Try 101

Practice — Process — Projects

Category: Writing Exercises

Take what you’ve got and make do

by kathrinewright

Five minutes to read a poem, write a list, look for a form, imagine a character – where she was born, how he wakes, his/her favorite ice cream topping, the memory that pops up when it rains, to open that window, let the air in, just five minutes.

Ten minute to find the groove, flex the muscle, capture the lines that sketch the character to life, to find her a disaster to attach to, to figure out the secret that keeps them doing or keeps them from doing the thing that makes the story.

Five minutes to trace a work back in the OED, to fall in love with the word’s home, to picture it formed in the mouth of that century, to watch it form on the page with other words, to love how it moves.

Ten minutes to research your way through a poem, to figure out the form of a sestina, to take on an ode, to start your way in.

Five minutes to mark up a page, to read it, know the words that don’t belong, to rearrange, reconsider, reapply, remember. The spark that got you going. The one that may no longer matter, now that you’re on this side. But maybe.

Ten minutes. Times two, minus seven, plus eleven, divided by 4. However many that is, it’s something. It’s not zero. Start there

How Do You Remember It?

by ajanefountas

It’s Tuesday, so why not write a short piece of prose or poetry (with line breaks or in paragraph form). I mean, after all, Tuesday’s child is full of grace.

First, read “This Is How I Remember It” by Betsy Kemper.

Then, pick a scene from childhood that has always stood out to you. Something vivid. A run-in with a friend or family member. Your preschool teacher. Your first crush. Write in first-person. Play with voice by using very little punctuation. Let the story run on and into itself. But keep it all in the present tense, like this one. Write it like it is happening now.

And keep it short. And post it in the comments section, pretty please!

Writing Exercise (sort of): Diary of Progress

by ajanefountas

Believe it or not, we’re coming upon a new year. I mean, Thanksgiving is literally around the corner (see it lurking behind Wednesday?), and the many splendid holidays of December will follow suit. So why not start setting intentions of the creative kind for the new year?

If making progress with a creative project will be on your list, use a Diary of Progress (doc) to help. Each day of the week in the Diary includes three elements:

  1. Plan
  2. Progress
  3. Obstacles

Start daydreaming about what you’d like to accomplish creatively in the coming year. As January approaches, do a rough draft of your Diary of Progress for one full week. As the actual first week approaches, fill out your final plan for each day of the week. Take into account what you’ll have going on each day and what’s realistic to accomplish creatively. Then when each day is done, record your progress in light of your plan and list the obstacles that got in your way.

At the end of each week, review your Diary and take what you’ve learned from progress and obstacles to help you do better the following week, i.e., spend more time on creative pursuits.

In the meantime, have a happy Thanksgiving!

Writing Exercise: Word by Word

by ajanefountas

Amy Hempel once said: “Writing conducted at the sentence level has always made perfect sense to me….There’s no method. There’s no formula. If you really proceed a sentence at a time, if you pay attention to the sentence you just wrote and look to it for the clue for what to do to the next sentence, you can inch your way along to what may be the story….You can call up emotions with the sound of words, no matter what the words mean. You can really get under someone’s skin that way….’Wear your heart on the page, and people will read to find out how you solved being alive.’ That was Gordon [Lish] twenty years ago, and that’s what I’m still trying to do.”

Gordon Lish once said: “Every word has to be married to the word before it and after it.”

Gary Lutz once sort-of said (meaning this is a paraphrase): “Look at writing as an unnatural act rather than an organic process. Determine what words to put next to each other. Don’t go for a thesaurus. You can often find the word you want in the other words in the sentence. Look into the surrounding words.”

All that said, here’s the writing exercise, made up by me: 

Choose a noun and a verb. Construct a sentence around these two words. Let the next sentence be informed by the one that comes before it. Take risks. Don’t self-censor. Continue, word by word, sentence by sentence. Write slowly, carefully. This exercise is the opposite of freewriting.

Feel free to post your results in the comments section.

Writing Exercise: Single-Syllable Short

by ajanefountas

Write a 250-word short-short story, of the fiction or nonfiction variety, using only single-syllable words. Take on an abstract subject — such as love, freedom, or truth — but use concrete language to bring this abstraction to life. Concrete = palpable: bread, jump, rock, flip.

Some starting points, should you need one:
A memory from childhood.
These words: Love is a drug.
Your day yesterday.

Remember to use single-syllable words only and to edit your story down to exactly 250 words. And to have fun!

Please post your single-syllable short-short in the comments section. Thank you.

Writing Exercise: Fairy Tales Anew

by ajanefountas


Write: Copy the story, word by word, slowly. What do you see that you didn’t see when you read it to yourself?

ReadTHE PRINCESS AND THE PEA by Hans Christian Andersen and THE SEVEN RAVENS by the Brothers Grimm

Write: Choose one to rewrite. Follow it closely, each sentence and plot point, but make it anew. In essence, retell the tale, line by line—sort of a translation into your own language.

Bonus: Read the brilliant essay “Fairy Tale Is Form, Form Is Fairy Tale” by Kate Bernheimer for more on THE ROSEBUD and to get inside of fairy tales and be thrilled by them.

Writing Exercise: Fibonacci Sonnet

by ajanefountas

Write a two-paragraph story in which the word count of sentences is determined by the Fibonacci series of numbers: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 (add the two previous numbers to get the next). In the first paragraph, start with a one-word sentence and work your way up to a 21-word sentence. In the second paragraph, work your way down, but start with a 13-word sentence so that this paragraph is shorter than the first. (Form originated by Bruce Holland Rogers and Ron McFarland.)

More constraints if you want them:
Use the first-person point of view. Set your story during a change in seasons, starting the first paragraph in, say, the end of summer, and the second in the beginning of fall.

If you’d care to share your Fibonacci Sonnet, post it in the comments section. Have fun!

Writing Exercise: 5 x 5

by laura didyk

This past May, I took a 3-hour class with poets Matthew and Michael Dickman at the Hugo House in Seattle, WA. I’m pretty sure it was Matthew that led this exercise but I don’t trust my memory when dealing with identical twins.

5 x 5

Make a list numbered 1–5. You can choose a random assortment of things (fill in the [ ] with whatever *type* or category of *thing* you’d like but just make them disparate):

1. [a color]
2. [a town or city]
3. [a vegetable]
4. [body part]
5. [kitchen item]

Lastly, choose title of a favorite song, or any song.

Now, you have 5 minutes to write a poem or short prose piece that includes all five of these things. They can be in any order.

Post your piece in the comments section!


Here’s the list we created as a group in the workshop:

1. yellow
2. Portland
3. carrots
4. breasts
5. tinfoil

Song title: “All You Need Is Love”

This is the poem that I wrote in class (I’ve since revised it. It’s now much longer with a new title, but all 5 of the objects/words remain.):

All You Need Is Love

All I need is
yellow. And green. And
garbage. Portland, Oregon,
is yours. Portland,
Maine, is mine. Plus carrots.
And my breasts. Although, you can have
one under the covers of your mind
while you try to nap. The other
you can wrap in a red bow (you can have red too),
and mail it to whichever of your friends you think
might need it, maybe Eric, while he tries
to fall asleep. the way we all
try, and try.

Writing Exercise: Prose Sonnet

by ajanefountas

Constraint can lead to beautiful things! Here the constraint is a prose sonnet, a fixed form narrative. The following is a variation of the form originated by Bruce Holland Rogers.

Prose Sonnet: A narrative of fourteen sentences. The final word of each sentence slant rhymes with the last word of another sentence corresponding to the pattern ababcdcdefefgg. The last two sentences must summarize the story, or cast the story in an ironic light, or subvert the story, or do anything else that constitutes a strategic shift.

Write a prose sonnet. No line breaks (though you might want to compose with line breaks to follow the rhyming pattern). Please post your results in the comments section if you’d like to share!

Some first lines in case you’d like a starter:

  • On Mondays, I like to do math.
  • Our mother wears elephant pants to bed.
  • It was a hot and hairy day.

Sonnet for Our Father
by Angela Jane Fountas

Our mother wears elephant pants to bed. She climbs in, her legs flapping. She goes to bed when we are bad. She says, “You kids.” We say, “You’re flippin’.” When she isn’t mad, she sleeps on the couch. Our father left before we knew him. She says, “He was cold to the touch.” We say, “Like a side of ham?” And she laughs, and says, “Yeah, that pig.” We laugh, all three, and make pig noses. Then our mom, cheered up, says, “I think I’ll make a pie.” “Who will grind the flour and churn the butter?” she says. But on the inside it hurts, inside her and us. We’d rather have a father, because everyone else does.

Writing Exercise: Q & A Story

by ajanefountas

Read “Passport” by Deb Olin Unferth.

Use the story as a template for your own story. First, choose a question to put at the end of your story. Then start at the beginning and answer this question in the narrative. Add a changing refrain throughout, like in “Passport,” playing off of the subject of your story: “Her blue bathroom pass…” and “Her welcome parade…” and “Her marked cards…”

This exercise is good for fiction or nonfiction, I think. Each its own kind of truth! (And the exercise can most certainly be morphed into a poem.) So use the exercise for whatever form you are inclined to write, and if you care to share please post your piece in the comments section (or just post a comment about your experience of writing the piece).