The Art of the Strange Writing Exercise

November 13, 2015 | 2 books mentioned 8 7 min read

Strangeness abounds in the literature we teach—from the poetry of William Blake and W.B. Yeats to the fiction of Toni Morrison and Thomas Pynchon—and yet teachers often cultivate orthodoxy in the creative writing classroom. This is not a surprise. Syllabi need to be approved. Curriculums for majors need to be aligned. More than other disciplines, creative writing has a crisis of self-worth: it is not merely up for debate what is the best way to teach creative writing, but whether it can be taught at all.

My years teaching creative writing to college and high school students have made me sympathetic to this tendency toward a conservative approach. I have previously written for The Millions about my commitment to teaching students about the business of creative writing. I certainly want to prepare my students for the worlds of publishing and graduate school, but I also fear Flannery O’Connor’s warning about the danger of mere competence in creative writing. Acceptable has become the new exceptional.

Art is taught in studios, but creative writing is taught in the same classrooms where we teach literary analysis, history, and business. We might be romantic and say that teacher and student need to create art through imagination, but in education, form is function. We need to shake things up in the creative writing classroom. We need to remember that writing is a messy, fractured, intensely personal pursuit that must not be neutered by the institutional needs of our classrooms.

coverOne solution is to embrace the strange; one method is to imbue the strange into writing exercises. Graduates of American creative writing programs are familiar with John Gardner’s writing exercises at the back of The Art of Fiction. Two representative examples: “Describe a landscape as seen by an old woman whose disgusting and detestable old husband has just died. Do not mention the husband or death,” and “In high parodic form, plot one of the following: a gothic, a mystery, a sci-fi, a Western, a drug-store romance.”

Louis Menand says the collective goal of Gardner’s exercises is “about acquiring a knack for adopting different styles and assuming different points of view.” In short, Gardner wants a writer to gain fluidity with form. William Gass described his novella The Pedersen Kid—a story Gardner originally published in his magazine MSS—as an “exercise in short sentences.” Although Gass would scoff at the idea, one can imagine some of his fiction arising from Gardner’s mode of exercises.

Gardner, of course, is not alone in his unique approach to writing exercises. Louise Erdrich, along with her sister Heid, taught a writing workshop at Turtle Mountain Community College in North Dakota. According to The Paris Review, the workshop was unique:

One afternoon, participants took turns reciting poetry under a basswood tree beside the single-room house where Erdrich’s mother grew up. Another day, they ate homemade enchiladas and sang “Desperado” and “Me and Bobby McGee,” accompanied by a fellow workshopper on the guitar. In class, the writing is personal, the criticism charitable. It helps that Erdrich does the exercises, too—reading out the results in her mellifluous, often mischievous voice. In tidy fulfillment of an assignment entitled “very short fiction,” she wrote, “You went out for the afternoon and came back with your dress on inside out.”

In 1991, Robert Coover created Hypertext Hotel, a hypertext fiction workshop course at Brown University. He viewed the course “devoted as much to the changing of reading habits as to the creation of new narratives.” Coover claims that writing students are “notoriously conservative creatures,” stubborn to a tradition and style, so “Getting them to try out alternative or innovative forms is harder than talking them into chastity as a life style.” Coover’s solution was to “confront” students with “hyperspace;” they even projected their hyperfiction onto a screen during workshop. The hotel was an online space where “writers are free to check in, to open up new rooms, new corridors, new intrigues, to unlink texts or create new links, to intrude upon or subvert the texts of others, to alter plot trajectories, manipulate time and space, to engage in dialogue through invented characters, then kill off one another’s characters or even to sabotage the hotel’s plumbing.”

Was Coover’s Hotel a writing exercise, or something else entirely? Wag’s Revue, Brown University’s literary magazine, wrote a post-mortem: “Almost two decades later, the Hypertext Hotel still stands, but without upkeep over the years it has decomposed into a creaking mass of dead links and empty rooms. And meanwhile, contrary to Coover’s prediction, linear narratives are still being printed by the ton, while the genre of hypertext fiction has dwindled almost to extinction.” This dwindling does not make Coover’s experiment a failure, but it does speak to a problem of creative writing pedagogy: creative writing is more based in play and performance than other disciplines, so what should we expect in terms of process and production, learning and result?

cover One of Coover’s contemporaries, Donald Barthelme, had another approach. According to Menand, while Barthelme taught at the University of Houston, he “assigned students to buy a bottle of wine and stay up all night drinking it while producing an imitation” of John Ashbery’s poetry. One of Barthelme’s students in another workshop was Brian Kiteley, a novelist and prose-poet who teaches at the University of Denver. Kiteley is the author of the prototypical collection of strange writing exercises, The 3 A.M. Epiphany. Kiteley’s own practice in creating prose and poetry hybrids results in an uncommon perspective toward literary creation.

For a student-writer open to innovation and experimentation, Kiteley’s book is a treasure. In his introduction to the collection, Kiteley explains that the goal of these exercises is “to teach writers how to let their fiction find itself.” Although other artists and athletes “take the notion of practice and exercise very seriously,” Kiteley believes “Too many writers make a fetish of the natural, untroubled writer who just breathes out a great story.” The exercises seek to “cajole a writer into playfulness and useful accident, making the usually daunting prospect of writing prose into something of a game.” A descent into strangeness helps “beginning and experienced writers rethink their methods by playing with form, style, paragraphs, sentences, and words, and in so doing, appreciate the value of their infinitely varied experiences.”

Kiteley extends his exercise method to the traditional workshop model, which he believes “presumes you cannot teach creativity, instincts, beginnings, or sources. The workshop takes what it can once the process has already been started.” In contrast, Kiteley uses “exercises in my workshops to derange student stories, find new possibilities, and foster strangeness, irregularity, and non-linearity as much as to encourage revisions and cleaning up after yourself”—meaning that it must be the responsibility of the student to finish the work.

Kiteley believes this fragmented approach to workshop—sharing unfinished scenes and sketches, building them toward longer stories, and then re-focusing on smaller sections—hearkens back to the earliest connotations of workshop as a place of measured creation. Students can leave these strange workshops with a new skill: “The more you understand why you’re writing something, the easier it is to see the pathways you’re trying to create for it.” If students force everything they write to become a full story, they will inevitably write many poor, or merely competent, stories. But if students write a plethora of exercises, they will train themselves to find their best work and polish it, and trash the rest.

cover In one exercise, “Exes,” writers “use the letters of the first names of four or five ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends as your only alphabet for a very short story …See if you can look back to earlier failed relationships with something like affection—or at least some balance.” Kiteley followed his earlier volume with The 4 A.M. Breakthrough, which includes an exercise titled “Lost:”

Write about a town that has disappeared. It could be a Palestinian village on a hillside in what is now Israel, forcibly evacuated in 1948 and then “erased” from maps and view (though there are vegetable remains of the town). It could be a ghost town in the American west—a silver or gold rush boom town which remains in substantial form but is empty of people. It could be an African town erased by the encroaching Sahara. Or it could be a village sunk under a reservoir formed in 1933 in Massachusetts. Write about it in the present and at the moment of its last human habitation and at its most vibrant, lively apex.

Amen to the renewing power of the strange within the creative writing classroom. In my own courses, I have taken students outside to read Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Inversnaid” and then write exercises to evoke the linguistic progression of rills, streams, and rivers. I have asked students to write fiction to make me cry without becoming sentimental. I have created geometric mazes of phrases that exist as skeletons on the page, for which they must develop a fluid, connecting narrative. I have also given them an infamous assignment, a “dexterity poem,” that is reproduced below.

At this point in my creative writing course, students have written fiction of various lengths and forms, and are making the transition into poetry. I learned early that poetry assignments without parameters to beginning poets result in abstraction, highly personal writing that is indecipherable to outside readers, and regurgitation of common narratives and phrases. Some teachers might reach for fixed poetic forms; I reach for free verse compression. The dexterity poem requires students to think, plan, find patterns, draft, revise, re-write, set-aside, and return. In upending their ability to construct free narratives, it pauses and then renews how students approach the building of poetic story. The assignment is initially met with skepticism that borders on frustration. That frustration soon develops into the type of interest that riddles can create. Students become more focused than I have ever seen them before as they work on this assignment; an absurd activity that forces them to achieve syntactic mastery across lines. I offer this exercise to teachers as a resource, and to writers as a challenge. Try it. Follow the guidelines, and post your best (and strangest) attempts in the comments.


Write a poem using any combination of at least 35 words or phrases in the chart below. A phrase counts once; you may use any words or phrases as often as you need to, but they only count once. The words and phrases must remain largely intact—you can change number, tense, insert punctuation and capitalize, but not order.

You may use any of the words in this list as often as possible: of, and, but, for, is, are, to, toward, in, out, him, he, she, his, her, it, should, could, can, can’t, the, or, if, after, before, that, this, & Vermont.

You may also choose any 20 words not available in the chart (these are your “wild cards:” choose wisely!) 

Consider multiple connotations for words. Avoid lists (these poems must make narrative sense).

goodnight Texas postage stamp, baby joke sweet callus, yo we watched Dazed and Confused in earnest
“Do more.” route forget bad stew earlock
snippet tongue he won a Tony sweep the leaves dough
cross violet penne with vodka snack Ted Williams
dizzy be mean don’t yell fire “Rock the Casbah” what happened, happened
misshapen it is over, four leaf clover love token there’s too much oregano in my marinara
I’ve never seen Mean Girls I refuse to ask for guidance rill key club was cancelled praetorian
roast you forgot your teeth awkward as an aardvark I am going to open a spa Action Park
shovel pain longshoreman moat where did Dave Chappelle go?
The Food Network Jon Bon Jovi change tin count your blessings
so much of what we do sore narrator Twins was a decent movie perturbed Roanoke, VA
asbestos laugh your way to complexion nervous stop, and then begin
I hate your beard lose the attitude I’ll have the house dressing please cancel my subscription crafted with painstaking precision
lower your voice massage really? new jam this, peanut butter that
look, there’s a notornis cackle while you spackle heathen it was a tradition stop or I’ll tweet

Image Credit: Pexels/Pixabay.

is a contributing editor for The Millions. He is the culture editor for Image Journal, and a contributor to the Catholic Herald (UK). He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and the Kenyon Review. He is the author of Longing for an Absent God and Wild Belief. Follow him at @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at