I really like this book, which is full of writing exercises. Brian Kiteley calls them unconventional exercises and maybe they are, I don’t know. He recommends fusing two or three exercises together to make something even more unconventional, which is kind of how my mind was working anyway, so maybe that’s why I like the book: he thinks like I do.
I’d already tried another of his ideas, which was to pinch someone else’s work. I thought of this all on my own but it was many years before I was brave enough to try it. Of course I also worked out that if you do pinch someone else’s work, it’s a good idea to steal from someone good.
T.S. Eliot knew this secret too:
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”
I’d read that at university so really I must be either very slow or very ethical because I spent many years trying to find my own voice without either imitating or stealing.
What I like most about this book is the fact that the exercises are not pointless. You can pick out something to try that can pep up the novel you’re writing without interrupting your daily routine.
But either you like the exercises or you don’t so here is a sample, Exercise 141, where Mr. Kiteley demonstrates how to steal from T.S.Eliot – for which the technical literary term is poetic justice. It’s one of many exercises from a section called Other People’s Sentences (Yes, there’s a whole section on plagiarism):
THE BRIDGE. Choose two good, useful, and thrilling paragraphs from other writers of fiction, letters or nonfiction. Then make a prose bridge between the paragraphs, although you don’t need to make the matter between the two paragraphs equal to the two bookend paragraphs. There are all sorts of ways of approaching this problem — you could choose two paragraphs that could not possibly fit together and somehow make them fit. Or you could choose two different voices that might, with a little sharpening, become one voice. You will have to make two different types of decisions in this exercise — the choice of the paragraphs and the actual filling of space between the two paragraphs. Students have gone to favorite writers and found their prose a bit slack. Choose good and distinctive writing and keep in mind the concept of bridging styles and content. No word count for this exercise – use as many words as you need.
Harry Mathews, the author of The Journalist and 20 Lines a day, dreamed up a version of this wonderful exercise. Before Mathews, a group of painters related to the French writing group Oulipo did something like it. The painters’ exercise is to take two paintings (or images) from different eras or painters, reduce them to the same size, and leave an equal-sized blank space between the two images. The exercise is to fill in the blank space, connecting the two paintings.
I have used this exercise more than any other in this book. I wrote a novel, The River Gods, between 1996 and 2004. It is a history of Northampton, Massachusetts – a history as fiction, mingling historical primary sources with my own imaginings. Whenever I included two pieces of someone else’s prose (or poetry) sandwiched around my own prose, I noted so in the book’s end-notes. These pieces of prose worked on me as if I were some kind of medium, bringing together two different periods or minds. For instance, I used a fragment of a T.S. Eliot poem from his book Four Quartets (The opening lines of “The Dry Salvages,” which is about rivers) and most of Randall Jarrell’s tiny poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” to bookend a story about a bridge builder in Northampton just before and during the Second World War. The small story that resulted is a combination of Eliot’s haunting meditation on faith and a dead man’s wry, pithy commentary on faith’s limits.
By the way, the exercises can’t be that unconventional because quite a lot of them (like this one) appear to be stolen from other teachers. But to prove that there is quite a lot of mileage in this theft idea, Kiteley has even written another book of exercises called the 4 AM Breakthrough.
Hmmm. Maybe I could pick out the best exercises from each, throw in a few original twists and… I think I’ve just had a 5 AM Brainwave.