A Writer’s Notebook: Introduction

One of my writing notebooks, filled with scribbles and ideas.

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.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

7 thoughts on “A Writer’s Notebook: Introduction

  1. Interesting. I have long thought that writing exercises were valuable for the same reasons that sketching and practicing in any field is important. Nice to see we agree.

    Sometimes the urge to be more “productive” than just exercising bothers me, but then I remember that the exercises are not pointless. Perhaps they don’t work for others, but most of the time, they help me work out new techniques or explore ideas that become useful later.

    1. Actually, I was thinking of you as I wrote that, because I recalled your frequent comments that your visual art teacher has been the best creative writing teacher you’ve ever had. I, for one, am more interested in the relationship of music composition and creative writing, because I tend to hear words in my head like a song (perhaps that means I’m an auditory learner?), but the more I think about graphic narrative and how to convert my novel into comics, the more I think I need to get into a visual arts class and to start reading books on the relationship between writer and visual arts (I know they’re out there).

      Got any suggestions on places to start, Crystal?

    1. I’m not as diligent or as disciplined as I probably ought to be, in many areas of my life, so I’m constantly having to invent ways to keep myself on track. This blog has been a wonderful way to maintain some connection with writing even when the other work isn’t coming along as smoothly, and I’ve done quite a bit more “back to the start” (great Coldplay song!) writing here than I probably ever would have managed in “real life.” I think it’s improved my writing, both in terms of discipline and in terms of quality.

      I am still loving what you’re sharing in your blog, by the way–I’ve subscribed now, and I’m adding you to my links. Great stuff!

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