Looking to jump-start your writing? On this page,
you will find some suggestions and prompts, grouped in broad categories,
to help you get going.
A Few Exercises
Focusing On Revision
Suggestions for Writing
Based on Tim OBriens
The Things They Carried
You know youre supposed
to revise, but where to start? Revising is really a comprehensive
process of coming back to work that has been drafted, and seeing it
with new eyes. Many people make the automatic assumption that this
will be a bad experience. The good news is that most, if not even
all, of the time, it isnt at allor at least it doesnt
have to be. Most people are pleasantly surprised to find things they
like, or that even surprise them, when they re-read something they
wrote. Revision does not have to be seen as a chore, or as the kind
of changing a word here or there or cleaning up typos that may have
passed for revision at school. Rather, it is an opportunity to visit
and sit with your ideas again. Approached in this spirit, revision
can include some of the same excitement of discovery that accompanies
Feeling the desire to revise a piece of writing but
dont know where to begin? Have the nagging feeling theres
something more you could do but youre not sure what? Here are
a few suggestions to try that might help to get you started:
Take a piece you want to move
along in some way. Read it through, then write, dialoguing
with yourself on paper, about what you like and where you feel you
might be holding back, where and what you might develop. Try to
tease out some of the possibilities. If a fleeting idea What
if I did that runs across your mind, that might be something
to pay attention to. Where are you stuck? What questions do you
have? What scares you about the revision process?
The writer Charles Baxter commented
in a questions and answer session following a reading that when
considering interactions between characters, it is useful to ask
three questions. Choose a scene of interaction between characters
in something you have written and ask yourself: 1) What does each
character want from the other? 2) Who has the most to lose, or stands
to be hurt the most? 3)What does each character wish/hope the other
will NOT find out? Now you can either dialogue with yourself on
paper in response to these questions, or turn directly to your scene,
and with these questions in mind, make any changes that come to
Take something you have written that
is fairly close to life. Pretend that you need to disguise
something in order to protect someone who matters to you. What would
you/can you change? You can dialogue with yourself on paper about
possible changes, or turn directly to your work and start making
the changes that suggest themselves to you.
Addition/Subtraction: 1)Take something
youve written that you wish to revise. Go through and eliminate
every word you possibly can. 2) Take the same piece. Now go back
and add wherever theres something you could add. It is helpful
to do BOTH, since most revision is essentially a going back and
forth between both these processes. As individuals, we probably
all have somewhat of an innate tendency toward either underwriting
or overwriting. Which do you think in the case with you?
Return to a piece you started that
you dont feel quite gelled. Read it through. Underline
the words, phrases, passages that seem strong to you (try to focus
on your feelings, not what you think someone else might say). Copy
these onto a new piece of paper. Pretend that this is a completely
new piece, and continue writing, using what you have as a springboard.
Take something that you began, but
didnt have time to finish havent yet returned to. Take
the last sentence that you wrote and copy it onto a fresh piece
of paper. Now continue writing, pretending that is the first sentence
of a new piece, and see what happens.
Take the largest dictionary that
you have, or can get your hands on. Close your eyes, open a page
and randomly let your finger come down on (or close to) a word.
Just for fun, explore how the word or something associated with
the word might be integrated into your piece.
Take a piece youve written.
Ascertain what point of view it is written from (first person, third
person), etc. Now, just for fun, as an experiment, change the point
of view. You can do this is a number of ways. You can change from
first person to third person, or vice versa. Or you can change from
the third person point of view of one character to that of another.
Take a piece youve written.
Ascertain what tense it is (mostly) written in. (Chances are the
tense wont be absolutely the same throughout.) Present or
past? Past-perfect? Now try changing the tense. Try re-writing something
written in the past tense in the present tense, and vice versa.
Take something youve written.
Now add a new character, and see what happens.
Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio is proud to be
a partner of One
Book, One Philadelphia, a collaborative initiative of the Office
of Mayor John F. Street and the Free Library of Philadelphia that
seeks to promote reading, literary and community by encouraging residents
of the greater Philadelphia area to read and discuss a single book.
The book selected for 2005 is Tim O'Brien's The
Things They Carried, a collection of interrelated short pieces
based on the author's experience in the Vietnam War. As much of the
book is concerned with the art and power of storytelling, and the
sometimes porous boundaries between truth and fiction, it is highly
recommended reading for those who seek to write.
In the story "Notes" from the book, O'Brien
writes, "By telling stories, you objectify your own experience.
You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make
up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened
. . . and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not
in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain."
Below are some prompts and suggestions to get your
own stories started, based on some of the themes raised and stories
told in the book. They can be used as a way of writing about things
that may have happened to you, or that you may have witnessed or heard
about, or that you have imagined, or a combination of both. I have
used the phrases "from memory, imagination, or both" and
"you, or a character whom you might want to write about"
as a means of encouraging the widest possible response. Remember too
that your response might take the form of poetry or drama as well
as of prose.
- O'Brien titles the opening piece and the book itself
The Things They Carried, using the literal objects the characters
carry with them to launch his story. Think of someone you know (or
can imagine) very well. What objects does or did she or he habitually
carry, perhaps in a pocket, briefcase, wallet or purse? What do
these objects reveal about the person? Do any stories emerge from
- There are many types of wars, battles, battlefields.
Imagine yourself as a soldier in one such, and write a letter home.
- In "The Things They Carried," Jimmy Cross
carries photograph of Martha, the woman he loves. From memory, your
imagination or both, call up one photograph or snapshot of someone
important to you. It may be someone who is in your life now, or
someone who is no longer in your life. It may be a good idea to
take the first one that comes to mind. When you have the picture,
begin writing with these words, "In this one, you are . . ."
so you are writing to the person in the picture.
- In "The Things They Carried, "O'Brien
writes that the men "were too frightened to be cowards."
Later on in the book, in "The Lives of the Dead," the
character Tim says to Kiowa, "'It wasn't guts. I was scared'"
and Kiowa responds, "'Same difference.'" From memory,
imagination or both, write about something you, or a character whom
you might want to write about, have done that has greatly frightened
you or your character, but you or your character felt more frightened
not to do.
- In "Spin," O'Brien writes, "the
war was nakedly and aggressively boring. But it was a strange boredom.
It was boredom with a twist, the kind of boredom that caused stomach
disorders." From memory, imagination or both, write about the
boredom you, or a character whom you wish to write about, have experienced.
- In "Spin," O'Brien writes, "You
take your material where you find it, which is in your life, at
the intersection of past and present. . . . As a writer, all you
can do is pick a street and go for the ride, putting things down
as they come at you. That's the real obsession. All those stories."
What do you think may be your "material"? What stories
- Many of the stories in The Things They Carried
are concerned with moments of bravery and cowardice. Sometimes it
is suggested that what may seem like bravery is actually cowardice,
and what might seem like cowardice actually bravery. In "Speaking
of Courage," O'Brien writes "Sometimes . . . the difference
between courage and cowardice was something small and stupid."
From memory, imagination or both, write about a time of bravery,
or cowardice, or both, in your life or the life of a character whom
you wish to write about.
- In "On the Rainy River" O'Brien describes
working the summer after college in a meat-packing plant. From memory,
imagination or both, write about a job you, or a character whom
you wish to write about, had for a short time, perhaps during a
summer or some other transitional time in your life or the life
of your character.
- In "On the Rainy River," O'Brien writes
that Elroy Berdahl of the Tip Top Lodge "offered exactly what
I needed, without questions, without any words at all. He took me
in, he was there at a critical timea silent, watchful presence."
From memory, imagination or both, write about someone who has played
such a role in your life, or in the life of a character whom you
wish to write about. Or about someone whom you or your character
might wish had played such a role.
- In "On the Rainy River," the power of
embarrassment is painted very strongly. Write from memory, imagination
or both about a time that you, or a character whom you wish to write
about, did something or did not do something out of fear of embarrassment.
Or a time that you or your character did something, or did not do
something, despite the risk of embarrassment.
- In "Enemies and Friends," O'Brien tells
the story of the relationship of Lee Strunk and Dave Jensen. From
memory, imagination or both, write about someone who has been both
friend and enemy in your life, or in the life of a character whom
you wish to write about.
- O'Brien writes in "How to Tell a True War
Story," that in a true war story "it is difficult to separate
what happens from what seemed to happen." From memory, imagination
or both, write about a time that you, or a character whom you wish
to write about, experienced this to be the case.
- Tell a story that "makes the stomach believe."
- From memory, imagination or both, tell the story
of the most embarrassing thing that has happened to you, or to a
character whom you would like to write about.
- Tell "a true story that never happened."
- Superstitions are important to the men in The
Things They Carried. Write from memory, imagination, or both
about a superstition you, or a character you wish to write about,
hold or have held, or about the strangest superstition you've heard
- In "Church," Henry Dobbins confesses
to Kiowa that he has never liked church but has thought about becoming
a minister. And Kiowa responds that hes never thought of being
a minister, but does like churches. From memory, imagination or
both, write about a spiritual moment or feeling you, or a character
whom you wish to write about, have experienced.
- In many places in The Things They Carried,
O'Brien writes about the reluctance of those at home to hear the
stories soldiers bring home with them. Do you, or a character whom
you wish to write about, have stories that are alive and important
to you that you know, or fear, that others do not want to hear?
- In "How to Tell a True War Story," OBrien
writes, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and
uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil. He also writes,
later on in that same story, "It wasn't a war story.
It was a love story." How do you tell a true love story?
How do you tell it from a true war story?
- In "Good Form," OBrien's daughter,
Kathleen, asks, "Daddy, tell the truth . . . did you ever kill
anybody?" From memory, imagination or both, write about answering,
or trying to answer, a question from a child that you, or a character
whom you wish to write about, find uncomfortable or challenging.
- "The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong"
is a story Rat Kiley tells of a solider's girlfriend who joins him
in war, becomes seduced by Vietnam and ultimately passes into a
kind of legend. Is there a story that you, or a character whom you
want to write about, and your or your character's friends or co-workers
tell each other that has become a kind of legend?
- In "Spin,"O'Brien writes that "the
war wasn't all terror and violence." From memory, imagination
or both, write about moment of reprieve or peace that you, or a
character whom you want to write about, might have encountered during
times of violence or unpleasantness, or about moments of fear, disquiet
or ugliness that you or your character might have encountered during
times of relative contentment and peace.
- Write a story about someone who is dead, that brings
that person to life.
- In "The Ghost Soldiers," O'Brien writes
"When you're afraid, really afraid, you see things you never
saw before, you pay attention to the world." From memory, imagination
or both, write about a time you, or a character you want to write
about, were intensely, profoundly afraid.
- In "Enemies," "Friends" and
"The Ghost Soldiers," revenge, getting back at someone,
is a theme. From memory, imagination or both, write about a time
you, or a character you want to write about, wanted to or tried
to or succeeded in getting back at someone for a perceived injury
or slight. Or write about a time that someone wanted to or tried
to or succeeded at getting back at you or your character.
- Many stories in The Things They Carried
are repeated, told several times in several different ways. Choose
a story from your experience or imagination (or both), and tell
it more than once, in different ways.
- In The Things They Carried, O'Brien gives
many examples of the ways in which the characters use humor to cope.
In "The Lives of the Dead," he writes, "By slighting
death, by acting, we pretended it was not the terrible thing it
was." From memory, imagination or both, write about a time
you or a character that you want to write about used or witnessing
the use of humor.
- In "On the Rainy River," O'Brien writes
about being pulled between two agonizing choices. From memory, imagination
or both, write about a decision you or a character you want to write
about made that has affected the course of your or your character's