1. MsMyth71
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    MsMyth71 Senior Member

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    Writing Exercises for Beginners

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by MsMyth71, Feb 23, 2010.

    Hello all. I would love some feedback/ideas for writing exercises for a beginning creative writing student.

    I volunteer at a prison, teaching creative writing to inmates. Right now, I'm teaching a women's group. I've met with a few challenges so far:

    1. They prefer poetry (and most of it has to rhyme or is in fairly simple/journal type language).
    2. They seem to be resisting the idea of writing fiction. Perhaps it's the perceived commitment of seeing a story from beginning to end and that may be daunting to a new writer.
    3. They're not too comfortable with writing something imaginary. They tend to want to stick to memoir/life writing.

    So, I hope to break them out of that mold this week. I want to push them to use their imaginations.

    Most of them don't have a really sophisticated way with language. Most actually have very (very) negative experiences from their days at school. One Spanish woman stated that she punished every time she said a Spanish word in class (just as an example). So, I try to be more encouraging and so forth. I know I'm not going to get Shakespeare here. But, I do want them to explore and play in the fields of fiction, so to say.

    I would love some ideas on writing prompts for beginners. I'm not talking college freshmen/sophomores (which I am used to instructing), I'm talking more middle school/high school level here. Very basic exercises that I can bulk up for those who do write at a higher level. Some do not even have a 6th grade education here. Some were in college. It's a vast array.

    I was thinking of bringing in some wild tabloid articles and having them write their own stories from the headlines (a'la Tabloid Dreams - Olen Butler stuff).

    I was also thinking of bringing in beginnings of stories and leaving off at a, "what happens next" moment and letting them carry the story onward.

    If anyone has some great exercises that you think will help, please feel free to post some. I would love ideas/feedback!

    Thank you so much for reading. :)
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The road not taken - particularly centered around decisions that put them into the correctional system.

    What unusual thing have you always wanted to do but never had the opportunity? Write about that activity in a way that makes someone else feel your enthusiasm.

    What was the funniest thing that ever happened to you?
     
  3. laciemn
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    laciemn Senior Member

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    Cognito had some good ideas.

    I think it's really great that you're helping these people. I'm sure they appreciate that, it's really a kind thing to do.

    How about writing about how they relate to a character in a movie, or if they have an idol, or write about someone who is important to them. How about letters to people, or things that they wish they could say to someone.
     
  4. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    I was thinking that stories related to themselves and their mistakes might tear up too much unwanted emotion on top of having to be creative? Maybe something a bit simpler and safer would be better first? Given a very typical storyline from a general genre and letting them continue where the story breaks off, would be a gentle step into the world of fiction. Like coming up with an ending for a romance plot, or something.
     
  5. whiskeyjameson
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    whiskeyjameson Senior Member

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    You could try setting a very low word limit. Say 250 words or something. That way they can write about anything. Perhaps they don't have to have a story with a beginning and an end. If you want them to break into the creative aspect then just get them writing creative fiction.



    Best, Whiskey
     
  6. InkDream
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    InkDream Senior Member

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    What about having them keep a journal?
     
  7. fandango
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    fandango Member

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    I'd be tempted to use this idea. I tend to remember that this was what was used when I was at school. However, given the diverse skills your learners have I think it's important to not be too prescriptive. So don't force them down the short story route if they want to do poetry etc.

    How about a prison version of the short story contest? Give them a title or couple of lines of story. Then have a brainstorming session in which they all join in to jot down some ideas or words that come to their mind - either you lead this or have some of the better educated ones lead this. And then they all go away and write what they want to around the theme be it poetry or short.
     
  8. sprirj
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    sprirj Contributing Member

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    What about one of those penpal prison writing schemes?

    Or 'consquences' One person writes a paragraph, and passes it on to the next person. They then get to develop on someone else story allowing them to create plot twists and be a bit creative with some one elses characters?
     
  9. 67Kangaroos
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    67Kangaroos Contributing Member

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    first off, props for your volunteer work :)

    perhaps have them write from a bird's-eye view (quite literally) like what is life like through the eyes of a cat or something

    another idea is writing about an unusual or funny experience

    and i second the short story contest -- sometimes people are more willing to write or want to do a good job if they know someone is going to actually read it
     
  10. MsMyth71
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    MsMyth71 Senior Member

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    Wow! Some great feedback here.

    Horus, hard decisions and hard life comes up a LOT in workshop. We’ve had women and men share very intense/heavy material. One girl talked about walking in on her sister being raped by a family member. She then (at age 11) shot this man and killed him. Many are mothers who leave children on the outside and write about that. Lots of rape, child abuse, etc. The most common theme is substance abuse. 97% of the women in our workshop are there because of drug abuse and drug-related offenses. So, we don’t shy away from material that might bring about bad/intense memories. Any prompt can do that.

    Last week we had the prompt: “your favorite sound.” People wrote about crunching leaves, rain, fireworks. Then one woman (who had a child on the outside in the foster system) wrote, “mommy.” So, it comes up all the time. It’s intense and we offer a safe space for them.

    Sprirj – We’ve done the exquisite corpse stories with them and that always goes over well.

    The contest ideas are great. I want to be able to reward them, though. There are a lot of rules as to what we can award them with—maybe a nice journal or whatnot? Or, we can donate like $20 to their commissary fund.

    I love love love all of these ideas! I have a good 7 weeks left of lesson planning and you guys have all given me ideas as to where to take some of these sessions! Very excited. I think I’m just burning out on ideas lately. :)

    I LOVE the work. Here are some excerpts from what they've done in the past. Most of these are poems:

    Link to PDF
     
  11. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    Wow, there's some powerful stuff in there. Thanks for showing!
     
  12. Twisted Inversely
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    Twisted Inversely Senior Member

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    I'm not sure if the next idea is too difficult but perhaps you could split them into small groups and get them to write and perform a sketch for the rest of the class.

    Keep up the good work!
     
  13. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i 'teach' writing to many of my mentees, so i'll be happy to help you along with your classes... there's too much to discuss here and i have some practice exercises and other material i use that i'd be glad to pass on to you, if you email me... but here's just a few thoughts on the subject:

    it's normal for those women in prison to want to write about events in their lives, because that's what got them there, isn't it?...

    what would help most and work best is for you to have them write about their own experiences in the third person, as if they happened to someone else... that will give them both practice writing fiction and provide the catharsis they need...

    it enables one to deal with traumatic occurrences better, by being able to 'see' them from a distanced perspective, instead of just re-experiencing them, as happens when writing in first person... it's a very healing technique, so you'd be helping them in many more ways than just teaching them how to write...

    you're doing a wonderful thing, helping those who're so in need of developing self-respect... i'd love to help you do it, if you'll let me...

    love and hugs, maia
    maia3maia@hotmail.com
     
  14. MsMyth71
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    MsMyth71 Senior Member

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    Most of it is a way to process and vent about the situation/events/bad decisions in a constructive way. We've had some women write about sexual/physical abuse as children and it often becomes a cathartic moment for them. However, we are not psychologists and we make it clear that we cannot offer them professional psychological support. We had one particularly intense session and the guard asked some of the ladies if they wanted to talk with one of the on-site counselors. (So support IS there, just not from us). Some of them don't want to write about their crimes. We never ask them to. It can potentially put us in a spot where we have to testify and such against them, so we also make it clear that we prefer that kind of material to be in the 3rd person with a name change as to distance themselves from it.

    Ahh! I see we're on the same page there. One exercise we did do (in the 1st person) was to have them write a letter to their younger selves. That one always goes over well in class. They address a lot of issues and also try to "build up" their younger selves in a positive way. It's pretty cool. I may look into more exercises where they put themselves into the 3rd person and go from there, though.

    Thank you so much! I will definitely shoot you an email. It's amazing work. I will never look at incarcerated men and women the same again. It's also baffling to me how much our penal system needs fixing. Clinton passed a bill during one of his terms that eliminated a metric bum-load of funding to education in prison. Now, most of it is volunteer-based (except for GED prep and some vocational teaching which is a joke at best--the women have so few options: beauty school being one).

    Anyway, will save some of this for the email.

    Thank you for your post!
     

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