The Exquisite Corpse at the ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop

It’s officially fall, the kids are back in school, summer and ArmadilloCon are quickly receding on the horizon as we zoom toward the winter solstice. I meant to blog about the Writing Workshop looong before this, but life, as usual, got in the way. I have so many thoughts about the con and Writing Workshop, which I will get to in later posts. The first order of business is to talk about the writing exercise.

The morning of the workshop consists of two panels covering broad topics in writing and publishing broken up by a writing exercise. The panels, while informative, require a lot of sitting and focused attention, so my goal for the exercise was not only to get people writing and thinking about the creative process, but to also get us all out of our chairs and moving around a bit. What I came up with a classic exquisite corpse exercise paired with some guided freewriting.

People really enjoyed this exercise, so for any of you who might be in a writing group and interested in doing it, read on for instructions. I’ve also posted a sampling of the results. I think this would work for almost any size group, just be sure to build in time for all the moving around and passing pages!

  • First, create exquisite corpse drawings. I confess I was a studio art major for a couple years before switching to English, so the idea of doing a quick sketch was appealing to me. That said, I know even the thought of drawing can make people nervous. The great thing about this exercise’s roots in surrealism is that there is really no such thing as a bad drawing – nothing can be too weird for the purposes of this exercise. 
  • Have everyone fold their paper into thirds. Start by drawing the top of something on the top portion. Instruct people to extend their “top” drawings just a bit below the folded line so that the next person has something to connect their drawing up to. After a few minutes (I used a timer set to 3 minutes) have everyone fold the paper in a way that hides their portion of the drawing and have them pass it on to someone else, who will draw the middle without looking at the previous drawing (again extending the bottom of their drawing just a bit past the last fold).
  • Repeat for the bottom of the drawing.
  • The complete drawings are passed one more time to someone new. During any of these stages (drawing or writing), it doesn’t matter who they pass their drawings to, though I encouraged everyone to try to pass whatever they had to someone new.
Now that everyone has a delightfully weird character in hand it’s time to write. I kept exquisite corpse structure for this part too. I used 5×8 index cards for the writing in order to encourage everyone to keep things concise. 

  • Card #1 (write 1 in the top corner of the card). Look at your drawing this is your main character. In just two or three sentences write the opening of a story. A little bit about the world, a bit about the character and that character’s desire. (as Vonnegut says, your character should want something, even if it’s a glass of water). Think “Once upon a time.” This is the Regular World of the story. (I gave people 5 minutes to write each section.)
  • Hand card #1 off to someone new (along with the drawing) – this time it’s not a secret. Read what you get. Write #2 on a new card. Time to write Act Two. Think, “And then…” This is the character, in pursuit of their desire, leaves the normal world and/or encounters a new element. It could be negative, i.e. the wolf shows up on Red Riding Hood’s trail, or positive, i.e. Charlie Bucket getting one of Willy Wonka’s Golden Tickets.
  • Hand both cards and the drawing off to someone new, read over what you have so far. Write #3 on the last card. Time to write the ending. Think, “Until one day.” This isn’t easy but we’re just having fun here. It’s time for the character to commit to a course of action. The character can be forced to change or the character’s perception of the world can change. The world can be not what it seems (the character’s realization and/or the reader’s realization)
After everyone finished with their last card, I invited people to read what they had. Unfortunately, we didn’t have nearly enough time for this part. With the getting up and trading drawings and cards around. If I repeat this exercise, I will definitely block out more time for people to simply enjoy checking out the drawings and for everyone to get up, move around, and get resettled in between each stage.

All this mixing and matching isn’t meant to create a beautiful story, but to illustrate how considering at wildly different scenarios, images, ideas can lead to innovative narrative solutions. Also, I hope that it can give some confidence in our ability to come up with fun narrative solutions on the fly. 

Another thing that I really liked about this exercise is that since everyone is encouraged to pass want they’ve got to someone new at each stage, everyone gets to mingle just a bit without it being super awkward. Since the afternoon is spent in small group critique with people that workshoppers have often only just met, this exercise serves as a bit of an icebreaker. 

I don’t know if I can top this exercise next year, but I am going to try. 

After the workshop, lots of students wanted to see more of the collective stories and drawings. In hindsight I would have created a better way for everyone to share the results of this collective exercise. I did manage to collect some of the results from students over the weekend. Scroll down to see them.*

If you were at the workshop and would like your exercise posted, ping me in the comments and I’ll add it to the roll.

* Apologies if the resolution isn’t great. I’m no expert in the finer points of web formatting.

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