The Masters Review reader Lynda Montgomery shares her thoughts on writing exercises championed by Lynda Barry, one of 2019’s recipients of the MacArthur Grant. If you find yourself short on time, or struggling with generating ideas, experiment with scraps!
1. I love reading advice essays. It’s like eating popcorn—attention-grabbing but not substantive. One can consume without believing.
2. In my new job, we have a lunch hour— an actual close the front door, don’t answer email, leave your desk lunch hour. Though I’ve had real jobs in medicine for twenty-plus years, I’ve never been given such an oasis of time. I swear I will devote the minutes to writing fiction and therefore need advice. I rifle through my mind’s back catalog for answers—to craft essays read, classes attended, and glistening one-liners caught in the netful of gossip I hear from writers at bars.
3. Long ago a surgeon taught me that the more varied the proposed solutions, the more unlikely that one is superior. He was talking about techniques of hernia repair and I doubt he would appreciate that I’ve extrapolated his lesson to cover challenges related to cooking, home repair, parenting, high blood pressure management, and fiction writing. The best advice is a chameleon.
4. And yet, always a diagnostician, even on lunch break, I see a pattern emerge from the pile of maxims. The wisdom on habits in writing usually comes in one of two flavors: make-a-space or get-er-done. Categorizing of any sort is by definition reductive, nevertheless, I try both.
Enter McDonald’s and Starbucks. After a few weeks of experimentation, I have found that these spots near my clinics offer the most reliable combination of liquid refreshment, interesting but not distracting ambient conversation and music, and minimal travel time. Sometimes I write in an abandoned executive board room in our office building but the scenes come out Cold War-era musty—optimistic and rotting at the same time.
Today I’m at a Starbucks. They’ve recently redecorated—the notably fewer tables a not-subtle indication that Starbucks stopped ignoring the differential income from commuters versus laptoppers. I move to the patio for least three short scraps of writing time.
I love Lynda Barry’s X-page exercises for short scraps. Even if you don’t naturally take to freewriting, the steps of the exercise deliberately switch off the editorial and let intuitive strangeness be heard. First you cross out a page before writing on it, a totemic display of sorts. Then you answer a litany of questions that drives you deep into sensory details of the imagined or recalled scene. Finally, you hand write for nine minutes—all out, nonstop, literally penning the abc’s if your brain stalls. The exercise drives you straight to the heart of the tension and organizing images. If you’ve not sampled any of Barry’s talks, comics, or books about imagination and the creative process, treat yourself.
Ten feet away, two men in ballcaps talk over their paper cups at Bible Study. The one in the Cavs 2016 shirt sounds like a preacher-in-training, his voice singsonging above the traffic noise. The other man leans back but he is nodding and his hands are outstretched, flat on table but nearly reaching across. The summer day is warm but not oppressive, though I taste a coming afternoon storm between sips of iced tea. We appear to be demonstrating a moment of human connection. Theirs? Mine?
5. Short scraps of time are good for dialogue work and what I call choreography—writing the characters’ actions so they can be seen, smelled, heard, felt on the fingertips or in the gut. Short scraps are good for making lists. Characters’ actions, locations, objects, premises. Don’t think—spitball it. Make the list much longer than you can. Follow-up on the items that have heat. By heat, I mean the energy generated from the friction of your reptilian brain’s enthusiasm being quashed by the frontal cortex’s notion of what works. (Did you not learn about that in science?) Usually the heat is in the stuff near the end of the list. Or position # 3. Those are the places where the subconscious routinely does you a favor.
6. If you don’t like scene writing, use a short scrap for exercises: The creative writer is both architect and carpenter, restauranteur and sous chef—measure twice, cut once, work on your knife skills, et cetera.
7. Two weeks ago, at McDonald’s during another lunch hour, a pair of middle-aged women in shorts met with a fast-talking man wearing a shiny button down. He talked and gestured the whole time, pausing occasionally to slurp his coffee or pull papers from a legal-size accordion file. The women sat silent and attentive; the one near me kept her large cup of pop cradled in both hands. I guessed lawyer, establishing the facts of a case. Maybe accountant or insurance broker. I know from a few lunch hours that it was not the kind of business one typically observes at a Cleveland McDonald’s in summer.
I am more skeptical of the McDonald’s-based tort attorney than the Christian mystic on the Starbucks patio, but this realization and my ponderings as to why will not immediately appear in short scrap writing. Instead, they tumble around the back of mind, a dryer on extended spin, or, more aptly, one of those rock tumblers that folks played with before the internet, until they pop up, barely recognizable, in my prose. But generation is not always about putting words down.
8. Throwing one’s own advice under the bus is another trope of the advice essay.
9. Most days I try to make the most of my limited space and time, hoping the constraints drive innovation for writing scenes, dialogue, moments of reflection, brainstorming crazy lists of potential plots or essay ideas. While your reptilian brain will suggest picking up the phone for a little dopamine squirt, I recommend that during your next short scrap, you grab a notebook and discover the weird things that emerge when you don’t have time to think. And, if you haven’t already, go back to #3.
By Lynda Montgomery