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.

April’s Poetry Posting Wrap-up

In Celebration of National Poetry Month, I posted a poem to my Facebook page every day in April. I didn’t do any advance planning, just a quick internet search, sometimes on a particular subject, sometimes just visiting my favorite internet poetry haunts. With only a couple exceptions, every poem I posted was new to me, and I think It was one of the favorite things I’ve ever done on Facebook. Since these poems are soon to be buried in the inexorable roll of new posts, I’ve gathered all the links below in a kind of ad hoc and personal anthology.

Here are the poems posted for each day of April:

1. April by Alicia Ostriker

2. Barking by Jim Harrison — yes that Jim Harrison, who just passed last year.
3. Leaves by Philip Levine, U.S. Poet Laureate 2011-2012
4. An excerpt from Asphodel, That Greeny Flower by William Carlos Williams
It is difficult 
to get the news from poems
yet me die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.
5. Where the Tides Ebb and Flow by Lord Dunsany (check out his masterful micro fictions, too!)
6. The Cats Will Know by Cesare Pavese
7. Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats, inspired by this quote:

“If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode to a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.” ~William Faulkner

8. A Light Exists in Spring by Emily Dickinson
9. America by Claude McKay, written in 1921, it feels grimly prescient today.
10. In the rap as poetry category here’s Taking Off by Clipping. BTW, their album Splendor and Misery is up for a Hugo this year.
12. Fantastic Breasts and Where to Find Them by Brenna Twohy. Yeah, you read that right. Feminist spoken word that’s funny with a sting at the end. Just excellent, scroll to the bottom for the video.
13. In the Airport by Eleni Sikélianòs

A man called Dad walks by
then another one does. Dad, you say
and he turns, forever turning, forever
being called. Dad,  he turns, and looks
at you, bewildered, his face a moving
wreck of skin, a gravity-bound question
mark, a fruit ripped in two, an animal
that can’t escape the field 

14. The world seems… by Gregory Orr
15. Old Mama Saturday by Marie Ponsot
16. A sonnet for Easter Sunday, 1985 by Charles Martin. The link includes some good commentary.
17. Monday by Billy Collins
18. Composed Upon Westminster Bridge by William Wordsworth, another sonnet (The Prelude is one of my favorite long poems.)
19. The Body by Marianne Boruch:

has its little hobbies. The lung

likes its air best after supper,

goes deeper there to trade up

for oxygen, give everything else

away. (And before supper, yes,

during too, but there’s
something about evening, that

slow breath of the day noticed: oh good,

still coming, still going … ) As for

bones—femur, spine,

the tribe of them in there—they harden

with use. The body would like

a small mile or two. Thank you.

It would like it on a bike

or a run. Or in the water. Blue.

And food. A habit that involves

a larger circumference where a garden’s

involved, beer is brewed, cows

wake the farmer with their fullness,

a field surrenders its wheat, and wheat

understands I will be crushed

into flour and starry-dust

the whole room, the baker

sweating, opening a window

to acknowledge such remarkable

confetti. And the brain,

locked in its strange
dual citizenship, idles there in the body,

neatly terraced and landscaped.

Or left to ruin, such a brain,

wild roses growing

next to the sea. The body is

gracious about that. Oh, their

scent sometimes. Their

tangle. In truth, in secret,

the first thing 
in morning the eye longs to see. 

20. For Women Who Are Difficult to Love by Warsan Shire
21. Catfish by Claudia Emerson (one of my favorite poets)
22. For Earth Day: Projection by Anna M. Evans 
23. The Song of the Ungirt Runners by Charles Hamilton Sorley. Written shortly before he was killed in World War 1. Follow the link to read about the poem and the poet.
24. The Hidden by Truong Tran
25. The Young by Roddy Lumsden
26. Algebra of the Sky by David Hernandez found in Copper Nickel, an excellent place to find new poetry.
27. Cry of the Loon by Kai Carlson-Wee. Check out Button Poetry for lots of great spoken word poetry.
28. Completely Friday by Luis Garcia Montero
29. The Fall of Rome by W. H. Auden. This poem is easy to find so here’s an excellent essay.
30. The Mushroom Hunters by Neil Gaiman, read by Amanda Palmer.