...................... Scroll down for fiction writing exercises
Krysl is funny, fierce, and feminist
in the best possible way, and a technician
of variety and resourcefulness.
—John Updike

Cherry Garcia, Pistachio Cream

A mother, a daughter, a beach. Sky, water. Gulls, mynas, also tiny canaries, bougainvillaea. Mild surf. The soothing, repetitive sound of its wash.
Two women walk by, wearing swim suits the mother thinks resemble flowered underwear.
"Those suits," the daughter says. "They look like they came from KMart."
"Well, we don't."


The Thing Around Them

It was because of the boy dragged behind the jeep that Vasuki gave Nadesan the money to buy the ticket. When she went to her brother with the bills tucked into her sari, she did not speak the language of the master countries, not did she know anyone who traveled there. She was aware that at some point the island had been occupied by foreign powers, but she was not sure which powers, or when. That the Portuguese had stayed until driven out by the Dutch; that the Dutch were driven out by the British; that the British had granted the island its independence when the Crown’s hand had been forced by its other colonies—these were facts she had never been told by anyone. Or if she had been told these things by a teacher, or heard them referred to by a politician campaigning for a seat in Parliament, they were not facts which seemed important. What she knew about the master countries was that there was abundance in such a degree that even the few poor were well off.


Fiction writing exercises...

The word inspire comes from the Latin inspirare, meaning to breathe. The word means “to blow upon, to infuse by breathing, to inhale.

Thus to be inspired is to be given inspiration, to be graced by inspiration.

And where does inspiration come from?

It comes from the windy, breathy air that surrounds us—and without which we could not live.

All of the above suggests that we don’t “do” writing, but that we are a “place” on the earth where from time to time writing happens—how lucky to be chosen, to sometimes be that place!


Since we are not initiators but receivers, the first fiction exercise is this:  MAKE NO PLAN. Be present, patiently, and let breathy language speak to and through you. DON’T JUDGE THE LANGUAGE THAT COMES. BE NEUTRAL. BE A SCRIBE TAKING DICTATION FROM THE UNIVERSE. (If you think this is some new age blather, think again….)

1.  Research is inspiring. (Yes it is!)

Research may be as simple as looking up a familiar word in the dictionary to learn its history.

More in depth research is also fascinating. So do this: write a passage of setting which describes where on the earth the narrator is located, and at what time in history this narrator is speaking.

Here’s an example from a novella called “Welcome To The Torture Center, Love”:

Every war has two losers, William Stafford famously said. And they assist each other in committing suicide. Cooperative, mutual suicide is what’s going on between northern and southern Sudan in 1989, the year of Annie and Garang. Think flat expanse of sand, soil, weathered rock rubble—size of the U.S. east of the Mississippi—set with the occasional thorn tree. At the UN refugee camp near the Lol River, heat assumed the force of a bludgeon. Crops and wild plants are dead. Women pick leaves from the few trees and boil them. They bind their stomachs and the stomachs of their children to staunch their hunger. In the surrounding villages two hundred Dinka die each day. There are no kids under the age of two left alive. Just after dawn another bevy of mothers with kids dragged through the gate. Old men hobbled, poling themselves with walking sticks. A daughter carried her bone-dangle mother in her arms. Through the morning they poured through the gate as though down a sluice. They were the evidence that whole villages had burned. They sat, blocks of dark salt.  

2. Now introduce into this setting a character in third person perspective (not “I” but “he” or “she.” Give the character a name and a short description.


Michael Garang had come to Sudan with Doctors Without Borders. Through the morning he measured kids’ upper arms and performed the occasional surgery. He was having the devil’s own time getting over Frances. Lush sweep of flesh she was, and then she’d slagged him off. He’d needed to get away, so why not pop down to Sudan and give back a little something to this country his Dinka parents fled before he was born. He was Johnny Foreigner here, but he looked utterly like the locals. He was the tallest man in camp, a blue man—blue, because in Arabic the word abid means both “black” and “slave”, so the Dinka call their color blue. A blue man, then, and in Dinka parlance a “balan.” Literal meaning “expert hippo hunter,” translating to women are all over him. The nurses fluffed their feathers, but he gave them merely a nod. He would get Frances out of his bloody consciousness, end of story.

3. Write a paragraph in second person voice.


It comes up in you big, like your face in the mirror. You feel like a giant lily’s opening around you. You’re big, very big. You have big bones, you have lots of hair. Big hair. Are you also growing hooves, a hide? Tusks? Nostrils?....

4. Write a first person voice speaking to another person.


I sit, and Mary Cassatt’s paintings float before me, and there you are again, my daughter, in the paintings, in your sweet baby flesh, and I am with you….

5. Write a character description as the beginning of a story, and begin with the character’s name.


Brian, the brain: he is not attractive at twenty-two, wasn’t attractive as a kid either. Even as a baby he puked excessively and lay around in smelly lethargy as though he hadn’t the heart for living. His life has not been anywhere near bliss. Father a famous research physicist and prestigious university professor, mother now fat and frumpy, excessively even-tempered, she will go through life a doily. The father sublimates. Brian becomes a brain. He is fat and soft….

6. It’s a tradition in writing to rewrite old stories in a contemporary setting. Joyce Carol Oates, for instance, wrote a story which retells, in a contemporary setting, the final story in Joyce’s The Dubliners.

Here’s an example from “Extinct Species” in How To Accommodate Men. The story retells the creation of the earth, and in this story a contemporary Adam and Eve are the ones creating the earth):

--Oceans, I said. I wanted to make things.
Continents, you replied. We stumbled around in the dark poking and declaring. The spurs on your cowboy boots made a faint jingling.
--Inland seas, I said, wrapping my silk skirt around me.
--Islands, you countered….

7. Experiment with metafiction: a story in which the author from time to time breaks into the narrative and comments on the story. (Metafiction is a new term for a centuries old tradition beginning with novels like the fascinating Tristram Shandy in which the author blabbers on discussing the main character before this character is actually born!)

In “Cherry Garcia, Pistachio Cream” a mother and daughter enjoy their love for each other while at the beach, and from time to time the author comments:

Things are peachy keen, and I know what you’re thinking. It’s not a story unless something goes dramatically wrong….All right, you’ll accept a happy ending, but only after harrowing distress. But think about it. These two have a major fracas? Not likely. They’re into affectionate, co-operative, gooey love….

8. Intrigued by satire? Satire goes back to the Greeks, and now that we’re suffering through the Bush era, satire has come back big time—in the news (think The Onion), in film, on T.V. and YouTube. To learn about satire in contemporary fiction and become acquainted with some contemporary satirists (George Saunders, Ian Frasier, Gail Storey, Faye Weldon, Francine Prose), check out my essay in the AWP Chronicle. Or take a gander at my story “Dinner With Osama.”

9. Remember that writing is play, so play!

Tips for Writers:

We write doggedly, obsessively, compulsively, and we do this because we have fallen in love with the sounds and rhythms of language. If you are going to write, you will already have fallen in love with that music. What you will do is continue in that love affair.

That said, it’s important to acknowledge that we are not the source of “our” writing. The living earth is the source of everything, including language. Read David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. We are merely a place in earth’s mesh, a place where words from time to time appear, and we pass those words we receive on, back into the world.

Feel grateful.

Express gratefulness to the live earth around you.

Give away as much money as you can afford as often
as you can.

Feed your local gods
every day.

Remember that we do nothing independently. Remember that we are
also responsible for our decisions.

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