R. Shapiro photo


Writing Exercises

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
June 2008


"Like your abs and pecs, you have to work on your writing everyday…"


Don’t wait for inspiration. Like your abs and pecs, you have to work on your writing everyday to keep it firm and flexible. Even if you don’t have anything in mind to write about, especially if you don’t have anything in mind, you’ve got to make yourself write.

“I’m too tired,” you say.

Being tired or hungry or even feeling ill is the perfect time to write. Your mind is off kilter. The writing will be surprising to yourself and to your readers.

Here’s a few writing exercises to help. They work best with fiction and poetry, but it would also be possible for nonfiction that was written like a prose poem rather than prose-y.

  Exercise One
Set a timer for 7 minutes and write as fast as you can, not paying attention to grammar or even meaning, just keep going. If you stop, read the sentence before it. Quickly pick a word and begin your new sentence with it. Just keep going. When the timer rings, put the writing away and don’t reread it. Do the same procedure on day 2. On day three, set your timer for 15 minutes, and repeat what you did before. For the next four days, the timer is set for 20 minutes. On the eighth day, reread all your writing beginning with the first and go straight through the end. If you see a motif, a symbol, or a theme that is repeated in any of the writing, keep those writing samples together. Go through each page with a red pen, eliminating what you don’t like, and underlining what you do. Weave together parts that work, that could become part of a whole. Begin to work in details, scenes, pieces of dialogue that make the piece more unified. Put it away and go back to it from time to time.

"Answer a question that strikes you and keep answering it with statements."


Exercise Two:

The Eternal Question Set a timer again for 10 minutes. For this exercise you write down a question and go more deeply into it with another question and another. For example:
“How did that black cat get on my patio? Do I really believe that it’s bad luck if I cross its path or she crosses mine? Why did my mother have to tell me all those superstitions? Didn’t she know she was scaring me? Isn’t a mother supposed to make her child feel safe? Why is that black cat staring into my patio window at me? Why am I trembling?” When the timer dings, go back into the writing. Answer a question that strikes you and keep answering it with statements.
“My mother told me that when she was pregnant with me, she went to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame. When Charles Laughton swung onto the scene on his belfry rope, she stuck her thumb into her maternity girdle and spit three times so I wouldn’t be born a hunchback like Quasimoto. There I was, a collection of cells inside her, trembling. I trembled because my mother was trembling. My mother scared herself as well as me. I wish I could comfort her.”


Exercise Three:


Use one or more colors to unify your work as Norman Dubie did in “February: The Boy Breughel.” February: The Boy Breughel
The birches stand in their beggar’s row:
Each poor tree
Has had its wrists nearly
Torn from the clear sleeves of bone,
These icy trees
Are hanging by their thumbs
Under a sun
That will begin to heal them soon,
Each will climb out
Of its own blue, oval mouth;
The river groans;
Two birds call out from the woods.

And a fox crosses through snow
Down a hill; then, he runs,
He has overcome something white
Beside a white bush, he shakes
It twice, as he turns;
For the woods, the blood in the snow.

Looks like the red fox,
At a distance, running down the hill;
A white rabbit in his mouth killed
By the fox in snow
Is killed over and over as just
Two colors, now, on a winter hill;

Two colors: Red and white; A barber’s bowl!
Two colors like the peppers
In the windows
Of the town below the hill. Smoke comes
From the chimneys. Everything is still.
Of the town below the hill. Smoke comes.
Ice in the river begins to move,
And a boy in a red shirt who woke
A moment ago
Watches from his window
The street where an ox
Who’s broken out of the hut
Stands in the fresh snow
Staring cross-eyed at the boy
Who smiles and looks out
Across the roof of the hill;
And the sun is reaching down
Into the woods

Where the smoky red fox still
Eats his kill. Two colors.
Just two colors!

A sunrise. The snow.



Rochelle Jewel Shapiro


Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s novel, Miriam the Medium, was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award and is currently selling in Holland, Belgium, and the U.K. She’s published essays in NYT (Lives) and Newsweek-My Turn, and in many anthologies such as It’s a Boy (Seal Press, 2005), The Imperfect Mom (Broadway Books, 2006) About What Was Lost (Plume Books, 2007,) For Keeps, (Seal Press, 2007.) Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in many literary magazines such as The Iowa Review, Negative Capability, Moment, and in many anthologies such as Father (Pocket Books, 2000). The short story from that collection, "The Wild Russian," will be reprinted for educational testing purposes nationwide. She currently teaches "Writing the Personal Essay" at UCLA on-line and is a book critic for Kirkus. She can be reached at http://www.miriamthemedium.com/ or at her blog: http://rochellejewelshapiro.blogspot.com/