Writing Exercises

I hate writing books that sprinkle writing exercises throughout their text. Like medicine, I know they’re good for me, but I find them irritating. I usually don’t feel like doing what they prescribe. But I’ve admitted my need for outside advice. So why do I resist taking it?

Sometimes I just don’t connect with the exercise. It seems too obvious, I’ve done something like it before, or I don’t have the patience. But I often resist because of the author’s tone: in Writing Life Stories, the author doesn’t just suggest that you do his exercises, he demands that you do. I don’t react well to that. I’m not saying that the exercises aren’t valuable. I just want more meat in the text before I jump into a writing exercise.

One thing that throws me is when I don’t know how thoroughly I should do the exercises.The first one Bill Roorbach presents is to make a map of your childhood neighborhood. He’s used this exercise in classes he’s taught and the response has been everything from a quick sketch to a collage. Another assignment is to make a timeline. Again, he’s received the bare minimum to a color-coded life-long calendar. How detailed do I need to be? Isn’t it enough that I have the map or timeline in my head? I can see the value of these exercises, especially if you’re getting ready to write a memoir, but I’d rather come back to them later, if at all. I want to hear more from the author about his own writing and teaching experiences.

But it seems that this book is very much an exercise book and it seems that for maximum benefit I need to do the exercises in order. I bridle at that. I decide to compromise: I won’t draw the map or the timeline, but I will do the writing exercises he assigns to go with them.

The first one is to tell a story from your map. Mine starts out with “A little girl rides up and down on her tricycle in front of a brick ranch house. She does this every day until a woman finally comes to the door and asks if she wants to come in to play. She never goes to the door herself. She always waits to be asked.

“That little girl was me and I’ve waited to be asked all my life.”