Friday, June 5, 2020

Creative Eavesdropping

Young Writers at work!
It's not officially summer, but teachers count the seasons by the school year. Normally, summer "begins" for on the last day of school. For a lot of us, that was early we've been in "summer" for going on three months already!  I'm calling the time since Memorial Day, "second summer." Then on June 21, there is "real summer."

Teaching Authors posts Writing Workouts on Wednesdays but we figure everyone is blurry-eyed and Zoomhausted.  Some of you may be desperately exhausted looking for a ready-to-go writing exercise for yourself or your students. Hence we are offering you Grab 'N' Go Writing Exercises.

This past week has been emotionally draining.  So in the interest of retaining my sanity, I'm offering a "Classic Workout." In other words, I've posted this exercise before. However, since it was in 2013, and it's just the exercise and not the original post I'm re-using, hopefully it will be useful. I first learned of this exercise, in a slightly different format (intended for adult writers) in a workshop led by Louise Hawes. (Thanks, Louise for the inspiration!) This is great for kids who "can't think of anything to write about"...and worn-out adult authors whose brains need a jumpstart.

I call it "Non-Sequiturs." My students call it "That Eavesdropping Thing."

I am an inveterate eavesdropper. I started as a kid, listening through heating grates and the old drinking-glass-to-the-wall trick. I graduated to picking out bits of oddball conversation overheard in public places...buses, check out lines, restaurants. It never fails to amaze me, the things that people will talk about...loudly! public. Maybe they feel invisible in crowds of people. I'm glad they do. It has provided me with endless writing inspiration. 

Here are a few "classics" from my list...

"...and then he carried my grandmother's table out in the yard and burned it." (Overheard in a really long check-out line at Old Navy.

"I like Sprite better than Coke, because it's clear, you can see what's in it. I don't trust Coke. You can't see what's in it because it's all dark and stuff." (Heard on a commuter train, from a woman who then claimed she worked for Coca Cola.)

"Life ain't no Swiss picnic." (Don't remember where that came from!)

"I need a present for a girl I don't like very much." (Two teen girls in a jewelry store.)

The possibilities are endless.

So, randomly pick two quotes. When I'm doing this with students, I ask them to write down two quotes...which they have been asked to bring to class...on separate slips of paper. I tell them they can only use one sentence...not an entire conversation. They should not identify the speaker in any way. Just the quote. Then each student draws two slips.

Take the two random quotes, and somehow connect them in a scene. You write without any thought of this becoming part of a longer work.  You are only writing a scene.

For this exercise, a scene includes:

Characters--when I use this with students, I insist that there are at least two named characters. I ask the students to imagine what kind of character would say this? Adult or kid? Talking animal or mythical creature?  

Setting--where does the scene take place? Outer space? A school bus? Soccer practice? In a fantasy world. (Don't get me started on building fantasy worlds...that's another post.)

Of course, in actual writing, scenes include a lot more stuff...but we're doing away with all that for the moment. We're just getting your writing motor running.  For kids who can never think of something to write, this exercise frees them up a lot. You just have two characters and two sentences. I do tell my young writers that their scene needs to be a full page (handwritten) minimum, that includes other conversation and action. And it has to make sense. The non-sequiturs cannot continue to be non-sequiturs in the context of the scene. The sentences are a seed...grow your scene around them.

Often, this exercise grows into a story for the students. The first time I did this exercise in the aforementioned writer's workshop, it became the nucleus for my book, Jimmy's Stars. Other times, the characters have jumped from the exercise into a story that had nothing to do with the original scene. It's one of those "writing magic" things. 
Available on Kindle!

So time to get that writing motor running!


Carmela Martino said...

Great exercise, MA! I do something similar in my children's writing camps, but I have the students use the dialogue as part of a "screenplay" they then act out. :-)

Mary Ann Rodman said...

Good idea, Marti. I might swipe that!