Why bother with writing exercises?

If you’re inspired enough to take a writing class of some sort, you’re almost certain to be presented with a creative challenge of one kind or another. Usually, these are in the form of writing exercises. Some writer friends of mine absolutely hate them. These are folks who occupy a wide range of experience and ability within the craft. And yet, almost all of them dig in and do the exercises–every time.

Why? The question is especially relevant when applied to the most accomplished among that crowd.

The answer is shockingly simple: they’re very likely to generate material they can use later. For many of them, it’s like putting money aside for a rainy day, a day when their creative well runs a little dry. At that point, having a supply of story openings, experimental scenes, and/or character descriptions can turn a disappointing writing session into a productive one. In some cases, the resulting output can be a creative bonanza.

“But,” you say, “I’m working on a non-fiction book. Doing an exercise about a fictitious character or some bizarre situation won’t help me at all.”

That’s a reasonable argument, assuming your current project is the only one you’ll ever work on. It may also be reasonable if you’re unable to imagine how writing from an alternative point of view might give you a better understanding of what your readers want, or that you won’t discover a way to say something that’s valuable because of its innate good humor and/or poignancy.

Writing exercises often strive to force students out of their comfort zones and into situations they’re unused to, or in extreme cases, afraid of. One can generally trust a writing teacher to find appropriate topics. It’s highly unlikely for instance, given the makeup of my current classes, that I’d ask them to write a sex scene or an execution. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible I’ll ask them to write their own obituary, provided they make it humorous. If I were working with a group composed only of published fiction writers, having them tackle an erotic encounter or some equally difficult scene is much more likely.

So who gets the credit when a student uses a writing exercise to produce something new and totally unexpected? The student, of course! The exercise, no matter how carefully planned, is merely a catalyst; the magic happens somewhere else, inside someone else.

And that’s the true beauty and power of those annoying exercises. Lift and stretch, y’all. Lift and stretch!

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Why bother with writing exercises?

  1. Doris Reidy says:

    Excellent advice. You know how many of my short stories have spring from those darn exercises.

  2. Gerald Flinchum says:

    Agree, the key word is “Exercise.” As primarily a non-fiction writer, getting out of my comfort zone is an exercise in creativity. Stimulates the brain, good for the soul!

    • joshlangston says:

      And it’s okay to admit that doing the exercises is way more interesting than dry old research. [grin]

      • Gerald Flinchum says:

        Research wasn’t so dry yesterday in Bartow County. Couldn’t believe how muddy it was, then there were the “cow landmines” and bones laying all over the place.

  3. joshlangston says:

    Touche’. There’s nothing like a little flora, fauna, and effluvia to liven up one’s day.

  4. masterymaker says:

    I reluctantly agree. It reminds me of a book I read titled “A Whack on the Side of the Head.” It’s what we need for a jumpstart every once in a while.

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