The First Day

I usually begin my classes with a writing exercise, one that can be completed in class and read out loud. Sometimes everyone reads out loud in the first week or on the first day, butmore often, I just need a couple of people to volunteer. It serves as an icebreaker-- once you’ve read out loud in front of a new group of students, what else is there left to fear?-- and also allows me to talk about craft in a way that is specific and grounded in student writing. 

Responding to a prompt is a leap of faith. You can’t go into with expectations or a story in mind, or you’re going to choke before your pen hits the page. I use prompts for the first day of class to both take away the fear of the blank page and give students something to work on in subsequent classes.

My favorite go-to exercise is Ron Carlson’s “Solving for X.” A more complete and articulate version of this can be found in What If? Anne Bernays’ and Pamela Painters’ anthology of writing exercises. I have to admit that until I experienced the exercise itself, in a class I took with Ron at the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, I didn’t give it much attention. It sounded onerous and pointless, and I don’t doubt that many of my students-- the ones who spend too much time thinking it through or trying to be deep-- find it a waste of time.

It’s the kind of exercise you have to give in to and if you’re the kind of writer that needs to control every word before you’ve committed it to paper or you’re afraid of silliness on the page, this isn’t going to work. If you want to do something quick and fun that could turn into a story or at least give you a couple of good sentences and you’re willing to follow each sentence to the next, then go try it.

Time it, no more than 30 minutes.

Write a story using the alphabet as the structure. In other words, each sentence begins alphabetically.

About last night, Zach had no memory. Beer flowed freely at Miranda’s party, as it always did, and there had been little to eat. Cake at midnight and before that, little cocktail wieners on toothpicks. Dinner wasn’t the point though, it never was with Miranda, who liked snicky snacks and nibbles, preferably from a can or a box or a bag. And so on….

The other rules of the exercise: you can use parenthetical dashes once; and one sentence fragment, and there must be one 100-word, grammatically correct sentence. I think timing this is key, as is forcing yourself to get to the end of the alphabet. The students who punk out before the end never get to experience the joy of watching a story unfold as you write it with minimal thinking. I’m not saying this is a formula for story or produces a story every time. What I like about it is the way the alphabet structure forces me to focus on the words on the page, not in my head, and how it often takes me to a place I never expected to go. The story you tell through the alphabet, however, is not the story; that story emerges organically as your write.

Tags: Prompts, ABC, Exercises, Getting Started