In If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland suggests that beginning writers often write in a pretentious manner because they are anxious to impress. She speaks of helping them to break through that not by pointing out what is bad or wrong in their efforts, but by helping them to write more freely. She writes, “I found that many gifted people are so afraid of writing a poor story that they cannot summon the nerve to write a single sentence for months.” To combat this, she dared her class to write something completely bad from beginning to end, claiming that it was impossible to do. Then, in examining their “bad” compositions, she pointed out what was good in them, both freeing the students in their writing and steering them in the right direction. In my own teaching experience, I have found Ueland’s insight accurate.
Some years ago, I was teaching a class called Playing with Style, in Georgetown University’s Continuing Education Program. The students were all adults with day jobs.
At first, some in the class took too literally the old injunction, “write what you know,” and it made their writing stilted and restrained. I’d go home each week after class, read the new work, target where they were tight, and try to construct an assignment for the next week to force them to loosen up.
In one assignment, I had them write a story from alternating points of view: that of the protagonist and that of the antagonist, the enemy or opponent. This was done to get them to make the empathetic leap that allows one to truly see a situation through another’s eyes. One man, I remember, wrote of fishing from the point of view of the fisherman and the point of view of the fish. I believe he actually got it published later in a fishing magazine.
There were two other students’ works that were most memorable. One, a lawyer, was an avowed perfectionist and loathe to read her work aloud in class. I told her I’d never pressure her to read aloud, but would always ask her–always give her another opportunity to do so. The second was a military man who said he’d never written anything but short releases.
The assignment was to interview a deceased historical figure or a character from literature; or to write a story in the style of a particular writer. I said, for the interviews, they could conduct them anywhere they liked, and that their subjects would probably try to evade or give facile answers, but don’t let them get away with it. Make them answer the questions, and make them do so honestly.
On class night, the lawyer, in response to my general call for readers, volunteered to read her story aloud, and I was never more pleased with the leap in someone’s writing. She had chosen to interview the two male characters from Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. The novel is the wartime story of a writer, a married woman with whom he has an affair, and her husband. She breaks off the affair, and it is only after she is deceased that the writer discovers she made a bargain with God that if he survived the war, she wouldn’t see him again. The writer is left embittered. This student injected herself into the story. With an assignment to interview the writer, she goes to his home, only to be greeted by the husband. The two men, bound by their love for the deceased woman, are now sharing a house. The student is ushered into the study, where she conducts the interview of the acerbic writer, interrupted by the husband’s small, mild interjections. This student had imagined what could come next after the novel ended, and had captured Graham Greene’s style and the natures of the two men, while addressing some of the novel’s themes. In my view, this particular exercise had permitted her to play in a way that freed her writing wonderfully.
The military man chose to interview Leo Tolstoy, and his story was lyrical and beautiful, as if he actually had been talking with Tolstoy. Sadly, for whatever reason (possibly his work? I’ll never know), he was not in class on the night when we examined these stories and did not turn up again. I sincerely hope he didn’t stop writing, because this man, who said he’d only previously ever written short releases, had talent and insight.
There were many and varied exercises that preceded the ones referenced here that freed these particular writers. So the “moral” of this post is that one never knows what writer will respond to what exercise, and it pays to experiment with many different techniques to find what will draw the best and freest writing from you.