In spite of all my inherent nerdiness, I was never much of a devotee of writing exercises.
I mean, come on. We all know it takes about a thousand years to write a really good novel. Why waste writing time dithering around with some set of practice pages that would never see the light of day?
If I was going to practice writing, I would practice on my novel, thanks very much.
... But the writers around me kept praising writing exercises. So I picked up some books of writing prompts and tried a few.
But the prompts were a bit lame. And my resulting pieces were kind of dull. They felt false, canned, pre-packaged. Not the kind of work I enjoyed. Not pieces of writing that I respected.
What changed all that? Three things.
What happened? My writing life changed completely. For the much much better.
I was between drafts of my novel-in-progress. I felt tired and grumpy about writing in general.
I wanted to take a break from the long-haul drafting process, but I didn't want my writing habit to atrophy entirely. What to do?
So I picked up her copy and flipped through it, looking at the writing prompts.
They weren't lame. They didn't feel silly. They were actually ... intriguing.
And there was one for each day of the year. (Ooh. I love a good calendar system.)
Bonus: All these prompts were surrounded by wonderful short articles (and quotes, lists, challenges, cheerleading) about the writing life, the writing habit, tips from other writers, and other advice that was cheering, practical, and exciting.
And did I mention that the prompts weren't lame??
Like, here, listen to these: February 12: Write about an eclipse. February 13: What was seen through binoculars. February 15: Write about animal dreams.
Or September 13: She left a note. September 14: A collection of lies. September 15: "Houses have their secrets" (after Yannis Ritsos).
See? Not the standard. Just enough direction to get the brain involved, but not so much direction that the exercise feels false.
So I swiped Mom's copy. I carved out eight weeks between drafts.
And because I love to do a thing with gusto, I spent those eight weeks writing my way through all of Reeves' 366 exercises.
Nine or ten exercises per workday. Ten minutes per exercise.
I filled a lot of spiral notebooks. My handwriting fell to pieces.
And I became a whole different kind of writer.
Honestly? It's one of the best things I've ever done.
Here's what I found out.
It helps--a lot--to bring an idea file to the game.
Like I mention in this post, I keep files full of teeny little ideas. Names that I find intriguing. Phrases that get my imagination swirling. Concepts for settings, situations, relationships. Titles that are begging for a book.
When faced with a writing prompt alone (even one that isn't lame), my brain could still go blank.
But when I also swiped a few ideas randomly from an idea file, and combined those things with the prompt: Magic happened.
The blank page doesn't have to be terrifying. Neither does "bad" writing.
After facing 366 blank pages? After getting into the rhythm of "ready, set, GO," day after day, time after time? No matter how you're feeling, no matter how creative or not creative, no matter how tired, no matter how many words you've been writing?
Yeah. The blank page loses its fangs and its big scary voice.
Instead, it becomes a means to something much better: a full page.
I also learned not to over-emphasize the importance of my own bad writing.
With that many pages filled, you better believe that a lot of them were pretty crappy. And yet a lot of them were also rather brilliant. Some of those pages still give me chills, and I'm planning stories around them.
And the crappy work existed right alongside the brilliant gems.
It didn't matter how I felt about writing each day: whether I felt up for it, or whether I didn't. I still could write total slop and the next minute write something incredible.
So all those feelings we keep feeling about writing? Yeah. They stopped meaning so much.
And I just got to work.
The imagination is a much, much, MUCH bigger (and weirder) place than I thought.
Filling that many pages taught me this for certain: that my imagination was up to the challenge.
Those 366 pieces of writing covered all kinds of crazy territory. I wrote spy stories, historical sketches, action sequences, serene tea-drinking scenes, wild off the wall stories for kids, bizarre internal monologues...
It made me realize that my three little novels-in-progress (at the time) weren't the only things I could write.
I got a clear look at my own creative agility. I saw that I could write in almost any direction, that I could improvise on almost any theme.
I stopped feeling so dang TIMID.
When you see what your imagination is capable of, the tasks of writing, rewriting, and revising become a lot less frightening.
And oh yeah, the writing itself was a lot of fun.
(See what I did there? I just used "fun" and "writing" in the same sentence. And it wasn't a typo.)
Judy Reeves recommended not planning what you were going to write for an exercise. She said to write down the first sentence that came to you, and go from there.
Rule-follower that I am, I tried that technique. And loved it.
It felt like holding a camera above your head, snapping a Polaroid picture, and then shaking it around, wondering what exactly you had captured. Excitedly watching it develop.
I never, ever knew where my pen would lead. I was half-writer, half-reader, racing over new territory.
My only goals were: to keep writing, and to not be bored. So I threw in as many twists as I liked, riffing on whatever tangents occurred to me.
You GUYS. It was so much fun.
I almost couldn't believe it: I was writing my brains out, working hard, and yet having a blast.
Writing felt like playing again, like the kind of marvelous inventive play I used to do as a kid.
Every day of writing held dozens of discoveries. I never knew what it would be like.
I got hooked on it.
I began writing for the buzz of it, the glee of making something new.
Again, and again, and again.
So: I'm a writing exercise convert. Utterly and completely.
I don't do writing exercises daily, but when my writing life needs a jolt, or when my imagination is sagging, I pull out A Writer's Book of Days and dive in for a while.
If you're in need of a boost (and who isn't!?), try it.
It will caffeinate your writing, change how you see yourself as a writer, and massively expand the territory of your imagination.
Yeah. ALL that. It will totally make over your writing life.
... And here you were thinking it would be just another Thursday.