Last week in doing some cleaning up, I came on a pile of writing exercises from the several years I was in my first West Coast writing group. Each meeting a member would bring in a different exercise that we would do before the critiquing began (but after the first wave of socializing had passed). These exercises were fun–some more than others, of course, but over-all, fun–and allowed us all to get our writing going fluidly in a no-stakes sort of way.
What sort of exercises? As I said, that depended on what that session’s provider dreamed up. Write a time travel story from the point of view of the cat. Include the following six words. Depict a setting without actually describing it. Describe a funeral from the point of view of the deceased.
Predictably, some of the exercises I found were negligible, but others of them made me smile, made me remember what fun they’d been to write. Like this one:
Lefrak was dead. Not just dead but mutilated, his proud plumage stripped, his head and feet amputated in a horrifying ritual. There was no comfort in knowing that Lefrak’s peers would meet the same fate. Death is death. Mutilation is mutilation. And that wasn’t the worst of it. When his corpse was slid into the oven it seemed at last as though decency would prevail–but the heat was too low to cremate Lefrak; it thickened the still blood in his veins and turned his newly exposed skin to a dark, greasy brown. The smell of burning flesh was everywhere. Perhaps, if his corpse had remained in the oven long enough it might have mummified, or been reduced to a cinder. But after some hours the corpse was taken from the oven and placed at the center of a crowded altar. What was there not?
Had he lived, Lefrak himself might have shown interest in the berries, the pies and potatoes, although he would doubtless have drawn the line at the syrupy liquid composed of his own blood. A crowd gathered at the altar and words were said, consecrating Lefrak. And then the final indignity, as a knife bit deep into Lefrak’s breast, and strips of his flesh were peeled off, doused in the blood syrup, and consumed by the joyous monsters who ringed the altar. It was only later that Lefrak would take his final, unsatisfying revenge, his flesh causing a descent into a stuporous torpor that should have lasted forever but merely lasted through the football game.
The assignment was to write a holiday horror story. It’s not in my usual style, but it was fun to write.
I couldn’t come up with a fifth sentence, so I just killed them all, and that’s when the trouble started.
“Death is not sufficient,” the Adjudicator droned. “There were seven convicts and only three sentences passed. “Death is not sufficient to satisfy the victims and aggrieved.”
Then the victims and aggrieved should suggest sentences, I thought. But that couldn’t happen. The whole point of the system was to spare the victims and aggrieved the trauma and guilt of further connection to a criminal case. Once the Adjudicator had determined guilt, the Decider passed a sentence that was uniquely suited to the crime. Unless the Decider ran out of ideas and simply pushed the Lethal Injection button.
“Death is not sufficient,” the Adjudicator said again. “For Terrence Mi, who robbed the owner of an ozone bar and killed two patrons, you determined death by hypoxia. That is a sufficient sentence. But for Grace Lapoja, who stole her clients’ medication to distribute to the indigent in her neighborhood, thus precipitating a near-fatal stroke–“
“I know the case,” I snapped. And frankly, all I’d wanted was to give poor, hardworking Grace, who worked for someone who had everything but lived with people who had nothing, a medal of commendation.
“She must die,” the Adjudicator said. “You must tell us how to kill her in a sufficient way. Her victim is now impaired.” Her victim had a slight slur to her words, a limp, and two curled fingers, which she used as an excuse to have a series of handsome live-in attendants. Grace Lapoja had probably saved other lives with her Robin Hood act.
“She must die. The only question you must answer is: how.”
Old age. If I suggested that I might find myself on the wrong end of the Adjudicator’s attention; failure to sentence must be some sort of crime.
“Death by slow paralytic,” I said at last. Silently I apologized to Grace Lapoja for what I had done.
“Excellent.” The adjudicator’s hollow voters gave the impression of delight. “And the next case?”
The prompt on that one was something about five sentences.
The thing that I remember being liberating about the exercises was that there was no necessity, no requirement, that I go any farther with the thing than I had done–but that there was a sort of exhilaration to working within limits and running with the first thought that came to me.
Feeling stuck? Give yourself five minutes to write a story using the words pie, merciful, haberdasher, thinkers, and apotheosis. Or something like that. See what happens.