Basic Writing/Creative Writing
Creative writing exercises can be a great way to practice your writing skills. Writing poetry, fiction, and memoir allows you to use your imagination and previous experiences, as well as practice your narrative, grammar, and punctuation skills. Though you may doubt yourself as a writer or feel unsettled at the idea of being creative, have confidence in yourself and know that you are already equipped to be a creative writer. You have a story to tell, and the following exercises will help discover and tell your personal stories.
While other forms of writing ask that you to find research in external source before you begin, creative writing does not require this of you. More often than not, creative writing projects only require you to use your memory and imagination to tackle your project. This ability to just sit down and write without having to perform research allows you to practice writing whenever you want. You can try writing a poem on your coffee break or during a bus or subway ride. You can spend an afternoon writing a memoir about your favorite childhood pet, or you could begin to keep a journal where describe the events of your day, the weather, the books you are reading, or television shows you like to watch. For creative and personal writing, the possibilities are endless.
Now you may be asking yourself if you have anything worth writing about, and the simple answers is yes you do! Every day provides an infinite number of topics to write about, whether that be having dinner with a friend, the taste of your coffee, or the beauty of a painting you saw in a museum. The activities in this section will help you jump-start your creativity, and before you know it you will have written some great poems, short stories, and memoirs.
More so than any other form of writing, poetry is known for its ability to express ideas and emotions or tell stories using very few words. Though some poems can be long, in general the best poems are those that help us appreciate mankind and nature by condensing a scene or event into short poem full of specific details. With these poetry exercises, you will attempt to write poems that are short but specific. Like every other kind of writing, the most successful pieces of poetry help us clearly imagine what the poet is talking about by using concrete images or facts. The following exercises will also help you practice writing clear sentences, think about grammar, and practice using punctuation, but most of all have fun writing.
Poetry Without Punctuation
Have you ever got tired of having to use punctuation and wish you could write without having to worry about periods, commas, and quotations? Well many poets have become famous for writing pieces that do not use any punctuation to make their sentences clear. However do not be fooled, writing without punctuation can be just as difficult as writing with it. For this exercise, read Lucille Clifton's "the garden of delight" and then write a poem about a garden or park you like to visit without using any punctuation. Keep in mind that you want the reader to be able to easily understand the poem, so like Clifton insert line breaks or spaces to help the reader understand how to read the poem.
Then on a separate piece of paper, try writing the same poem again, but this time use punctuation. Notice how the poem changes and the punctuation can help you. After you have written the second version of the poem, spend a few moments and journal about writing both poems. Which poem was easier to write? What made it easier to write? Do you like this poem better and why? Which do you think is easier for the reader to understand? Why? Be sure to have both poems in front of you when you journal so that you can easily compare them, noticing where you used punctuation in the second poem and how that might or might have clarified what you wrote in the first poem.
Narrative and Memoir
Defining Narrative and Memoir
Simply stated, narrative is a style of writing that tells a story. It can be fiction or nonfiction and is typically told from a first- or third-person point of view. Narratives can be in the form of short stories, poetry, personal essays, novels, monologues, folktales, fables, legends, etc. The characteristic hallmark of narrative is that there is a character or voice telling the reader or viewer "what happened," as with the "narrators" of most novels and short stories, and many movies or television programs. Well-known and popular TV examples of this would include the late 1980s/early 1990s drama, The Wonder Years, or more recently the prime-time shows Scrubs, and Desperate Housewives. A narrative may or may not have dialogue, depending on whether or not the event or action taking place is simply an observation from a distance (like the narrator of a nature documentary) or, for instance, a kind of I said or he/she said situation (like J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby). Some narratives have multiple narrators, or more than one character/voice, each of whom is responsible for either telling one part of a larger story, or who tell different versions of the same story. Several narrative examples of the use of multiple narrators can be found in William Faulkner's novel The Sound and the Fury, Ernest J. Gaines's novel A Gathering of Old Men, and Akira Kurosawa's film Rashomon.
Memoir is a specific type of narrative. It is autobiographical in nature but it is not meant to be as comprehensive as biography (which tells the entire life story of a person). Instead, a memoir is usually only a specific "slice" of one's life. The time span within a memoir is thus frequently limited to a single memorable event or moment, though it can also be used to tell about a longer series of events that make up a particular period of one's life (as in Cameron Crowe's film memoir Almost Famous). It is narrative in structure, usually describing people and events that ultimately focuses on the emotional significance of the story to the one telling it. Generally, this emotional significance is the result of a resolution from the conflict within the story. Though a memoir is the retelling of a true account, it is not usually regarded as being completely true. After all, no one can faithfully recall every detail or bit of dialogue from an event that took place many years ago. Consequently, some creative license is granted by the reader to the memoirist recounting, say, a significant moment or events from his childhood some thirty years or more earlier. (However, the memoirist who assumes too much creative license without disclosing that fact is vulnerable to censure and public ridicule if his deception is found out, as recently happened with James Frey and his alleged memoir, A Million Little Pieces.) Furthermore, names of people and places are often changed in a memoir to protect those who were either directly or indirectly involved in the lives and/or event(s) being described.
Below you will find some typical writing prompts that will allow you to begin writing a narrative or memoir. Remember to stay focused and to tell a story when writing in this genre.
- "Write about someone significant in your life."
- "Write about the worst/best, most significant/exciting/boring day of your life."
- "If you had a chance to talk with a historical/famous/legendary/etc. person, what would you talk about? Explain why."
There is not one right or best way to write a narrative or memoir. However, there are certainly better ways to write in this genre than others. Read the following short samples of an "excellent," "needs a little work," and "needs a lot of work" narrative writing assignment! Because it should be a narrative, remember that the writer should be telling a story. All grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors should be cleared up when editing. See Basic Writing/Editing for more help. So the focus will be on content.
Assignment: "Write about someone significant in your life."
Needs a lot of work:
My mom is a significant person in my life. She has always taken good care of me. She looks after my family and does a lot of hard work. My family couldn't make it without my mom. I really love my mom a lot because of all she has done for me. She's a great person. I tell my mom everything. She is probably my closest friend.
*This narrative needs a lot of work. There are very few specific details. Questions that need to be answered are: How does she take good care of you? What kind of hard work does she do? Why is she a great person? What kind of a person is she? What does she do with the information you give her? What kind of sacrifices has she made for the family?
Answering these questions will really improve the writing. The audience wants to know as much interesting information as you can tell them about this topic. Think about all the details you see and hear in a movie or really good book. You don't need to reach that level, but that should be your goal. Giving some specific, personal examples will help the audience understand the writing and enjoy reading it. See the next example for a better response to this assignment.
Needs a little work:
When I was young, I didn't get along very well with my mom. We used to fight a lot and I just didn't understand her. She always seemed to be in my business and trying to snoop around. I've always had really dry eyes. Sometimes they water to compensate or get really red because they're so dry. My mom used to think I'd been crying and bug me to death asking me if someone had hurt my feelings at school! I was a teenager!
But now me and my mom are best friends. I tell her everything and she tells me everything. Sometimes we still disagree, but we've learned to understand and repsect each other. We're very different people, but I don't know what I'd do without my mom. She has always supported me and stood behind whatever I've wanted to do or be. She's my biggest fan. In my mom's eyes, I could be the next great world leader, or a famous ballerina, or the first astronaut to live on Mars. It took me a while to realize just how significant my mom is to me, but now that I know, nothing will ever change the way I feel about her.
*This narrative is better than the first one because it has more details and gives some specific examples regarding the writer's relationship to her mom. However, it still needs a little work because even more details could be provided to give the reader a clearer picture of their relationship. For example, the reader doesn't know what has changed in this relationship that led to the two of them becoming like "best friends."
When I was a teenager, I didn't get along very well with my mom. It seemed like we fought on a daily basis and we rarely if ever understood where the other was coming from. I felt so seperate from her and it was impossible to tell her about my problems because all she would ever do is freak out.
That was the day that I realized how much my mom actually meant to me. I knew from her reaction that she felt devalued and even though we had our issues, I also knew that I had a great mom. She had always taken care of me, provided for me, and as a young child, she was my best friend. I wanted that back and from that day on, the two of us worked on communicating better and getting to know each other all over again.
I remember one particular fight in perfect clarity. We were having one of our good days - that should've been the first warning sign. I was helping her weed the flower beds, telling her about a conversation that I had had with my boyfriend's mom the previous night. When I was finished telling her about the advice that Janice shared with me about how to reconcile with a friend of mine, my mom grew very quiet. I asked her if something was wrong but she continued to stare at a stubborn dandelion in the middle of her peony bed.
Finally, she looked up at me. Frustration and anger filled her face and tears spilled down her cheeks. "How come you never come to me anymore?" she spat. "Why do you have to go to other moms to talk about your problems? Am I not good enough?"
I didn't really know what to say. I tried to reason with her, explaining that it's normal for teenagers to talk to other parents about personal problems, but all she did was storm off.
*This is an excellent example of a narrative because it provides necessary details to help the reader understand the relationship between the mother and daughter. In the "needs a little work" example, the writer did not explain how the mom and daughter became "best friends." This is an important and significant detail. It is important to explain the important details as much as possible in a story. To continue this writing, the writer will probably give another example of how things were after they began to understand each other better. This will give the audience a clear picture of the progress of the relationship.
The following are example compositions written for an assignment where students were asked to write narrative descriptions about a day they consider to be one of their worst. (Note: Even though two of the following three examples have death as a theme, personal narratives and memoirs can just as easily be written about smaller, less dramatic events from one's life.)
It was the worst day of my life, and it was only 10:00am. Sitting in my dorm room sobbing into the phone, my mom tried to calm me down. But she couldn't erase the pain and misery, hurt and disappointment I was currently feeling. What had gone wrong? Why was everyone against me? How would I get through the rest of the day... the week with my injuries? Let me start from the beginning.
Gladly arriving at the preschool, I barged in ready to teach my well-prepared lesson, only to discover that another classmate was there teaching her lesson. I couldn't believe it! I knew I had written down the correct date, but something went wrong. The regular teachers didn't have time to fill me in that day, so instead of teaching my beautifully created lesson, I left to trudge back up the hill in the angry snow. Tears streaming down my face, I arrived back at the dorm. I was wearing my clunky wooden clogs and ran up the stairs as I had done a thousand times before. But I slipped...
It was a cold, blustery day at Evangel University. I had spent the last few days preparing for a presentation for my Children's Literature class, and I would soon go to the preschool just down the road to teach a lesson for the preschoolers. I had made beautiful little magnetic snowflakes that the students could take home with them. The snowflakes went along with the story I'd be reading in about an hour.
I was completely prepared and had spent a lot of time thinking through the lesson and carefully paying attention to detail. As I was about to leave, I recognized how miserably cold it was outside and wondered if I could find a ride, even though the preschool was actually on campus. I asked my roommate if I could borrow her car, knowing there was little chance since it was a leased vehicle and her dad had forbidden her to let anyone drive it. But I thought it wouldn't hurt to ask. She turned me down. She also wasn't able to take me because she had to go to class herself. She apologized, but didn't seem too sympathetic. (What really irked me was that I found out later that she had let her boyfriend borrow her car for a much longer drive than the one I needed to take! I've since forgiven her... I think.)
Next I tried to call my brother, but couldn't get a hold of him. He was probably in class as well. Due to the early hour, most everyone was in class, so no one else was around to ask either. So I bundled up in my warmest, flannel-lined overalls and fur coat and trekked down to the preschool. The snow swirled around me in fury and I was near to tears with my own inner-fury at my roommate who could have helped me avoid this situation.
*This example is a memoir because it's a slice of life as opposed to a complete autobiography. It shows a picture of one day in the life of this person. It is the emotional retelling of a story from the narrator's perspective. Notice that the narrator does not focus on relationships or events surrounding this one event, but just on the event itself. The focus is all of the details that caused this day to be the worst of this person's life. If other threads such as the relationship with the roommate or details about the Children's Literature class had been added, the focus would have been lost in the muddle of too many details.
In a memoir, the focus must stay tight. Think of taking a picture with a camera. Think about what you want to be in the picture and what would distract from the picture. Have you ever taken a picture where there was a lot of white space at the top and what was supposed to be the focus: the people, are just tiny dots at the bottom? This is what happens to a story when the focus is too broad. See the Basic Writing/Invention section of this book wikitext for help on narrowing your topic.
On my worst day I was supposed to get up early so I could get out to my folks’ house on account that my mama needed me to help her take our old dog to the vet. My mama needed my help because she’s not a very big person and our dog is really big. She also has a bad knee. My mama, I mean, not the dog. Well anyway our dog is one of them Great Pyrenees, a great big white monster of a thing, and she’s got arthritis in her hips and spine something bad. So my mama had to make an appointment to have her put down because our dog couldn’t even stand to eat or pee anymore. That’s how bad off she was, you see.
So here I was supposed to get up early to help my mama load the dog into her car and my alarm doesn’t go off. Luckily I wake up on my own and I’m not all that late yet so I hurry up and get dressed and run out of the house to my truck. Then I take off towards my folks’ house kind of fast because I’m already behind schedule and I’m about half way there when all of a sudden I get a flat tire. Making matters worse is the fact that it’s raining outside, been raining all night in fact and I guess that’s why my alarm didn’t work. So I pull half into the ditch because the road doesn’t have a shoulder and of course the flat tire is on the passenger side which means that I have to work in the mud. Even worse my little bottle jack won’t lift the truck on account it keeps sinking into the ground. Well lately I’d had some bricks in the bed of my pick-up but when I go to get them out they aren’t there. Now I’m pissed because I’m late, I’ve got a flat tire, I can’t get the jack to work because it’s raining and the ground is too soft, and some jackass has stolen a handful of worthless bricks from the bed of my truck. This on top of the fact that our old dog’s got to be put down and my mama needs me to be there. Still determined to make it, I root around in the ditch till I find a couple of rocks I can put under the jack. I finally get my tire changed but by then I’m soaked to the bone and covered in mud, which means that I get my seat all wet and muddy too.
Finally I make it out to my folks’ place and my mama is sitting in the front yard with our dog and holding an umbrella over her. I can plainly see that she’s in pretty bad shape, worse than the last time I saw her. The dog, I mean, not my mama, although she’s looking pretty down herself. She doesn’t bother to ask why I’m all wet and muddy, so I know things are bad for sure. When I try to pick our old dog up to put her in the back of my mama’s Jimmy she yelps real loud and snaps at me. I decided then and there that getting her to the vet wasn’t going to work. She was too heavy and in too much pain to be messing with. So I went and got my old red wagon out of my dad’s shop and carefully my mama and me lifted her onto it.
My mama knew what had to be done and so she says her goodbyes to our old dog. Then I roll her slowly around the house to where we’ve buried other pets in the past and I dig a fairly large hole. When I am finished I sit on the ground beside the old red wagon and talk to our dog for a bit, tell her what she’s meant to me all these years and that I am going to miss her. I’d rather not say what happened after that other than I like to believe she understood it all and that it came as a relief to her.
When I get back to my place later I realize that I’d left in such a hurry earlier that I’d locked myself out of the house. It had stopped raining by then, though, so I just sit for a while in a lawn chair there on my porch. Then I look over and see the bricks still lying there where I’d stacked them a few days before and forgotten. Suddenly I start laughing then and can’t stop, keep laughing till tears run down my cheeks. Looking back on it now that seems pretty weird since it had been such a terrible day.
*This example, like the one above it, is also memoir. It is similar in that it also describes a day in the writer's life and is necessarily limited only to those details that are relevant to the story and that move the narrative forward. A good exercise, though, might be to examine how these two samples from the same genre are different. Do both sound as if they are spoken by the same "voice"? What details from each might you use to argue the speakers' gender? Does either "sound" female/male? Also note that Example 2 reads much more like spoken language--is that appropriate for this genre, or should the writer have written in a more academic or formal manner?
I was standing in the middle of Dollar Tree, leaning on my cart, when I said, "What?" to my mom telling me about my little black cat, Baby, being found dead a few days earlier. "Baby's dead, honey." I couldn't say anything. What could I say? I had been the one to take her to the farm thinking that she would adjust and be happier as a farm cat. Besides, I had too many cats, six actually, and Baby and Ginger had been the most logical choices to relocate. Both of them were unhappy living in such a small environment with four other cats. Baby suffered from anxiety problems and Ginger just wanted more territory. She was always so bitchy, hissing like she owned everything and everyone. Adorable, yes, but incredibly bitchy. Baby just wanted to be alone, or with me. The only way I could get her to come out of hiding is if I'd sing to her - any song with her name in it. Her favorite one was the one from the movie Dirty Dancing "Ba-byyy, ohh-ohhh ba-byyy, my sweet ba-byyy, you're the one. . ." When I'd sing it to her, she'd roll 'round on the floor and rub against me as if to say, "I reeeaaallly love you!" I'll never be able to listen to that song without missing her now.
All I could do was cry. I didn't want to hurt them, but I just couldn't understand why they chose not to call me. And I do blame myself. I knew that something was wrong, and knowing that she was alone in that cabin for two weeks, going through god knows what, thinking god knows what, well it just killed me inside. I was filled with guilt. I had rescued her as a baby, beaten and left for dead and now, seven years later I just pawn her off on someone else and she dies alone? I don't even want to know how much pain she may have been in. How in the world will I deal with the guilt of knowing that all of this could've been avoided? How?
"Honey, are you alright?" my mom asked quietly. No, I'm not alright. I knew something was wrong. I had a feeling several days ago - one of those feelings that tell you something is wrong, but I chose to ignore it. "How did she die?" I ask, trying to keep my emotions under control. It's no use though, tears start streaking my face and Dollar Tree customers are beginning to stare. "They found her dead in the cabin," mom said, her voice choking, "I'm so sorry, hon." "She was still in the cabin?!" I practically shout into the phone. "I thought Laura picked her up to take her to her house." Mom grew quiet. After a few moments she said, "They never could catch her. Dad said that they looked for her every day. They moved the furniture and everything but they couldn't find her. Now they think that maybe she might have climbed behind the fridge to hide."
I was livid, but I knew it would just kill mom and dad if I blamed them for this. Despite this fact, I had to ask one last question, "Mom, why didn't you guys call me and tell me that you were having problems with her? I could've come home to take care of her. I told you that I smelled natural gas or something on the day that we dropped her off at the cabin. Why didn't someone call me?!" At this point I was hysterical and customers were steering their shopping carts way around me. When my mom finally answered her comforting voice was gone. Replacing it was one of defense and insensitivity. "We did the best we could! Dad's been so depressed lately and this almost pushed him over the edge. He knows how much you love your cats and he's blaming himself. It's not his fault and it's not yours either! Do you hear me?"
*This example is also similar to the above examples so the same comments apply. It is a narrative memoir, however there are two elements within this memoir that set it apart from the above examples. First of all, it includes dialogue which is somewhat tricky when writing. The most important thing to remember is that dialogue should sound natural - like the voice of the person speaking. Practice saying it out loud as if reading a script for an audition. Also, when using dialogue make sure the reader can understand who is saying what.
Another element that was included in this example was a specific use of stylized writing during the recitation of Baby's favorite song and her response to that song. This style of writing is becoming more popular in mainstream writing - especially comedic novels. An example of this style of writing can be found throughout the novel, The Nanny Diaries, by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus.