by Bret Anthony Johnston
I don’t believe in talent. Nor do I put faith in the idea of inspiration, nor the muse, nor the muse’s shadowy and malicious twin, writer’s block. (That is, of course, unless you’re considering buying this book because you have writer’s block; if that’s the case, it’s a tragic, insidious affliction, and these exercises provide immediate, lasting, and entirely affordable relief.) Truth be told, I’m not at all sure that writing can be taught. I am positive, though, that it can be learned.
What I believe in, as a writer and a teacher, is dedication. And stubbornness. And discipline. Being a writer is, in the fullest sense of the word, a vocation. It’s labor, to be sure, often very lonely and stilting and compromising labor, but it’s also more than that; it’s a calling, an act of courage, an act of faith. I don’t mean this in any new-agey, touchy-feely way, quite the opposite. Much of the writer’s work must be—can only be—accomplished by doggedly venturing into territories unknown, by risking failure with every word. With this in mind, I strive in my classes—and in this book—to create an environment in which each writer feels invited and prepared to take such risks; I try to provide concrete and specific—rather than abstract or stock—lessons that might increase the student’s chances at thematic, aesthetic and technical success; and above all else, I encourage the aspiring writer to show up at her desk every day. This is what I believe in, what I trust will ultimately distinguish those who want to write and publish from those who do write and publish: work. I believe in rolling up your sleeves and buckling down when a sentence or story or chapter is struggling. I believe, to paraphrase Henry James, that every writer is a reader moved to emulation, and I believe the act of writing is itself the muse. The articles of my faith are revision and perseverance and rigor and commitment and craft and what Frank Conroy, on a muggy Tuesday afternoon in Iowa, so aptly referred to as “butt-in-chair time.”
On the first day of my fiction workshops at Harvard, my students and I tell a story together. This is an exercise devised, I believe, by the angelic writer Nancy Willard. There are usually twelve of us sitting around a seminar table, and we’re feeling simultaneously excited and terrified and hopeful and more than a little worried we’ll be unmasked as imposters. (At least I’m feeling these things, and because I’ve never met a writer who wasn’t constantly enduring some mishmash of this weird and potent anxiety, I assume student writers are likewise afflicted.) I tell them that I’m thinking of a character, a man named Bill. Bill, I say, wants a glass of water. Then, with the students confused and staring at me in silence and thinking maybe they should’ve opted for that economics class taught by the professor who eats his chalk, I turn to the person on my right and ask what happens next in the story.
And like that, they’re at home. It’s one of my favorite moments in teaching, seeing this particular relief deliver the students to solid ground. With the parameters of the project established—each writer contributes to the narrative, then we pass it to the right—their imaginations soar and they’re eager to spend the next twenty minutes telling Bill’s story. (Bill’s story, you should know, is almost always of the Old Testament sort: abject poverty, intestinal parasites, wolverine and black widow and IRS agent attacks, alien abduction with requisite probing, projectile vomiting resulting from non-potable water ingested earlier in the story, pachyderm stampedes, and so on. A sadistic bunch, tomorrow’s literary lions.) And soon there’s this important and undeniable and infectious air of confidence filling the room; I always imagine it’s what a locker room would feel and sound like after an underdog football team has won a championship. When the impromptu narrative comes full-circle and ends, the students clap and laugh and debate who rained down the most creative trouble on good ole Bill. The iron maiden? The quicksand? The botched sexual reassignment surgery? Then, in my most professorial tone, I ask a serious question, the question that the whole exercise has been building toward: “Where did the story change?”
Again the room fills with voices, with the impassioned noise of bright students trying to identify and articulate the narrative’s fulcrum, to find where the story pivoted from rising action to falling action. It was when he fell face-first into the den of water moccasins! No, when his wife chased him with the flamethrower! No, it was when he realized he was wedged between the fourth and fifth dimensions, and the opposing existential gravities slowly tore him apart! Eventually, and with increasing certainty and precision, the writers will zero in on whoever is sitting directly opposite me in the group. I never steer them in this direction, but the students’ instincts always lead them to the top of the circle; this is not dissimilar from how baby sea turtles start inching toward the ocean seconds after they hatch. And of course, like the turtles, the students are exactly right.
But, why? Why will the story always turn, always reach its climax at the point diametrically opposite to where it started? There’s no collusion between the professor and the would-be lynchpin, no literary sleight of hand or narrative shill, and none of the students could have possibly heard Bill’s traumatic tale before, yet without exception, the fundamental “change” always manifests itself in precisely the same place. (Try the exercise at a party or dinner table. You need only supply a single character and a tangible desire, the story will take care of the rest. Your guests will think you’re brilliant, or practicing witchcraft, or both.) I’ve used the exercise in elementary and high schools, in juvenile detention centers and MFA programs and writers’ conferences around the country, and it always plays out in the same spooky and complex way. Yet the reason behind the phenomenon is as simple as it is affirming: we know how to tell stories.
Stories are how we make sense of our lives, how we attempt to impose some discernable order on the chaos of existence, and such attempts make the chaos bearable. Either by instinct or by experience, we understand the shapes and nuances, the contours and expectations and demanding subtleties of the stories we tell and hear, and through practice we’ve become enviably proficient at the art of giving them voice. For example, I’ve yet to deploy Willard’s circle exercise and not have the students introduce conflict—which, along with empathy, is the lifeblood of fiction—and often they include more sophisticated aspects of narration as well: humor, metaphor, flashback, alternating points-of-view. Yet, despite this proficiency, something happens when we (and I include myself) endeavor to write, rather than tell, a story. Somewhere, somehow, we blow it. I think of this as a breach that opens between the conception of a story and the actualization of that story, the distance between the perfect idea in your mind and the foundering jumble of words on the page. Writing exercises, I believe, serve to introduce or elucidate techniques and strategies that authors can use to bridge that void. As with Willard’s circle, the goal is to draw out the writer, to cultivate her confidence, and to provide the tools and raw material to make her work the best version of itself. The exercises here aspire to do exactly that.
The book is divided into six sections. Each of the first five orbits around an element of fiction, and within each section is a variety of exercises designed to demystify the common and complex mechanisms by which that specific element operates. They aim not to constrain the imagination, but to awaken it. Faced head-on, the pressures of creating art can prove too intimidating, too daunting; the infinite possibilities of language and story can paradoxically paralyze rather than liberate the writer. By focusing on one element at a time, however, the writer’s task becomes more manageable and the writing itself becomes more inventive and original. The last section of the book is a compilation of over 300 daily writing prompts. Many of these are designed to be completed in ten minutes or less, and they aim to stoke your imagination, to heighten your attention to language, and to focus your concentration before the day’s real writing begins. Think of them as literary jumping jacks, or a shot of tequila, a regimen to get the blood pumping and the muscles limber so that your work is as strong as possible.
I make no pretense of fairness in choosing these contributors. Quite unabashedly, I’ve recruited my favorite writers and teachers of writing, those whose work and guidance continue to influence my own fiction and whose examples have proven invaluable to my students over the years. In many ways, every exercise is a master-class with one of the country’s most eminent authors, an invitation to peek behind a magician’s curtain, to rifle through a carpenter’s toolbox. In these pages are finalists and winners of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Nobel Prize in Literature; there are magazine and book editors; there are short story writers, novelists, international bestsellers, and professors from the finest universities and graduate writing programs in the world. I gave them no specific instructions or requests, but asked only for the exercises that had been—or would be—most beneficial to apprentice fiction and nonfiction writers. The results are as varied as the authors themselves, and as illuminating and inspiring. One by one, they offer their wit and counsel, their compassion and perspective and insight, their experience and good will and intelligence and the profound, abiding assurance that writing fiction is a dignified and worthwhile way to spend your time.
And now we pass the story to the right, to you. And now we wait to see where you to take it, to hear what happens next.