A Creative Exercise: Writing as Archaeology

Now that I have your attention (ahem) …

This creativity exercise is one I often do in workshop format at conventions. It requires that you first dig up some objects. Just plain old mundane things. Go into your kitchen and grab stuff out of a drawer—garlic press, mandolin, lemon juicer, tea ball. Or try your office where there are such things as tape dispensers, staple removers and other odds and ends.

These things are quite common—to us. But how would they look to alien eyes?

Gene Roddenberry is famous for, among other things, looking at the salt and pepper shakers Majel Barrett had just bought for their dinner table and seeing alien spacecraft. When I was a kid I designed a whole fleet of spacecraft based on tape dispensers, pencil sharpeners and other classroom gadgets.

That’s your assignment, if you want to play along: to look at something mundane as if you have never seen it before. If you were a member of a xeno-archaeological team from a society alien to the one that produced these artifacts, how would you describe them to HQ? If you were an intrepid explorer and encountered one of these in the depths of a jungle, or you awoke to find one sitting in your driveway—in other words if you encountered this object outside of its familiar context what would you make of it? What do you think it might be used for? What part might it play in the story of someone who finds it?

tape dispenserOh, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be this exact object. When I did this w?orkshop for my writer’s group (a shout out to the Space Cadets of the Sacramento Suburban Writers), a travel writer, who had never even dreamed of attempting a work of fiction decided the tape dispenser she’d picked up was discovered by a race of tiny creatures exploring Earth. Her narrative of the barbaric nature of a species who clearly sacrificed people on the jagged blade and tossed their bodies into the pit to be crushed by a huge roller was vivid and hair-raising.

So pick up an artifact and study it. Look at it as if you’ve never seen it before. Then write about it any way you choose. If you’re short of imagination for context, just pretend you’re literally reporting on it to your survey team leader. Be sure to speculate about what you think it is and how you think it’s used and why. Try to imagine it in use. Imagine someone having a personal encounter with this thing. What is that like?

Really, you can do this while you’re cooking dinner, doing laundry, sitting and staring aimlessly at your note pad or computer screen, or hanging out at Starbucks.  Find an ordinary human artifact in your environment, and write, or at least think about it as if you’d never seen it before.  No matter in what genre you write, it may help unlock new perspectives on familiar surroundings and hopefully give you practice putting into words what cannot be put into words. If you want to see a sample of this type of alien thinking can result in a publishable story, read The Secret Life of Gods (one of my Rhys Llewellyn stories from Analog magazine, now on BVC).

To close out this series of writing tips, I’d like to share some more from Laurence Block’s fount of wisdom (from Spider, Spin Me a Web). I love this guy.

  • All writers are one of a kind:  Our writings reflect ourselves and our individual worlds. I can’t write someone else’s book and no one else can write mine….?
  • Successful writers are an inspiration: When another writer achieves something, I can extend my realization of what exists to be achieved…?
  • I can learn something from everything I read: The strengths that I perceive in another person’s work are not evidence of my own weakness.  They help me to do my own best work, rather than indict me for not doing someone else’s work.  They point out, not my own limitations, but my infinite potential.

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A Creative Exercise: Writing as Archaeology — 4 Comments

  1. I suggest that my writing class do this with the Yellow Pages. It’s like divination — you take the YP and let it flop open. Let us say that the category on that page is Landscape Design. What -do- the locals do about landscape design on, say, Mars? How would the Elves of Mirkwood design landscape?

  2. Good exercise! Anything that will get the mind to look at the mundane through alien eyes, or imagine how aliens might do X can yield interesting results.

    I have to say, too, that I’m usually leery of writing “exercises”. Take “journaling” (verbing weirds language!). I’ve never been able to do that or consider it really writing, for me. I tend to put my life into my characters in little bits and pieces, such that my childhood is documented in my stories, blogs and essays.

    But I have to say that I’ve gotten some of my favorite stories out of making an effort to think about what the mundane tasks of the alien or the magical might look like. Or to see the mundane through alien or magical eyes.

  3. I forget who it was whose favorite gambit was the YP, but it is not original with me. (Farmer? Heinlein? Somebody like that.)