The last time I took a writing class, I was the world’s crankiest student. My teacher would assign homework in the form of exercises, and I would sneer or balk. When she asked us to practice writing opening sentences for a short story, for example, I wrote smart-alecky stuff like this:
“Do you think he intends to use that?” Lady Winifred asked her sister, gesturing with her half-full porcelain tea-cup towards the wild-eyed man in fatigues who had just burst through the French windows and stood staring at them, a toaster in his hands.
The other students were amused, but I’m not sure the teacher was. She intended for us to learn something from the exercise, but I refused to take it seriously. In my mind, any sentence could be the opening to a story. What decided if it worked or not was what came after. To just write opening sentences out of context was useless.
I feel like this about most writing exercises. They seem trite or pointless to me. Writing prompts are just as bad. It’s “write about your summer vacation” all over again. I don’t think I know everything there is to know about writing, but random exercises and prompts feel like a waste of time. I’ve got novels to write. I don’t have time to goof around like this.
When I signed up for a drawing class, I was once again given exercises to try. These require use of specific media in specific ways, and often include suggestions of what to draw. The remarkable thing is that I sit down and do them without questioning a thing. The closest I’ve gotten to rebelling was our latest assignment. I wasn’t excited by the idea of painting fruit and vegetables so I was going to do flowers instead. Once I started the project, however, I saw that my flowers were too complex to fit in the grid, so I wound up following the directions.
I am still astonished by this change. What happened to my snarky, rebellious inner artist? She’s still there, but I don’t think she’s as strong when it comes to drawing and painting. I feel like an utter beginner. I’ve drawn a little in the past, but never had instruction, and haven’t really practiced. Working with colored pencils or watercolors feels new, and having suggestions to follow is refreshing since I don’t know what I’m doing. I am open and ready to learn. I’m willing to experiment even though I might fail. Exercises are not seen as a waste of time because the suggestions provided are as good as any ideas I have of my own.
Many times over the years, I’ve tried to achieve this same beginner’s mind regarding writing exercises. To become a better writer, I need to practice, and writing exercises are one way to do that. But achieving beginner’s mind is no easy feat. When that doesn’t work, which is most of the time, I turn to two other ideas that have helped me embrace writing exercises a little more willingly.
The first is adapting the exercise in question to my current project. I use characters, settings, and situations from my novel that fit the requirements of the exercise so I can play around with the story I’m already working on. While I am still off track as far as writing my draft, I’m at least developing a better understanding of the work I have in hand. The experimental writing can apply to something I care about, and I’ve actually learned important things this way.
The second is remembering Pat Schneider’s explanation of the proper use of writing prompts (in Writing Alone and With Others). She says a prompt is not meant to be the subject of your essay. It’s meant to be a starting point. You write about whatever comes to mind, whether it is triggered by or unrelated to the prompt itself. The goal isn’t to write about the given topic. The goal is to write. The prompt is just a way to jump-start your mind and help you find something to write about.
Both of these tricks are going to be helpful with my drawing before too much longer. That desire to draw something other than what was recommended was a warning sign. The rebel in me merely slumbers. She’ll be up and kicking as I get more comfortable drawing. When I no longer feel like a beginner, I’ll start applying the given exercises to the projects I’m interested in, or paint whatever comes to mind as a result of the suggested subject. Experience has taught me this is one way to make these “useless” exercises have value for me and I expect it will work for drawing as well as it does for writing.
How do you feel about creative exercises? Are they useful lessons, meaningless wastes of time, or somewhere in between?