I’m sure this never happens to you, but there are times when I don’t feel very creative. We just had a new baby (our second), bought a house (our first), and are now busy managing a thousand new details. All the busywork and bill paying leaves me feeling pretty dry.
But no matter how un-creative I’m feeling, there’s one creative writing exercise that never fails to fire up my writing.
Why We Need Creative Writing Exercises Like This
Over the last ten years, I’ve worked with thousands of writers, and in that time, I’ve there is one thing that stops more people from writing than anything else.
“This is so bad,” we think after one particularly difficult sentence. “Why would anyone read this? Why would I want to read this? I thought I was better than this. I thought I was talented. So why am I producing such crap?”
And so on…
Sometimes, writers don’t even allow themselves to go through this kind of painful monologue. Instead, they put off writing altogether, procrastinating until the very last minute, then whipping something together that may not be very good but at least it’s done!
The creative writing exercise I’m going to talk about in this post is designed specifically to combat that kind of perfectionism.
Where Does Perfectionism Come From?
Perfectionism begins with pride. “I’m so talented how could I not write the next great book? Bestseller? More like best book of the century.” (Full disclosure: this used to be me.)
Or, for the slightly less narcissistic, “I may not be the best, but I have the best idea. And what’s more, I care the most.”
Unfortunately, this kind of pride doesn’t survive “contact with the enemy”: the blank page.
I’ve watched so many writers be humiliated and completely demoralized by the process of writing.
“I never want to do this again,” they confess to me, usually when they’re about two-thirds of the way through writing their first book. “Writing is horrible. Miserable. I’m horrible! Why did I ever think it was a good idea to write this? to write at all?!”
Neither of these two postures—pride and despair—are helpful if you want to create great work.
What’s missing? What’s the secret ingredient writing in a way that both displays your natural that is both an absolute joy to write and your best possible work?
The secret ingredient is PLAY.
That’s right, the same thing that toddlers are so good at is the key to writing your best work.
This Writing Exercise Brings the Joy Back to Writing—Here’s How
How do you play with writing?
Two words: modernist poetry.*
Pioneered by poets like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, modernist poetry often makes very little sense. In fact, it can sometimes even seem like gibberish, like a Rauschenberg lithograph.
And that’s what makes it such a great exercise. Because it allows you to play with words in a way that the perfectionistic side of your brain won’t be able to stop.
5 Steps to This Writing Exercise
I’ve broken it up into five steps so simple a two-year-old could follow them:
- First, get out a blank page. Feel free to open a new document on your computer, get out a pen or a blank piece of paper, or even whip out your old-school typewriter (the preferred method!)
- Next, write the first word that comes to your mind. When I did this exercise this morning, the first word I thought of was “Boom.” Why not?! So I wrote it down.
- Then, the hard part: write another word. Why is this hard? Because for this exercise to work, the second word must be random and disconnected from the first. This will completely piss off that perfectionistic little writer in your head. Do it anyway!
- After you write the second word, write a third, fourth, and so on. After a few words, you can start a new line. It doesn’t matter where you break the line. Just do it when it feels right. And as you write, don’t forget the most important step of all…
- PLAY. When you do this exercise, write with the sounds of words in mind, not their meaning. Try out movie/historical/song/literary references, mashing them up with gibberish rhymes (e.g. “Twain’s hammersaw is bringing me low slow like a long bow“). Make up new words. Pay attention to the sounds of words. Try to come up with the most random noun you can. Then, put it next to a list of five verbs. DON’T use punctation (unless that sounds fun to you, of course).
*I’m of course using the term modernist poetry very loosely here. Good modernist poetry is about much more than random gibberish strung together.
Embarrassing Examples of My Own Attempts at This Exercise
To give you a sense of how your poems might look, and to hopefully give you much room to improve upon, here are two of my worst attempts at this exercise (for humor’s sake, it’s best to read these aloud in the sincerest voice you can muster):
Simple reason hides
the only response to holiness tears
and I’ll love you I’ll love you
Asparagus dream tell me I’m happy
Bromate the worn door
Catalyst of evergreen
I’ll sing it all dusk
Kroner folder brning
Someday I’ll participate in
Amazingly bad, right? Here’s the next one (I actually like this one):
bloom you folly seeking
pinwheeling song stealers
float your lilly feelings
youround a hold
Ready to write yours? Check the practice section for today’s exercise!
Why This Creative Writing Exercise Is Genius
When you finish—after ten lines or a hundred— read your poem out loud. You’ll probably be surprised at how good it is!
That’s why this exercise is so perfect. Because when you try to write badly, you free up your creativity and end up making surprising connections.
Sure, some of your lines will be horrible, embarrassing, and never to be read again. But others will be much better than you expected.
Finally, with your new playful spirit, you’ll be able to go back to your work in progress with a new level of creativity.
How about you? Do you ever play with words? Share in the comments!
Ready to try out this creative writing exercise? Use steps above to write a modernist poem. Make sure to PLAY!
When you’re finished with your poem, post it in the comments section. (Come on, it can’t be worse than mine!)