Even as I work my way through Seminar on Narrative Nonfiction on my journey to MFA-hood, I've been spending an hour or so each week on exercises from one of my Seminar on Fiction texts. No, these are not homework assignments I need to make up. They're practice.
One of our weekly tasks in Seminar on Fiction was to complete an exercise of our choice from The 3 AM Epiphany by Brian Kiteley, a collection of 201 writing exercises. We would then present the result for class review, along with any explanation of our process we thought necessary. Typical exercises included "Write a 500-word story fragment without using the letter e." or "Write a conversation in which no words are said. Describe the conversation as observed by a stranger; do not show what the characters are thinking." or "Write an uncensored sex scene. Use the names of kitchen or food items for all of the nouns and steps in the cooking process for all of the verbs."
I really disliked doing these. For one thing, I'm a writer – which means I really want to be in control, making the writing decisions, knowing how things turn out in advance. I can write to editor specs, no problem, but being told what to write at this level annoyed me mightily. (Fortunately, I go over myself and managed to work my way through the class successfully.) For another thing, some of Kiteley's exercises were hard. Or worse, made no sense – the activity didn't seem to have anything to do with the stated objective. The first week I chose a gimme: "Describe an exotic fictional locale." I write science fiction, this I do in my sleep. Five hundred words in twenty minutes; instant A. By the second week it occurred to me that if I was going to get my money's worth out of the course I was going to have to stretch and push myself. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't happy to put that book on the shelf for the last time when the course was over.
Deciding which exercise I was going to do each week had necessitated reading several and making a choice. Against my will I found myself thinking about those exercises I'd looked at but hadn't tried. I also started noticing points in my own writing where I used skills addressed in the exercises. It took me longer than I'd like to admit to remember something I'd learned nearly a decade ago:
A concert pianist practices twenty or thirty hours for every hour she's on stage. That's after she's completed years of lessons and practice to master her craft well enough to be on stage in the first place. A champion athlete trains long and hard to prepare herself for an event that may last seconds. Everyone expects this of them, the athlete and pianist expect it of themselves. No one expects to succeed – or get paid – for their first effort. Except writers. Writing is a craft and a skill that requires constant work, constant practice to maintain.
I took the book back down off the shelf.
In the past I've written about reading like a writer: analyzing a work you admire – a scene that stuck with you, a character you can't forget – to see how the writer pulled it off. Keep doing that. But beyond that we as writers need to work constantly at our craft. Learn new skills or sharpen existing ones. It's work. I do not enjoy most of Kiteley's exercises. I hate more than a few. But I'm working my way through the book, tackling each one in turn. Because I'm never going to know all there is to know about being a writer. All I can do is what I should do: learn – and practice – everything I can.