It’s hard to find time to experiment with your writing while pursuing your MFA. All free moments are spent writing and refining material that will hopefully culminate in your thesis. Workshop is the place to put up your strongest or most relevant work. So, it’s probably not the best forum to debut your pulp noir space-cowboy narrator, Jacque. Summer is a much better time to get your free-write on. Here are some exercises that can help you break out of your writing routine.
Aimee Bender posts an exercise-a-month on her website. This month, she suggests:
“Go to a bookstore and find a very bad book. Sit and read two pages of it. Then go home and write the same event from those two pages, but write them as you think they should be written; take the subject seriously and let your own voice guide you.“
The rest of Bender’s website is also pretty rad–check out her links which include Locus Novus, a visual art + words + sound mashup that Bender contributes to. I don’t totally understand all the content, but I think that’s the point. (See Harold Jaffe’s anti-twitter 50 word stories if you dig digitally consumable media.)
FYI: I haven’t read it yet, but Bender’s new novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake came out June 1st.
You might know Brian Kiteley’s books The 3 A.M. Epiphany and The 4 A.M. Breakthrough. A selection of the exercises are available online. Some of them are too specific for my taste, but I plan to try these two:
“Underground History. Reread your own older fiction—one story or as many as you want to. Find the ten most common words from this fiction (excluding small and uninteresting words). Use these words as hidden titles for ten paragraphs of prose. By hidden, I mean that you should operate as in the above exercise, but after several rough drafts, eliminate the titles. Choosing these ten words is obviously going to be somewhat subjective, unless you have a program that allows you to do some of the work for you (for instance, you could pick a word that seems to occur commonly, then do a MS Word global search—the find icon under edit). This exercise may help you uncover the trends and unexpected subject matter of your fiction.”
“The Apocalypse. Heinrich Heine said, “Holland is always fifty years behind the times, so if I hear the world is about to end, I’ll go to Holland.” Write a comedy about the end of the world. 666 words.”
Tayari Jones blogs often about writing and creativity processes. She suggests an exercise she calls The Name Game for help selecting names that will do the right characterization work in your stories.
Jones is a big proponent of what she calls “Writing With Empathy,” in order to achieve a great level of emotional depth in rendering our characters. She gives some helpful strategies for this here.