrilly and as he turned toward it his smirk melted. “I need to get that. $2.53 please.”
I took out 3 dollars, laid it on the counter and walked out, clinging to the coffee, warm and solid, with both hands.
"I remember" sentences
I remember the sound of the bullfrogs, vibrating in the heavy dark, as I tried, I tried, I tried to sleep.
I remember how he looked straight at me and said: Why can’t you just say you’re sorry?
I remember peeking past the curtain, feeling the cold rush at me through the glass, and seeing him walk steadily through the snow, axe over his shoulder, down to the frozen pond.
“The first time I heard X song, I was doing X” Exercise
The first time I heard Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”, I was spying on my older sister, sitting curled up at the bottom of the stairs to her third-floor attic room. Just because she was older she got an entire floor as her room and the closet was so big it had two doors, but it also meant the only door she could shut was at the bottom of the stirs, and she couldn't hear me open it or hear me sit there for an hour or more, listening to her sing: “like a vir-her-her-her-gin…”
Sometimes I would creep up step by step, so I could hear her talk to Tommy, her greasy boyfriend with hair in his face, on the phone. They said I was like the hippo in Fantasia once. Well, Tommy did. My sister just laughed. Therefore, the spying was deserved.
“I’m so bored” she would tell him. "I miss you." She'd lie on the carpet with her legs up in the air, and sometimes I could see the tips of her toes on the wall and I would think how mad my mom would get if she saw that.
But here’s the truth. I didn’t know what a virgin was. I didn’t even put two and two together: "Gonna give you all my love boy. My fear is fading fast.” I didn’t understand enough to know what my sister was starting to feel, what singing those words meant to her. What I did know was that she lived in this brand new third floor world, high above me, full of mystery and longing, and sitting at the bottom of the stairs and listening was about as close as I could ever get.
Story in 54 words exercise: First sentence is 10 words, second sentence is 9 words, third sentence is 8 words, etc!
The grass is long enough to hide us almost completely. Hearing the loud count down, we sit, feeling small. The sunlight makes stripes on our faces. “Shhhh,” she whispers, “they can’t find us.” I smile under my sweaty hand. We huddle closer, feeling giddy. A bird flies overhead. I hear footsteps. Grass rustling. “Boo!”
Dialogue Exercise: You can use a maximum of 5 non-dialogue sentences.
“There isn’t anything left to say.”
“That is crap and you know it.”
“Well I don’t have anything left to say.”
“That’s because you’re been talking for an hour. And you haven’t listened.”
“I don’t really want to.”
“Did I ask if you wanted to? In the very least, you owe me one listen.”
“One listen? That’s not even correct English.”
“You’re a shithead.”
She took a deep breath. “What you just spent the last hour telling me is a really nice way of trying to justify your actions.”
“That wasn’t really a compliment.”
“—Shut up, it’s my turn. Really. I mean, really? What I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t really matter what you think your story should be. Here is the truth: you did this. You did this. It’s your fault. It will always be your fault….And I am no longer your sister.”
She took another deep breath. “What you think is crazy.”
“That may be.”
She got up, stepped out of the pew and walked down the aisle, the casket silent and alone at the other end.