After borrowing a couple of exercises from Natalie Goldberg’s latest for my last post, I trotted out another great writing exercise for the fiction workshop I taught Monday night. (That’s not me in the picture, incidentally; I stole this illustration from the website for the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.)
This exercise comes courtesy of Peter Klappert, former professor of poetry and creative non-fiction (autobiography) at Mason, and one of the professors from whom I learned the most, despite his not even teaching in my chosen genre. (It’s not Peter in the picture either, btw. Really, this came from somewhere in the Bush administration.)
This seems a simple exercise, but it’s also a great one in many ways — whatever your level of skill. I’m including it here almost exactly as Peter presented it in his own assignments, and with two excerpts from students in his class, who granted him permission to use their work in conjunction with this exercise (and I hope that such permission may be transferrable somehow, since I’m already risking some pretty stiff Republican wrath by borrowing illustrations from their websites).
All kidding aside: Now that Peter’s not teaching, this great exercise deserves better than to retire with him.
Write two descriptions of yourself, IN THE THIRD PERSON, doing something. You may describe anything at all — a physical activity such as cooking or washing or making love, or a mental activity such as thinking or daydreaming. You may use the same activity in both descriptions or different activities — but DO draw on the same period in your life for each description. Please do NOT rely heavily on dialogue.
By the END of each description, the reader should know or be capable of an informed guess about:
- Your approximate age
- Your approximate physical description (enough to BEGIN to form an image of you)
- How you spend a large part of your time at this point in your life
- The occupation of one parent (and being a homemaker IS an occupation)
- The season of the year
- The region of the country to at least the specificity of state
- A position held by you or some member of your family on a controversial social or political issue
- A favorite movie, book, TV program or musical performer of you or some member of your family
- A favorite color, beverage or food of some member of your family
Neither description should be more than 1 or 1.5 double-spaced pages (so three pages max TOTAL). Although neither needs to be a complete story, both should make sense as fragments.
Sounds easy? Just wait. Here’s the catch.
In the first description (the “direct” description), you may state all facts directly. Don’t just make a list, however, or be minimalistic; instead write the fullest, richest, most vivid “direct” version that you can. It can be done in one sentence, but I wouldn’t recommend it: “When Ichabod was an artichoke-colored little bookworm of seven, he spent his afternoons at the Library of Congress comparing editions of Sade’s Philosophe dans le boudoir while his mother, thinly dressed in Chinese red in the icy January drizzle, was out corrupting the sex-crazed evangelists and repressed Republicans who cruise the streets behind the U.S. Capitol.”
In the second description (the “indirect” description), you may NOT NOT NOT refer directly to any of the required information. The facts must emerge by implication, by however you do what you are doing and by slant references.
Here are a couple of excerpts from examples of “indirect descriptions” that Peter provided to the class: I’m not retyping enough to give you the full list of ingredients, but I think you’ll get the drift. The first is by Margaret Patterson:
The captain was letting her use the Company Commander’s office. At first she had the wild notion to do it in the CO’s chair, but opted for the orange plastic-covered couch. It had more room. Standing by the couch, she unbuttoned her BDU jacket, pulled her t-shirt out of her pants, reached under and undid her bra, letting her left breast fall free. It was hard and gorged with milk. She sat down and crossed one leg over her knee, her shiny black boots reflecting the light. Then she cuddled Bryan in her lap and let him find her breast. Lord! If her father could see this, he would swallow his teeth. ‘Only three kinds of women enlist in the Army and don’t tell me you are any one of them! If you really want to go, finish college and be an officer.’ He insisted on a good four-year college, where she would be able to meet eligible, future professionals. After a lot of begging, and a talk with the major, he finally agreed that she could try to ROTC after her sophomore year at that small, private, Lutheran college she attended. But she hated it there and didn’t finish out her freshman year. She enlisted after he died. Christ! He must be rolling in his grave…
AND here’s another excerpt, this one from Gwen McVay:
She twists her dangling watch around and checks the time: fifty-five minutes until algebra, lots of time. She climbs onto the narrow window ledge, a tight squeeze, even for her, with her back against cinderblocks and her sneakers wedged against the sill. From her backpack, she takes a folder: she riffles through and chooses a few sheets of rough, expensive department letterhead, which she turns over. Laying one hand flat on the corner of the paper, she looks out the window and begins to sketch the outline of the Allegheny foothills with the stub of a #2. Shading quickly, she fills in the monadnocks with orange and brown-colored pencils, choosing an already well-worn dark green to add pines among the shag of oaks. She works steadily but fidgets, chewing her ponytail or picking black fuzz from her sweater….
Up to the challenge? Try it yourself.