What to do there and why it’s good for you
A guest post by Shaun Levin
I like taking notes. I believe in the importance of notebooks. If you don’t trust me, listen to Joan Didion. A notebook is like a dream diary but for when you’re out of bed. It doesn’t need a plan or a story or a novel that’s being worked on; just an openness to what’s out there, and a quiet faith that whatever gets written will find a place in the greater project that is your work. Below are a few more places to write, with suggestions of what to do there. Many of the suggested exercises would work in other places, too.
“The habit of note taking is obviously compulsive . . . Our culture’s need to pigeonhole everything is defeated in these notebooks. Spontaneity rules here. The writer incorporates chances and makes do with the unforeseen.”
A is for Art Gallery
What to do there: Pick a painting to work with. Go for something figurative. Tell its story in detail as if you’re describing a scene. Stay within the frame. Focus on describing what you see before moving into “story”. When you’ve written for at least 20 minutes, allow yourself only one reference to what’s going on beyond the frame. Come back to describing what’s in the frame. For inspiration on ways to use your description in a story, read Don Delilo’s story ‘Baader-Meinhof’.
Why it’s good for you: Discipline. Playing with restrictions. Ekphrasis expands your repertoire.
A is also for: Aviary, Amusement Park, Airport,
B is for Beauty Salon
What to do there: Write about bodies and body language. Write about different parts of the body and how they are treated: nails, hair, body hair, the face. Notice how people touch each other and avoid touching. Write about what people do to their bodies and have done to them. Follow one person and record what they do. Later, rewrite this as a set of actions or instructions to an understudy. For an example of how it’s done, read Jamaica Kincaid’s story ‘Girl’.
Why it’s good for you: Observing body language. Experimenting with list stories. See also Joe Brainard’s book I Remember.
B is also for: Bus, Boat, Bookshop, Bakery, Barbers, Bank.
C is for Cemetery
What to do there: Create a map of the cemetery as you walk through it. Approach it as if it were a town or a village. Write about what goes on underground. Explore the past (the dead), the present (nature), and the future (this place in 100 years time). Start with the word “dead” and end your piece with the word “life” (or the opposite way round).
Why it’s good for you: Write about what isn’t usually written about. Find unique places, unique perspectives, unique approaches to telling a story. Setting yourself a final word or phrase gets your subconscious working towards it.
C is also for: Circus, Cellar, Cathedral or Church, Canal, Cinema, Cafe, Convent.
D is for Department Store
What to do there: Buy three gifts (or imagine what you’d buy) for 1. an ex-lover. 2. a person you’ve not yet met. 3. pure self-indulgence. Make this a meditation on gifts. Tell the story of seven gifts you’ve either given or received in your lifetime. Choose gifts from different times in your life, or seven gifts from a single occasion. Call your piece something like “Seven Bar-mitzah Presents.” To do more research into the theme of gifts and creativity, read Lewis Hyde’s book,The Gift.
Why it’s good for you: Exploring the stories contained in objects. Start a story with an intention (gifts) but be open to the possibility that other themes might emerge (loss, generosity, disappointment, gratitude).
D is also for: Dentist, Desert.
E is for Emergency Room (ER)
What to do there: Watch and write. Write about different times you’ve been to A&E or the ER. Focus on the staff. The doctors, nurses, cleaners, x-ray technicians, volunteers. Eavesdrop or talk to people. Later, or while you’re there, connect the people into a story. As you write, discover who the main character is, the one who holds the story together. For one example, read Denis Johnson’s story ‘Emergency’. Or, if you’re like me, you’ve watched all seasons of Nurse Jackie multiple times!
Why it’s good for you: Gets you to explore work environments and complex relationships between people who don’t live together. Observation constitutes knowledge.
E is also for: Estuary, Elevators and Escalators, Employment Office.
F is for Funfair
What to do there: Write about sounds. Wrestle with the challenge of putting sounds into words. And colours, and lights. As you write, turn what you’re writing into a dreamscape. Keep coming back to the anchor phrase: “Last night he dreamt that…” or: “Last night she dreamt that…” Incorporate what you see, but go wild, too. Add impossible feats and mythological creatures, obstacles, add people from your past or your character’s past and future. For inspiration, read the hallucinating scene in Tim O’Brien’s story ‘On the Rainy River’.
Why it’s good for you: Sometimes a phrase can launch a story. “Last night we dreamt that…” is enough to create a dream.
F is also for: Forest, Fire Station.
G is for Garage
What to do there: Garage as in auto repair shop. Create an inventory of the place and explore the vocabulary of a specific place. Write about hammer and wrench as both nouns and verbs. Spanner, tire, hood, bonnet. Play with the words, stretch them, find out their multiple meanings, how malleable they can be. Note down how people in the garage use those words. See also above, E for ER.
Why it’s good for you: Grows your vocabulary and gives you insight into another world.
G is also for: Gurdwara, Garden, Grocers.
H is for Hotel Lobby
What to do there: Your goal is 1000 words in an hour. Take a writer-friend with you. Order something to drink. Coffee will do, but if you want to write drunk, go for it! She did (though Hemingway didn’t). Write about the setting. Jot down overheard dialogue. Tell the story of someone waiting for a lover, or an interview, or the person they’re following. Don’t talk to your friend until you’re done. Remember: 1000 words! If you’re alone, do it twice, a day or a week apart. Notice how our view of the same thing (though it’s never the same) changes from day to day, minute to minute. You can’t step into the same hotel lobby twice! Listen to Anne Enright on 200 words a day.
Why it’s good for you: Push yourself. Notice how we respond differently to the same stimuli. The only story you can write is your experience of the world.
H is also for: Hospital, Harbour, Hammock, Hut.
I is for Intersection
What to do there: Sketch the intersection. Write about shapes and signs. Write about angles. Explore how people and traffic use the intersection – if you can view it from a bird’s-eye view, great; if not, write what youimage it would look like from above. Describe how the roads connect and how the intersection is organised. Find ways to echo those shapes in your story: a cross, a circle, alternating dark and light stripes. For added value, imagine the intersection’s history (you can do the actual research later); what was here 10 years ago? 100? 500?
Why it’s good for you: Gets you thinking about the shape of places and how to create echoes in a story.
I is also for: Island.
J is for Junkyard
What to do there: Take pictures. This will also work in a charity shop or thrift store. Anywhere with a lot of “stuff”! Take close-up shots and panoramic views. Print out the pictures and arrange and rearrange them until you have a sequence that excites you. Now write. This could be another story about “things.” It could also be the setting of a scene for a bigger story. No plan. Just faith that something will emerge.
Why it’s good for you: Gets you thinking about the structure of a story and how the sequence of a story is a choice and can be switched around.
J is also for: Jumble Sale, Jeweller’s.
K is for KFC
What to do there: Write down overheard dialogue. Start small and simple. Take your time. This story is going to get big. Your aim is to use the story of a fast food joint as a launching pad for tackling the big issues of today. Let the story grow. Global warming, racism, battery farming, sexism, homophobia, capitalism. This is your take on where the world’s attention is at this point in time. For a good example of big themes in a “small” story, read Tim Winton’s book Breath.
Why it’s good for you: Give yourself license to take on big themes. Explore the layers in a story. Contrasts of private and global. For more thoughts on layering a story, I wrote a short piece about a sense of movement in a story that you can check out here.
K is also for: Kitchen. There must be other spaces starting with K, but enough for now!
The second half of the A to Z of Places to Write can be seen here.
Shaun Levin is the author of Seven Sweet Things, Snapshots of The Boy, and Trees at a Sanatorium. His short stories have been anthologised alongside writers such as Ali Smith, Nadine Gordimer, and Edmund White. He also creates Writing Maps and runs Treehouse Press. See more at shaunlevin.com and writingmaps.com.