Tag Archives: teaching

The Imitation Exercise

I do this one most semesters and it goes like this:

Type up a bunch of passages from published short stories that demonstrate techniques you would like your students to imitate. I like to do enough passages that each student will draw something different, but you don’t have to. Once the typing part is done, I print and cut them up, so each student will draw their own little “card.” So crafty, I know.

You can make the exercise technical in orientation—i.e. examples of flashbacks, flashforwards, indirect discourse, etc. I ask the students to read their card and then “imitate” the technique presented, using their most recent workshop story. So if a student has just workshopped a story (or will soon workshop a story, depending on where we are in the semester) about a woman named Lucy who illegally sells exotic parrots and draws a “flashback” card, she will be tasked with writing a flashback for Lucy. This can be a good way to introduce more novice students to the various narrative techniques available to them.

If you want to make the exercise more extensive, you can have students work with the first card they draw, then trade cards with the person sitting next to them and do another imitation (so maybe this time Lucy gets a flashforward) and so on.

Sometimes I make the exercise descriptive, so all the “imitations” are different examples of descriptive language, authors describing apartments and wilderness and oceans and deserts and trailer parks. Good for getting students to be more attentive to the physical world.

You can also go character-oriented. Maybe the Lucy student draws a passage from “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” where Clyde sucks on a lemon in lieu of sucking on a human, and has to write a scene in which Lucy gives herself an odd substitute for a destructive habit she’s trying to give up. Or maybe she draws the scene from “Last Night,” where the wife that the narrator thinks he’s killed comes down the stairs in the morning, woefully alive, and now this students needs to think about who Lucy would want to kill and why and how she would fail to kill this person and what it means for her that they’re still alive.

Sometimes I make the exercise weird. Maybe the Lucy student draws the scene from “Superfrog Saves Tokyo” where Frog explodes with maggots and boils and disintegrates, and now she has to write a scene in which Lucy physically crumbles in the most revolting way imaginable because why not.

Shaping the Story Collection at Grub Street

At the end of the summer, I’m moving back to the Boston area and here is one of the best things about that: I’ll get to return to teaching at the ever-awesome Grub Street! In October, I’ll be doing a 4 day intensive on shaping story collections. If you’re in the Boston area and have a story collection in the works, this could be right up your alley.


Short Story of the Week

“Windeye” by Brian Evenson.

I can still vividly remember hearing Evenson read this story (also the title story of his excellent recent collection, via Coffee House) at the 510 in Baltimore and gasping at a certain moment, when the terms change radically (you will know the moment when it arrives). A spooky, weird, haunting story about the confounding, multifarious nature of reality (among other things). I still think about this story A LOT, which is probably why I teach it (and often the opening paragraphs specifically, for a craft talk I do on story openings) so much. Here’s the first paragraph:

“They lived, when he was growing up, in a simple house, an old bungalow with a converted attic and sides covered in cedar shake. In the back, where an oak thrust its branches over the roof, the shake was light brown, almost honey. In the front, where the sun struck it full, it had weathered to a pale gray, like a dirty bone. There, the shingles were brittle, thinned by sun and rain, and if you were careful you could slip your fingers up behind some of them. Or at least his sister could. He was older and his fingers were thicker, so he could not.”

The Ingredients Exercise

In class, I give each student a note card and ask them to write down three ingredients for a short story. I don’t give them a lot of time, just a minute or two. I tell them to go with the first things that come to mind, to not worry about making sense or getting too crazy. In fact: don’t make sense, get a little crazy.

Afterwards, I collect all the note cards, shuffle them, and have each student draw a card that is not their own. Upon seeing their ingredients, some will shout with joy. Others will groan. When they share their ingredients with each other, there will be envy and commiseration, depending. Regardless their assignment is to write a story that uses all three of these ingredients as seamlessly as possible.

I liken this exercise to the “mystery box challenge” (thanks, MASTER CHEF!) of short story writing. The idea is to use “a little or a lot” (thanks, CHOPPED!) of the ingredients and to make each ingredient feel as organic as possible. In the best examples of this exercise, the “ingredients” don’t jump out as random, wacky details, but feel essential and inevitable.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that the students who get an “easy” list, i.e. ingredients that all fit together in an obvious way (pirate, shark, rowboat), tend to produce the less interesting exercises. It becomes tempting to fall back on the obvious; the imagination isn’t sufficiently pushed. Usually the most exciting stories come from the students gifted with the more esoteric lists (piranhas, Bury Reynolds, Abu Dhabi), who get put in a box so kooky they have no choice but to think outside it.

I first tried this exercise on a whim, in an attempt to engage a class of high school seniors who had fallen into a bit of a mid-semester slump. For many of these students, their “ingredients” stories were among the best work they produced all semester. This exercise is now one of my all-time faves.