Fiction Calisthenics

Today’s entry is borrowed from Keanan Brand’s blog, Adventures in Fiction, and contains an idea for a short, fun exercise in creativity.
Enjoy!

Fiction Calisthenics

If you’re ever stuck, or you just need to warm up your writing muscles and flex those fingers before confronting your current project, be it poetry or a manuscript or a short story, then here’s an easy, fun exercise:

1) Choose a notebook or a loose-leaf binder that you will use only for these writing calisthenics. The reason? Just like hauling out the right exercise mat or choosing your favorite punching bag, you always know where to go when you need a workout. Also, every time you do this exercise, you will end up with something interesting you can use later; if you use the same notebook every time, you always know where to find the material.

2) Each time you start a fresh exercise, put the day’s date at the top of the page, then make a list — 1,2,3 — on the first three lines.

3) Pick a book, any book. Pick a magazine, if you want. Any printed material will do; I prefer thick books.

4) Flip through the book at random and, without looking, point to the page. Write down the word closest to (or underneath) your finger; feel free to try again if the word is “the” or “and” or something else bland. Multisyllabic words are best, but any word will do. Repeat this part of the exercise until you have at least three words listed beside the numbers at the top of your page.

5) Look at the clock — or set a timer — and, without stopping to think about what you’re going to compose, write for no less than 5 and no more than 15 minutes straight, incorporating those three words in your list. When the timer goes off or the second hand ticks past the 5-minute or the 15-minute point, stop writing, even if it’s in the middle of a sentence.

In my experience, the results are often a lot of fun and help provide some interesting openers for what can become longer stories. I’m surprised at the variety of topics, settings, and eras that I’ve written about whenever I’ve just let my mind wander free.

Below is one example from my apple-green spiral-bound notebook which bears the same title as this post — “Fiction Calisthenics” — and the three words in the list are in bold in the text:

7-16-07

1) school
2) arms
3) gloves

No.

No way.

Impossible.

He stared at the gleaming silver benches, the neatly bordered aisles with their shiny aluminum handrails. At least twenty rows of bleachers–and he was supposed to run up and down how many times?

First day of school in this backwater town, and he was already in trouble.

He glanced over his shoulder. Coach Winters stood with his arms crossed, whistle lanyard dangling from one meaty paw, stopwatch lanyard dangling from the other.

Jerk. Can’t take a joke.

Coach Winters spat on the track, and little puffs of dirt flew up around the wad of phlegm. “Two minutes added to your time. C’mon, boy. Twelve minutes and counting.”

He swung his arms, limbering up. A couple twists, a couple hamstring stretches, a few seconds of jogging in place as a warm-up–

“Thirteen minutes.”

What he wouldn’t give for three minutes, a boxing ring, and his favorite pair of gloves; flabby Coach Winters wouldn’t last one round. Guaranteed.

His tennis shoes banged on the first bleacher, the sound echoing in the stadium. Blowing out his breath, taking it in again, he started up.

And there ya go — you’ve warmed up your writing muscles, and you have material to use later, and (hopefully) you’ve had a little fun doing it.

used with permission — originally published February 14, 2008 — c. KB

Inspiration and Ego

I haven’t read “The Palace Thief” by Ethan Canin (I need to, though), but I have seen the film based on the short story: The Emperor’s Club. Excellent film. Anyone who works with young people over a period of years, especially in a teaching or mentoring fashion, will very much identify with the main character, Mr. Hundert, perfectly portrayed by Kevin Kline. However, it isn’t the story but the past that is my focus here.

There is a shadow character in the story, a long-dead king named Shutruk-Nahhunte whose braggadocious quote — all that is left of his empire — is inscribed on a plaque and hung over Mr. Hundert’s classroom door: I am Shutruk Nahunte, King of Anshand and Susa, Sovereign of the land of Elam. I destroyed Sippar, took the stele of Naram-Sin, and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my god. Shutruk Nahunte – 1158 B.C.

Shutruk-Nahhunte was a real king, but like many a past conqueror was himself conquered — by Nebuchadnezzar I.

As a writer, I’ve been inspired by crazy things that, at the time, may have appeared to have no connection with one another; and, on occasion, I’ve wondered where Canin may have received his inspiration to write a story involving disparate characters: a prep-school history teacher, a politician’s son, and an ancient king.

Perhaps (and I’m just guessing here), among other experiences that may have led to the story’s creation, he read this 1817 poem poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

OZYMANDIAS

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

As for the two kings — Shutruk-Nahhunte and Ozymandias (a/k/a Ramesses the Great) — there is a similarity to their pronouncements about themselves: “Look at me! Ain’t I great?”

Millennia later, no matter what they did, built, or said, there is no one left to remember them. What remains are fragments for archeologists to find, to speculate about what might have been.

Writing, Editing, and Life