I want to share a writing exercise that I do with my poetry workshop students. It is not one that I invented, but it is one of my favorites, partly because I borrowed it. It's like a good recipe for blueberry cake that you've borrowed and made your own, adapting for your fussy oven, your particular love of cinnamon, or your passion for an extra crumbly top. It's also one that I wait to spring on students until the last week or so of class because it takes some trust to make it work--trust in oneself, in the process, in the person who is asking one to do it. Even then, some students think it's pretty crazy. Others, though, create something magical from this foundation. It works well for writing poems, but it can work for other kinds of writing, too.The exercise is called "Five Easy Pieces," and it was created by the poet Richard Jackson, one of my graduate school professors. I actually never did this exercise with him. Instead, I found it in The Practice of Poetry, a collection of writing exercises edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. Robin was my MFA thesis advisor, so this book is near and dear to my heart, but it is also just a fantastic book for days when one is stuck or needs a new direction to try. So here goes:
"This exercise, " writes Jackson, "attempts to tell a whole story in a quick scene. It is to be written in five sentences. . . . There are two preparation steps. The first step is to remember a person you know well. . . . The second step is to imagine a place where you find the person. Then you are ready for the five easy pieces."
- Describe the person's hands.
- Describe something he or she is doing with the hands.
- Use a metaphor to say something about some exotic place.
- Mention what you would want to ask the person in the context of 2 and 3, above.
- The person looks up or toward you, notices you there, gives an answer that suggest he or she only gets part of what you asked.
About the exercise, Jackson writes, "it is useful in showing how a poem can condense narrative and characterization, how it can quickly shift focus like a photographer going wild with a zoom lens, how images reveal stories behind them simply by knocking against other images and perspectives, how you can use dialogue in a poem--each time I use it I've found different uses."
And I have found my own uses for it, too, but I'd love to hear from other folks about it. If you try it, please let me know how it works for you!