The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction

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The Millions Top Ten: January 2016


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
3.

Fates and Furies
5 months

2.
4.

Purity
6 months

3.
5.

Slade House
4 months

4.
7.

Fortune Smiles
2 months

5.
8.

The Big Green Tent
3 months

6.
9.

The Heart Goes Last
5 months

7.
10.

City on Fire
4 months

8.


What Belongs to You
1 month

9.


My Name is Lucy Barton
1 month

10.


A Brief History of Seven Killings
2 months

It’s with a certain degree of triumph that I welcome Marlon James to the first Millions Top Ten of 2016. While this isn’t the first time his superb novel A Brief History of Seven Killings has appeared on our list overall — that first occurred in October of last year — it nevertheless feels a bit like a personal victory for me, the humble author of this series, who has since that time urged each and every one of you to go out and purchase a copy (or three!) immediately. Well, it finally seems that the work has paid off. (Happy New Year to me!) Now let’s work on keeping it here, eh?
This month we graduated three Top Ten fixtures to our Hall of Fame: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, and Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. The first two were fixtures atop our list for the past six months, while Lee’s Mockingbird sequel-prequel got off to a hot start before ultimately settling in the middle of our ten-book pack.
Their success means Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies is the new top book in town. It’s a novel that Margaret Eby described in her Year in Reading entry as the kind “I would start reading on a Saturday morning and soon find myself cancelling weekend plans to finish by Sunday night.” To get acquainted with it, I recommend first checking out our exclusive first look at its opening lines, and then settling in for our interview with its author. If somehow you’re still not convinced that this is a book you absolutely need to read in full, immediately, then allow our own Edan Lepucki’s praise to coax you over the threshold:

I have read all of Groff’s novels, and each one is better than the last, which gives me vicarious hope for my own puny literary pursuits. I get the sense that Groff is always looking for new ways to tell stories, to show time passing, to express human longing, shame, desire, need, all without succumbing to the same-old conventions of scenic conflict and cause-and-effect. Plus, her prose is so shining and unexpected she could describe getting her license renewed at the DMV and I’d find it compelling.

Also this month in addition to A Brief History… we welcome two newcomers to our list: Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You and Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. Both novels have received heaps of praise — both appeared on our Most Anticipated preview — but Greenwell’s in particular has been drawing some seriously effusive reviews. On our site, Jameson Fitzpatrick wrote that What Belongs to You “offers us the most exacting and visionary reading in contemporary literature of what it means to be gay in America today.”

 

This month’s near misses included: Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los AngelesThe Turner HouseThe 3 A.M. EpiphanyUndermajordomo Minor,  and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: December 2015


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Between the World and Me
6 months

2.
2.

A Little Life
6 months

3.
6.

Fates and Furies
4 months

4.
3.

Purity
5 months

5.
4.

Slade House
3 months

6.
5.

Go Set a Watchman
6 months

7.


Fortune Smiles
1 month

8.
10.

The Big Green Tent
2 months

9.
9.

The Heart Goes Last
4 months

10.
8.

City on Fire
3 months

After being crowned the 2015 National Book Award winnerFortune Smiles by Adam Johnson has received an even greater honor: entry onto The Millions’s December 2015 Top Ten list! The collection was described in our second-half Book Preview* as being “six stories, about everything from a former Stasi prison guard in East Germany to a computer programmer ‘finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States,’” and it was said to “echo” the author’s “early work while also building upon the ambition of his prize-winning tome.”

Elsewhere on the list, small shakeups abound. Fates and Furies and The Big Green Tent rose three and two spots, respectively, while Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire moved from the eighth spot to the tenth. Beyond that? There isn’t too much to report.

Next month, however, three fixtures on our list— Between the World and MeA Little Life, and Go Set a Watchman — will likely head to our Hall of Fame, and their ascendance should free up space for fresh blood. They’ll join Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen, which joins the Hall this month. If past is prologue, most of those newcomers will have been culled from our Year in Reading series. If so, do you have any guesses on which ones will become fan favorites? Will it be another installment of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet? (The first one’s already in our Hall…) Will it be Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts? And whatever it may be, will it have a Florida connection?**

Stay tuned to find out.

* Speaking of Previews, have you checked out the first installment of our Great 2016 Book Preview, which posted this week?

** Probably. Everything does.

This month’s near misses included: A Brief History of Seven Killings, The Turner HouseUndermajordomo Minor, The 3 A.M. Epiphany, and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Art of the Strange Writing Exercise

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.

One 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?

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.

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.

INSTRUCTIONS AND RULES:

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: Flickr/Bistrosavage

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