Journal Exercises for Writers

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In my continuing journey to start writing again, I’m working through a book of daily writing exercises. The easy part, sometimes, is completing the exercise. The hard part is putting it out here on the web for anyone who might wander by to comment on or critique However, I’m hoping others who want to start writing again will feel inspired, join me, try a few exercises, and even post some of their own in the comments.

Exercise from a few days ago: Describe my favorite stories and why I like them.

I’m stumped right off the bat. They’re all my favorites. Like a cup of Starbucks, rarely have I met a book I didn’t like. I think it’s just being lost in something that I enjoy. Any writer could just string some words together, a popcorn chain on a Christmas tree, and I’ll follow right along chomping every morsel as it’s served.

By Wesley Oostvogels

By Wesley Oostvogels

I see I’m going to have to break this down a bit or I’ll be writing forever. Not a bad thing, I suppose, for a writing exercise. News flash: Woman starts a writing exercise and can’t stop. Husband says, behind mounds of paper, “I’m afraid I’ll have to leave. I can’t find my socks anymore.” Trouble is I don’t have forever to write. At best, I have five minutes before my 5 year old needs me with an issue on his Club Penguin account. (Mommy is jack-of-all-trades including household computer technician.)

Picking through them more thoughtfully, I can see some that stand apart from the crowd. The Hobbit series. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe series. Definite favorites. I remember some scenes so vividly. Most of the time, I seem to dispose of a lot of material as soon as I’ve finished reading. A year down the road and I’ll have nearly forgotten I read the book at all. I have often puzzled over why this is the case. Why do I, with no signs of dementia at this stage in my life, drop information like I have no storage left on the hard drive? (Maybe it’s inaccurate to say I have NO signs of dementia. There was that time last week I forgot both my brother and my sister’s birthdays.) But I feel as I’ve just read these two series recently although I haven’t touched them in years.

It’s obvious that stories with some degree of fantasy are a favorite. In my late teen years, I read every Barbara Michaels book. Every book. I’d hunt through book stores until I found whichever one I was missing. I had printed off a list somewhere of all her books and I still have many of them on my bookshelves today. Her stories always involved the possibility of a ghostly haunting. Sometimes she would confirm there was a ghost. Sometimes she left the mysterious events unexplained. The women were never weak or wimpy; never afraid to face the ghosts alone. In fact, they remind me of the Nancy Drew books I read as young girl, too. Another set of books I loved that haven’t come to mind in years – and another series based on a female who wasn’t afraid. Is that a pattern for me? I like strong female characters? Maybe I relate to them better. Maybe I want to be more like them. Add to the list Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series, Phillipa Gregory’s books (The Other Boleyn Girl, etc.). Same pattern.

Then a wrench in the exercise. Enter Stephen King. Not really one to write about strong female heroines. He’s unique, iconic, a one-of-a-kind talent. His skill is in his blood and I think it’s the rare writer who could even walk in his shadow. His characters are so life-like, even if they’re evil, even if they could never exist in real life. He can paint a character with strokes of humanity even when horns are growing out of the top of their heads. His time traveler books are fascinating worlds unto themselves. I read the Tower series from start to finish and when I got to the last sentence in the last book, I wanted to start all over with the first one and do it again. (If you’ve read the series, that statement is kind of ironic.)

By Per Ola Wiberg (Powi)

By Per Ola Wiberg (Powi)

Having narrowed down the type of stories I like, we come to the other part of the exercise – the part about why I like them. Why do I like stories that revolve around fantasy and/or involve an independent female character? I’m tempted to say that they help me escape the mundane, take me away from the drudgery of real life – a job, housework, cars that need to be washed, shopping that needs to be done. But I’ve loved them since I was a girl and my parents gave me a beautiful childhood. There was never a reason to want to escape, even though I had my share of chores.

Suddenly, though, I’m stopped short by the memory of a book I read just a year or so ago, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I’d not had to read that in school and thought it was time, it being such a significant classic. I cannot remember a single phrase from the book. Not a single word. I remember the book only as images. Some beautiful – the little child so close to death, yet so calm she shined like she already wore a halo – working with the strength of ten men to bring peace and faith to her elders. Some horrible – a grief-stricken mother helpless as her children are ripped from her arms and sold away from her. I felt such overwhelming guilt at times, as if I was to blame for their suffering; guilt in knowing that those situations were based on fact. It doesn’t matter that I wasn’t alive at the time. I felt guilty by association. I felt as if my reading were making the characters relive these events. Had I not read the book their suffering could have stayed buried in those pages, hidden from the world again and not resurrected by my mind’s eye. And although the story contained some small triumphs like Eliza leaping across the icy river in the bound of a lioness with her small infant in her arms, I cried on more pages than I laughed.

This is why I love the stories I do. It’s because I could feel the characters reaching out to me. I could feel their invisible hands slipping from the pages of the books and grabbing me by the shoulder to take me with them. I am never going to live in Laura Ingalls’ cabin in the woods. I am never going to live in a Hobbit hole like Bilbo Baggins. I pray to God I’ll never be a slave whose children are taken away from her. But I can feel as if I was – for just a brief moment – in their shoes. I can feel their loves, their losses, their fears. Those are the books that stick with me. Books where the words became pictures my mind could not forget and the characters took me to a place and time I’ll never see.

2 comments for “Journal Exercises for Writers

  1. Hope Aubergine
    June 2, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    TRES intéressant!!! Mais oui….the books, the authors I love; when I find the right author, I’m compelled to read all their books!! Comb the lists, comb the book jackets and intro pages—-maybe I’ve missed one!! And then of course, I’m driven to research the author; who really are they and how did they live? Sometimes I find I don’t care for EVERY offering…that’s OK; not every cookie I turn out is great either! People still love me anyways….and I still “love” my favorite authors and can forgive a little disappointment here and there. As for favorites over the years: Gone With the Wind (I read it over and over until it fell apart), Celia Garth, Mila 18, Exodus, all of James Herriot’s books, all of “the Anne” books, Little Women, Little Men, all of Jan Karon’s, Mary Stewart’s romance-mysteries (try My Brother Michael)….I could go on!!! I MUST read Uncle Tom—-the one I borrowed from the library had miniscule print; my eyes rebelled!
    A bien tot……

    • June 2, 2009 at 7:46 pm

      Hope, you reminded me – I should have mentioned you can read Uncle Tom’s Cabin online for free. Either download from Gutenberg or read online page by page at Page by Page Books. I think you can download to readers for free, too. I use Stanza on my iPod and that’s exactly how I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Classics for free! What could be better? 🙂

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