IMPROV…NOT JUST FOR THEATER GEEKS ANYMORE!

I led my fourth workshop at the local public library last week. Its an on-going mini-writing workshop for 9-12 year olds and I tend to get the same mix of ten or fourteen kids, mostly girls strangely, every time. I started with specific themes like how to write heroes and villains, or how to create magical beasties, and I have illustrated poster boards with arrows pointing every which way and lots of exclamation points (I tend to get overly excited about writing), and lots of hand-outs, and examples from mythology and current fiction. We discuss what theyre reading, what Im reading, our favorite authors and so on.
After a couple of sessions I realized that these kids really want to write so I did a sort of general workshop on writing techniques and discussed various ways that the story can be told. I made room for them to do some in-session writing, usually a whatever-strikes-your-fancy sort of thing but this last time I decided to pull a trick from my writing teachers bag. When I first joined her writing group she would read us a piece at the beginning of the class- it might be a poem or prose or a short essay on crustaceans; all beautifully written by people like Jamaica Kincaid or Mark Doty or Mary Oliver, and then we (there were three of us) would write something, either directly inspired by the piece she had read, or sometimes if we needed a little prod, shed give us a choice of a few ideas. For instance shed say, ‘write a paragraph beginning with the sentence- his socks were mismatched, or a paragraph containing a vase, a dead mouse and an unexpected visitor. Something would eventually occur; something would spark in our tired brains. We were all new mothers, squeezing in an evening a week of creativity, so that we didnt feel as if wed become nothing more than milk machines and sleep-deprived drones.
In the past in my workshops I have given out pages with ideas for writing exercises, but this time I wrote a different word or short phrase on twenty-five index cards. After Id finished reading the second chapter from my new book (Feltus Ovalton and the Awful Becoming) which was pretty well received; at least they all laughed quite a bit, we piled the cards upside down in the middle of the table and shuffled them around. Everyone drew two or three; some people didnt like their picks and drew again, and then we bent our heads over our blank piece of paper (hiding our genius from the prying eyes of our neighbors with curved arms) and wrote for fifteen minutes. I have to admit, that I finished last. I can beg the excuse that my baby daughter was present and fidgety, and that as usual these days Im tired (Oh shut up! Jo!), but the fact is that it requires a certain sharpness of brain to improvise a story right on the spot and I was sorely out of practice. Also in my defense, I drew ‘donuts ‘a frozen lake and ‘misery. It took a while to get those rusty gears cranking but eventually I did. I even got to stick in a joke about British poets. Id forgotten how much fun it is to write something on the spot, just for the sheer joy of making up a little story.
Anyway I heartily recommend the exercise. Im thinking about using the cards whenever Im feeling stuck on plot. Sometimes things that dont seem to make sense, or are completely random, work within the context of a larger story. I have enough eccentric characters in my books that I can afford to throw a few curve balls.
I remember reading that David Bowie used the cut-up method. Maybe its called something else. But hed write a long stream of consciousness poem and then snip up the lines with a pair of scissors and rearrange them to make a song. Pretty cool.
By the way, my writing teachers name is Abigail Thomas. Her excellent memoir, “A Three Dog Life”, is out now in paperback, and she has a book on writing memoir coming out in April. We could all learn a thing or two or ten about writing from her.
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