I give a writing workshop on generating speculative fiction ideas that has become a sort of fan favorite at conventions I attend. I did it for the first time with a group of writers I was mentoring and discovered that the main exercise—something I call The Dig—gets people to think outside of their own reality and generate some pretty weird and wonderful ideas.
The exercise goes something like this: I collect a bag of odd items. Right now The Bag contains a shaker egg, a garlic press, a guitar capo, a tape dispenser, a hair clip, and a tiny Moroccan drum, among other things. In the workshop, I open The Bag and dump its contents on a table, then invite everyone to come up and choose an item. Their assignment is to write about that item as if they’ve never seen anything like it before.
They can be an archaeologist trying to figure out what it is or simply write a scene that the object plays a part in, but they must write about what they imagine it is.
I’ve done this with new writers, pro-writers (Larry Niven wrote a hilarious piece of flash fiction in a workshop at BayCon a couple of years ago) and people who don’t write fiction at all. The first time I gave the workshop, two of my participants were a married couple who wrote copy for travel brochures. They assured me that they hadn’t a fictional bone in either of their bodies. They’d come along to see what the “Space Cadets” (the SF writers in the group) were doing. That couple turned in one of the most imaginative pieces I’ve ever gotten about tiny alien beings who sacrifice their enemies on a peculiar and terrifying altar (which looks suspiciously like a tape dispenser). They were elated with what they had discovered about themselves: “We have imaginations!”
Well, of course you do.
This couple, of course, new what a tape dispenser was. Part of the challenge, for them, was to make the mundane alien (something Shirley Jackson and Anne Rivers Siddons do brilliantly in The Haunting of Hill House and The House Next Door, respectively). But what happens when the objects really are alien to the writer?
I discovered that the first time I did the exercise with my son’s seventh grade class. Some of the kids had never seen a garlic press (more of them recognized the capo), or had a clue about my dumbek (a two-foot tall hand drum). The results are still brilliant, but the challenge is different. I find that with unfamiliar objects, the polarities often reverse: instead of making the mundane alien, the writer places the alien in a mundane setting and theorizes about its use.
This Friday, I’m going to be taking The Bag to my daughter’s sixth grade GATE after-school group to see what happens when a group of bright eleven and twelve-year-olds start pulling odds and ends out of their inquiring minds. Naturally, I’m expecting to be amazed, as I am every time I do this exercise with writers of any age.
I’ve had participants tell me they were going to finish the story they started and try to publish it. Including Larry Niven, whose object was a claw-shaped hair clip that figures in a bizarre kidnap. I’ve yet to see any of the finished stories, but I am hopeful. So if any of the past participants in my “Alien Eyes” workshop (sometimes entitled “Forging Fictional Ideas”) have actually finished their stories, I’d love to see them.
Right now, I’ve got to scour the house for goodies to put in The Bag.