351: Creative Writing: Prose
Office Hours: MWF
1—Experiencing a Community Event (from Jewell Parker Rhodes' Free Within Ourselves)
event you'd like to celebrate - it can be as large as a Kwanzaa
celebration or as intimate as a picnic. Write quickly for twenty
minutes; don't edit.
Prompt 2—Experiencing the Folk (from
Jewell Parker Rhodes' Free Within
Look for a
person to describe, someone worth celebrating. It can be someone you
know, a bus driver, a street-corner musician, or a child playing double
Dutch in the street. Write quickly for twenty minutes; don't edit.
Prompt 3—Talking that Talk: Community Storytellers
(from Jewell Parker Rhodes' Free Within
. . .," "Girl, let me tell you . . .," "Back home, we used to . . .,"
"Listen up! It's like this . . ."
is a fundamental human activity - some stories are short (leaving you
breathless for more), some are long and twisting, some teach, some give
praise, some slander, some help you imagine a time and place where
you've never lived. In Africa, the griot was honored as master
storyteller, responsible for maintaining the stories and legends of the
tribe. The griot tradition did not die with advent of American slavery.
Indeed, cultural storytelling kept alive a past and sustained a newly
born people. Slaves were not "blank slates" but a community who
mirrored, shaped, celebrated, informed, and inspired themselves through
Go out and
find a storyteller (a teacher, a friend, a relative) and listen to the
voice, the rhythm in his or her speech. Is the talk slow and meandering
or fast and focused? Is the voice loud or soft, rough or smooth? Is the
voice conversational or formal? Write a page in the voice of the
storyteller you've studied. Try to recapture their story - feel free to
elaborate, improve upon your memory - the important thing is to keep
writing the voice of the storyteller you heard. To keep imitating the
rhythm, sounds, and speech.
Events (from Jewell Parker Rhodes' Free Within
national newspapers and magazines can inspire stories. For at least a
week, cut out articles which interest you and have dramatic appeal.
File the articles you collect in your journal. Gradually, narrow your
focus and decide which clippings inspire the most provocative questions
about character, plot, and point of view. For example, you might ask
questions about that teenager who got hit by the car? Was it a girl or
boy? Where was she headed? Was she in a hurry? What are her likes and
dislikes? You might ask what happens next. Does a witness go home
and rock her child to sleep? Does the reporter quit her job? What about
the driver? Finally, you might ask yourself who should tell this story.
The reporter? The pedestrian? The driver? Or some third person who knew
the teenager's family. You don't have
to write anything for now. Just collect and ponder possibilities for
Prompt 6—Creating Character (from Jewell Parker Rhodes' Free Within Ourselves)
journal, select a name for a character you'd like to write about. For
example, Anita. An Anita is different from a Barbara, a Lorraine, or an
Elsa. A Jerome is unlike Terrence, a Bobby, or a James.
makes a character real. So does history. Write down details about your
character's past: When and where was she (or he) born? What are her
parents' names? Was she a wanted child? Is she the only child, eldest
child, or baby of the family? How much schooling does she have? Who was
her first love? First enemy? What was her greatest fear growing up? Her
the details about your character's current life: Is she married? Does
she practice a faith? Where does she shop? What's her profession? Her
hobbies? Is she a mother? An activist? Is she inside or outside a
network of friends?
What is a
typical day like? Chances are you'll be writing about an untypical day,
so decide what your character normally does. On Thursday, does your
character eat at Jones's Deli? Work a night shift at the hospital? Or
meet with a women's group to discuss books? What are her daily rituals?
Rising at dawn for coffee and Frosted Flakes, then a bus ride with
three transfers to work? Or does she sleep late, making the kids ready
themselves for school, then awaken in time for aerobics and lunch with
her friend Martha?
your character look like? You needn't list details as if you were
writing a police report or printing a driver's license! Instead think
of physical details which make your character striking and
unforgettable. It may be her elegant hands, the way she moves or
doesn't move through a crowded room, the slope of her neck or a
rose-shaped birthmark on her shoulder.
clothing does your character wear? Clothing tells a lot about your
character's income group, self-esteem, and style, but it can also
minutes and complete a character sketch in your journal.
Prompt 8—Preparing Characters for Scenes
one paragraph that introduces readers to a character that would
appear in a peice of fiction. Somewhere towards the end of your
paragraph, transition smoothly to the first line of dialogue. Look
at the stories in your three-ring binder for examples.
Prompt 9—Placing Characters in Scene (from Jewell Parker Rhodes' Free Within Ourselves)
a character created in class or in a previous exercise, imagine a
scene in which your character is responding to a specific event or
person. Because you already know your character's history, appearance,
and emotional life, you are much more likely to "breath life" into your
character in a credible, consistent manner.
two-page scene emphasizing your character's actions, reactions,
thoughts, and speech. Do these aspects have to be created in equal
measure? No. Sometimes, a character may not think but impusively
respond. Speech can be limited during a blank heist or tender love
scene. A prisoner, arms and legs chained, may only be capable of
limited actions/reactions to a sentencing. However, characters will be
more vivid if you use as many character-building techniques as you can.
Prompt 10—Studying Plot
The best way to
understand plot is to study conflict, the series of events that drive
the story forward. As you read Ron Carlson's "The Governor's Ball"
create an outline that includes the major plot points in your journal.
Consider the obstacles, trials, and challenges to the main character's
emotional, spiritual, psychological, and/or physical well-being.
Prompt 11—Creating Plot (from Jewell Parker Rhodes' Free Within Ourselves)
a character you love from your journal or prior exercises. Imagine a
set of specific choices--to travel down the road with signposts or the
road without, to answer the door or not answer the door, to accept a
new job or not accept a new job, to go on a blind date or not go on a
character makes the first choice, ask yourself, "Then what happens?
What goes wrong? What new conflict does my character have to face?
Write a summary paragraph detailing the initial conflicts in the story
you plan to produce in this class. Remember this is no-fault writing.
You are just brainstorming here. We will develop your ideas in class.
Prompt 12—Advancing Plot (from Jewell Parker Rhodes' Free Within Ourselves)
Then what happens? Using the initial
conflict established in prompt 9, introduce another set of choices.
Something else goes wrong. What choices does your character have to
Then what happens? Something else
goes awry. What does your character choose to do?
Then what happens?
this exercise for at least four paragraphs and include four choices
your character has to make to respond to obstacles.
Prompt 13—Writing in
Slow Motion (from Ron
Carlson's Ron Carlson Writes a Story)
a simple act, say unbuttoning a shirt, tying a tie, pulling on a sock,
pouring a cup of coffee, removing a sliver from a finger, etc., and
write it in slow motion, that is, give it two hundred words. Don't
automatically lapse into hyperbole (and thereby the comic), but think
of the effect: make it sensuous, matter-of-fact, sinister, gross,
Prompt 14—Practicing Subtext (from Jewell Parker Rhodes' Free Within Ourselves)
tensions rule much of human conversation. Polite society usually
discourages direct expression of strong emotions: outrage, anger,
love, desire. We learn to dissemble, bury our emotions as subtext
within our speech. A teenager struck with romantic passion may blandly
say, "She's okay," when his heart more eloquently speaks of love.
often avoid saying what they mean or say less than what they mean,
which creates subtext, conversational tension. This sense that another
conversation underlies our dialogue or that meaning is found "between
the lines" makes conversations interesting.
attention to how you and those around you argue. How many times have
you and your loved one argued over the toothpaste cap when you're
really fighting about how you spend money? How many times have you
criticized your children's clothing and hairstyles when you're really
arguing about the suitability of their friends? Arguments about food,
home repairs, Christmas decorations, and when and where to vacation can
all potentially hide arguments about insecurity, infidelity, child
rearing, and marital rifts.
important to remember that subtext as a form of emotional restraint
can't last throughout your story. Eventually, what's at the heart of
conversation has to be confronted. It is this confrontation your
next twenty minutes write a sequence of dialogue that has subtext,
underlying tension. Ideally, you will want the reader to be able to
tell that there is something lurking beneath the surface conversation.
Leave clues: unfinished sentences; unexpected silences; emotional
responses that don't fit the conversation; or more emotional than the
surface situation would warrant.
Two characters argue about the unequal distribution of household chores.
One partner believes the other is unfaithful.
Prompt 15—Changing Point
Pick a scene
that you have written this semester or one you plan to write and use in
your short story. Write the scene in three different ways:
first person point of view, second person point of view, and third
person omniscient point of
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