My friend Lori Ann Bloomfield and I have been swapping e-mails about writing exercises lately (from which exchanges I’ve cribbed some of this post). We were talking about first lines, and I mentioned that my story “Bathe in the Doggone Sin” started out as a first-line exercise. Which got me thinking about writing exercises in general, and how useful they’ve been for me. My story “Distance” was originally just a character sketch, for example. “The Simple Things” began as a response to a newspaper article, and “A Smooth, Clean Cut” was an exercise in developing a scene.
Yet for some reason, I’ve read a lot the past year or so about how wasteful writing exercises are. If you’re going to write, the usual line goes, then write something productive, and stop wasting time on exercises. Most recently, I stumbled across an article at Wordplay, by K.M. Weiland, about why Weiland quit writing exercises. I won’t dispute the whole article; Weiland makes a few good points and is also careful to point out that this is only her perspective — if exercises work for you, she says, then keep doing them. But I will comment on her third point: “Writers don’t practice writing; they write.” The idea is that a lot of writers use exercises as an excuse to avoid the “real” work of writing, and I agree that exercises can become a great way to procrastinate. But how can we distinguish between practice and work? As far as I’m concerned, the practice is the work and the work is the practice — the two go hand in hand.
So I think on that point Weiland is wrong: Writers know that writing is like any other skill — it requires practice, like playing scales on the piano. (My friend Ryan Werner, who is both a musician and a writer, has made this comparison frequently; for a while he was posting Notes in his Facebook page on the similarities between music composition and creative writing, and I’d love for him to rework those as articles for his Suite101 site.)
When I mentioned this to Lori Ann Bloomfield, she brought up visual artists and the importance of sketches and painted studies, of trying out new skills or toying with ideas on paper or canvas as an essential part of the work itself. It’s a great analogy, I think, because just the other night I was flipping through a guidebook on Amsterdam (my wife and I are going there in April) and reading some little sidebars about Rembrandt, looking at little images of his sketches, and I started thinking about all the sketches and early drafts of paintings we saw on display in Vienna last winter — especially Klimt, Kubin, and Schiele. The visual-art world puts a lot of value on those exercises and rough drafts, displaying the sketches and studies as art in its own right. And I thought, we writers are artists, too, and our exercises serve the same purpose as a visual artist’s sketches, so we ought to celebrate them accordingly.
Which is why I’m going to start a weekly feature on this blog. Each week, I’m going to try an exercise, sometimes with a purpose (developing a character, starting a new story, fleshing out a scene), but sometimes just for the exercise. And good or bad, I’ll post the results here each Friday, along with a link to the source of the exercise.
So, tomorrow, look for the first of my Writer’s Notebook entries.