Wednesday, January 20, 2010

An Ice Breaker for the Creative Writing Classroom

Recently I've been asked what sort of exercises I do in my creative writing classroom. Here's one I do almost immediately to explain to them a number of things. These are directions:

1.) There are about twenty students in my class. Before class, I write either an occupation or weird noun on twenty different index cards. Examples: fire hydrant, abacus, real estate agent, trampoline champion, etc etc.

2.) Give each student a card.

3.) Randomly put students in group of four or five.

4.) If your class is 90 minutes, tell them they have 20 minutes to create a 5 minute skit that must incorporate either verbally or non-verbally each item/occupation on each group member's card.

5.) Before they break up into groups, tell them they will be "judged" (and I do mean judged) based on their creativity, whatever that word may mean to them. They've got to define it in their own terms.

6.) Repeatedly emphasize their skits will NOT be judged on the quality of their performances. But by sheer creativity. Also: tell them the performers are not allowed to laugh during the skit; that's not acceptable. Which it isn't.

7.) Let them go into their groups.

8.) Don't watch them prepare. It's annoying to do so. Go get a snack from the vending machine (my favorite: Funyuns or Hot Fries).

9.) When they come back, tell them that after each skit they must write down the "weird" parts and what they see as the most "creative" aspect. After all the skits are completed, they MUST rank them. Someone will ask: Do we rank our own? Say definitely yes. They'll be uncomfortable. Which can be a good thing in the classroom.

10.) Have a stopwatch. Remind them that each group must perform for five minutes. No exceptions. That was the "formal" rule. No exceptions. Tell them you'll cut them off when it's time.

11.) Let them perform.

12.) Have them do the skits.

This is where things get good. Have them rank the skits. Briefly tally the votes for what is their favorite and what is their weakest. Then get into a conversation as to why they voted the way they did. You're teaching them how to critique here. Always, always ask for specifics. Unless you pressure they won't do it. You want to get them in practice for when the comment on their peers' work. Also: this exercise is a good touchstone for them. The spontaneous creativity they exhibit in their skits disappears once they start writing their own narratives. Refer them back to this exercise.

Some of the things that I've noticed almost all the time:

a.) They like to be funny in skits. This desire to be funny almost always disappears when they start committing things to paper. Remind them of this as the semester goes on--refer back to the skits.

b.) They use a variety of points-of-view. Sometimes they'll do it "Our Town" style with a single narrator providing transitions. Sometimes they won't have any narrator. in their pieces, they'll go to the default mode: first person. Remind them as the semester goes on of this.

c.) They're dialogue will almost always contain at some point an intriguing image or funny detail. As the semester goes on, they're dialogue will be more and more functional--something used simply as a way of quickening the story, filling those pages.

d.) No matter how much you emphasize, when they first start committing things to paper they will inevitably set their stories in a bar or a living room. In their skits, because of the strange props and professions, they often provide intriguing settings. This is something that is so important in creating narrative scenes: odd places and props. Bring them back to this fact throughout the semester. It's one of my major points. Give characters good "stuff"; they'll be forced to use it, and your piece will often create more dynamism.

e.) The class will almost always vote for the one narrative skit that comes "full circle." A gun will be introduced and someone will die. The one that is the most rambling (and usually the best one) will be valued the least. Emphasize to them that often times when they off "track," the digression sometimes was the most fascinating element.

f.) In their scenes, more than once character will be between more than two characters. Three, four, sometimes five will be reacting to one another. It's cool. When you start reading their work, the conversations will almost always be between only two characters. Remind them that the cliche can be true: the more, the merrier.


  1. Do they very often not go for the full five minutes? I mean, I'm just guessing that's difficult for them.

  2. wow this is interesting, I wish I had seen this last week I would have used it, but think I will try this or something close to it later in the semester. Or tomorrow!


    Sean Thomas Dougherty

  3. This is so great! Thank you for sharing what sounds like a fun & useful first day activity. One minor plea: Please change the they're (their dialogue) in part c! You must get a lot of grammar nerds around these parts who, like me, get too easily distracted by these kinds of things.