Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Writers: Start Your Exercise Engine

Every month or so, when email coupons arrive, I order a few books about writing. I mine them for new insights and examples to share with my writing students, and read them to expand my own craft development. Some of my favorite writing books are sprinkled with writing exercises, tips, suggestions and "assignments."

One new purchase was Writing Life Stories: How to make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature, by Bill Roorbach, the paperback edition of the successful 2008 hardcover. I especially like his exercises, many of which are infused with the wit and grit of his entire book.

In a chapter titled, Saying it Right, he discusses the importance of assembling words and utilizing language in precisely the right way for your writing project. The beginning of the instructions for an exercise he calls Forget About Style goes like this: "In this exercise you are to throw a fit – perhaps you're furious because of the latest round of rejections slips, a stupid reading from a friend, Cheetah ran off with Ken – throw a fit and kick the pieces of your style kit around the frat house while the drunken brothers yell…."

Later, he talks about the motion, musicality and rhythm of writing, how our words must sing. This reminds me of a writing professor I once had who insisted an essay of mine needed more of a beat, that she should hear a BAM every few lines. Since she said that, I've always read my work aloud and listened carefully for the beats, the rhythm, and – though I never called it this – as Roorbach says, the "motion" in the flow of words.

Roorbach offers this exercise: "Tap Your Feet. Pull out the work of a favorite writer, and read it listening and feeling for the rhythm and rhythms. Tap your feet as you read out loud. Look for repeated words or phrases that set up a beat. Listen for sentences that rise, sentences that fall…." He goes on to suggest doing the same for another writer, and noticing the rhythm differences, and then giving your own work the same treatment.

I've been doing this sort of thing for several years, usually when I'm home alone. If I try to do this when my family is around, even if I close the office door – maybe especially when I close the office door – they begin muttering about how writers really ARE crazy.

Go ahead – get crazy with your words, too!


Mummy mania said...

I love this idea - I was always told to read my stuff out loud and it really helps to discover when something jars. But I love this idea of musical flow - it should read like a song. Will try that exercise - once I stop reading blogs!

Anonymous said...

Great ideas. THere's a good reason why writers are encouraged to read out their WIPs. Words should swing, Shakespearean sonnets swing well.

Anonymous said...

I've always done that naturally. I read my work out loud and if the rythm and flow isn't right I change it. I think that for writing to be really beautiful it must have rythm, singing is a nice way of putting it.