Ten writers for children. All with something to say.

11/13/09

The Power of a Writing Exercise by Edie Hemingway





The topic of “writing exercises” was my idea for this round of blog posts, but now that it’s my turn, I’m having trouble narrowing down my choices of favorite exercises. When I began teaching my Misty Hill Lodge Writing Workshops four years ago, I discovered Pat Schneider’s book, WRITING ALONE AND WITH OTHERS. What a treasure trove of ideas that book has become for me! I have countless pages highlighted and marked with colored paper clips.

Just last week I used one of her exercises when teaching a writing workshop at Clear View Academy in Cleveland, NC. I asked the students to write a 5-minute autobiography and to slip in one lie (or piece of fiction). It was a great way to get to know each other, and we had fun picking out the lies. I participated, too, and included these tidbits about my life:
1. My great uncle was Ernest Hemingway, and I remember sitting on his lap while he read to me.
2. When I was twelve, I swam with flipper in the Florida Keys.
3. I’ve done many things as an adult, including teaching school, owning and operating a frozen yogurt shop, and writing three books.
Which do you think was the lie? Believe it or not, none of the students even knew who Ernest Hemingway was, so did not guess correctly. But I found that they were very subtle about slipping in their own lies, making it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.

My middle grade novel ROAD TO TATER HILL began as an exercise to write about an event in my childhood that evoked strong emotion. I had no intention of turning that exercise into a fictional novel, but once I got to the core of those buried emotions, I could not stop writing. I did, of course, fictionalize much of it in order to make it a better story that people might want to read. I am pleased that I managed to blur those lines between fact and fiction well enough that my readers often ask me which characters are real and which are fiction.

In the writing of the book, I used two other exercises when I was stuck with where to go next. One was writing in response to music (a CD called “And The Band Played On: Music Played on the Titanic”), which turned into one of my favorite chapters in the book—Annie waltzing with Grandpa. The other exercise was putting two characters (my main character, Annie, and her best friend, Bobby) into a room together just to see what they would say the first time they meet again after an argument. The room was a barn, stacked with bales of fresh cut hay. I won’t tell you what happened, since I want you to read the book, but I will say the scene ended up as another chapter in ROAD TO TATER HILL.


An author friend of mine, Donny Bailey Seagraves, whose book GONE FROM THESE WOODS was recently released by Delacorte Press, also writes from real life experiences. However, her book was based on an event in someone else’s life. It was inspired by a story she heard many years ago about a tragedy that happened in the family of her second grade teacher. Donny carried that “real” story in her head for a very long time, then typed it on a list of story ideas and tacked it to her office bulletin board, which moved from house to house with her before she finally decided to turn it into a fictional story. Years later she visited her second grade teacher (then 90 years old) and found out that the “real” story didn’t match her fictional story. But, if you read the novel, you will see that it certainly did serve as a compelling exercise and inspiration. See http://www.donnyseagraves.com for more information. “Understanding or coping with an accidental death is seldom so directly connected to real responsibility or the need to make peace with such a mistake. Seagraves shows the best way for support to be given as well as how hard it is to forgive. These are tough topics to read about, but the book will bring up many discussions.” (excerpt from School Library Journal review)

So, don’t discount those writing exercises that teachers use to “jumpstart” their students’ creative juices or that you may use to get yourself through a case of writer’s block. Some of them may end up as published books!

5 comments:

Donny Bailey Seagraves said...

Your writing exercise sounds fun, Edie, and the information you shared on your writing process for The Road to Tater Hill was very interesting. I also appreciate you mentioning my new book. You never know where a writing exercise or an idea will take you.

Christy said...

Thanks, Edie! Wish I could take one of your classes. I'll have to look for that book.

Lauren said...

Edie, your writing exercise sounds like a great ice breaker-- a perfect way to get a group to know one another-- I can't believe you swam with Flipper! And I can't believe no one in your class knew who Ernest Hemingway was! Shocking!
I look forward to reading both your book and Donny's book- I also like how writing exercises can keep the life of a book in the works going-- Great blog!

Edie said...

Thanks for your comments, Donny, Christy, and Lauren! Yes, I really did swim with flipper. The TV program was filmed near where I lived. The Ernest Hemingway thing surprised me, but these students are around 13 and 14, so I guess they haven't gotten around to reading Hemingway yet.

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