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The Writing Life - Exercises in creative writing

October 3, 2014
By Michael Tidemann - Staff Writer , Estherville News

Editor's Note: This is a monthly column on the writing process. Topics will range from books and authors to writing conferences and workshops to the writing process itself.

Working Words: The Process of Creating Writing. By Wendy Bishop. Mayfield Publishing Company. ISBN 1-55934-076-2.

If you always thought you'd like to try your hand at creative writing - but didn't know how to get started - or if you're an English teacher looking for a great resource for your toolbox - this is the book for you.

I first ran into this book during a writing workshop twenty years ago. While the product description on Amazon calls this a book for beginning writers, the workshop offered graduate credit. So I guess it would be safe to say that it works for writers at all levels.

I just thought I'd give a little rundown of one of the exercises that I've used in my composition and creative writing classes.

Probably the one that first comes to mind is what Bishop calls the Metaphorical Character Exercise in which writers are asked to response to a number of prompts:

n Think of this person as a landscape. What landscape would he or she be?

n Describe this person as a kind of fruit. What would the fruit taste like?

n If this person were a metal object, what would he or she be?

n Describe this person as a time of day.

n If this person were a period of history, what period of history would she or he be?

n This person is what piece of clothing?

n Name all the things that go into this person.

n Name all the things that come out of this person.

n Place this person in her or his favorite location and have him or her speak. Bring someone else into the scene and let them talk together.

n What does this person always say?

n What are this person's dreams?

n Tell some lies for this person.

n Who is this person most like?

n What would this person like to say but never will say?

n If this person were a car, what car would he or she be?

n What job should this person never have?

n What emotion is this person?

n What weather is this person?

After writers have completed the exercise, they're asked to turn it into a freewriting of a portrait of a person.

I don't make my students answer all the prompts - though I encourage them to try. I also encourage them to let their writing "take off" if one of the prompts should really inspire them.

The value of this exercise is that it helps writers dig beneath the surface of a character to determine what makes that character tick. I think even seasoned writers could use this exercise to help develop their characters for a short story or novel.

Bishop's book has a lot of other helpful workshop exercises, like the Guided Autobiography Exercise, Fifteen-Sentence Portrait and others.

I have to confess that this book has bailed me out more than once when I was looking for a journaling assignment in composition or creative writing courses. For that, it's worth its weight in gold.

Michael Tidemann is an adjunct instructor at Iowa Lakes Community College and Buena Vista University. His author page is available at: His short stories are regularly featured in the Boston-based online literary magazine,



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