Getting words onto the page is half the battle. Photo credit: Jennifer Brown

Some days, almost nothing is more difficult than turning the blank page into a page full of writing that contains nuggets of promise. Some days, just starting is the worst of it. This exercise tackles the inertia of getting started by providing a concrete theme and form to give the imagination a leg up. Once you have a page (or pages) of writing, you can find the promising nodes, pull them out, and expand them to see where they’ll go.

Start from an example:

Here’s an excerpt to read and ponder from the Penguin Kindle edition* of The Pillow Book, an incredibly rich and inventive journal or miscellany written by a Japanese gentlewoman around 1000 C.E:

“Dispiriting Things —

A dog howling in the middle of the day. […] An ox keeper whose ox has died. A square brazier or a hearth with no fire lit in it. […] A letter from the provinces that arrives without any accompanying gift. […] There are also those times when you send someone a poem you’re rather pleased with, and fail to receive one in reply” (22, 23, 25).

The Exercise:

Make a list of your own “dispiriting things.” Set a timer to 10 or 15 minutes (or longer if you have time), or give yourself a word or page goal (500 words? 2 pages?) Then, let the list and theme propel you without self-censorship. Anything that comes to mind, write it down. Editing is for later.

What brings you down? What makes you feel dull, tired, discouraged? Think in pictures, in the concrete, sensual world as much as you can. Sei’s list includes items described in single, succinct phrases, as well as situations that take sentences or paragraphs to capture. But the organizing principle is the list driven by a theme: “dispiriting things.”

My Sample Exercise:

A garden snake dead on the pavement, its tail-end chopped off by a string-trimmer. Browned and spent azalea blooms clinging as as crust to the new leaves.

Searching the internet for the best flea-and-tick prevention for the dog, you find product after product. You read about each one, looking up the chemical names as you go. You find articles discussing the relative safety of many of the chemicals. You compare prices and dosage and frequency and potential side effects. After an hour or so of research, you can’t determine which one is the best product. You pick the one you started to pick at the beginning, before you thought to check out all the options.

A ragged hole is opening inside the heel of your most comfortable shoes. The lining is worn away by the motion of your foot; the padding is gone. The plastic heel-cup is exposed. The shoes are only a few months old, and they are not cheap. Everything else about them is still almost like new.

Finally, you catch up with a friend at a social event. The two of you stake out a table together with your party-plates from the buffet. You say, “how long has it been? You must have been so busy!” “Oh,” she says, “I was, but things calmed down a lot a few months ago.” You’re thinking of what to say to this when another party-guest sits down, uninvited. You are polite: “How are you getting along?” He starts to talk about his wonderfully adaptable temperament, how skillfully he adjusts to any trying situation. You listen. He does not stop talking. Your friend is pulled away by someone else.

A scum of pollen splashed on the windows and dried there. Pink polka-dots of beet juice on the white countertop. The notification in the inbox: “Thank you for your submission, but we’ve decided it’s not the right fit for our magazine.” Arriving at the gym for the only class you like and finding that the teacher, the one who somehow strings jokes about boy-bands on a verbal thread alongside perfectly in-tune sing-alongs with the workout music and countdowns of the merciless reps so that the hour of torment passes faster than anything so painful ever has, has called a sub for the night.

Sore deltoids, always, and the cramp in your lower back that doesn’t just ache but weakens you the way you imagine someone much, much older must have lost strength just by aging.

A screw in the nearly-new tire of your nearly-new car. The cabinet empty where the new jar of peanut butter should be. Khaki-colored pants.

What next?

It’s never a bad idea to set an exercise aside for a day or so. When you return to it, don’t edit. Read it. What strikes you as interesting? Which details imply a story or suggest a scene? Depending on what genre you’re interested in, you might find images that generate a poem, situations in which a memoir might take root, or characters, conflict, and scene around which to build a story. Or you might not find anything you like — for now. But no writing is wasted. File each exercise for later, and try again tomorrow.

*Unfortunately, the text is not available to link online.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.