These are some of my favourite writing exercises ever, and I keep coming back to exercises like these to flex my writing brain cells. It’s also a really good idea to have these types of exercises handy if your free-writing feels like it’s completely stalled!

Exercise 1: Things I was taught / Things I was not taught

The goal is to elicit fresh and surprising insights into your relationship with family, friends, community, and the world.

How to do it:

  1. Choose an individual. It’s advisable to choose someone who’s been influential in your life.
  2. Create a list of the things that person has taught you. Title the list, “Things that X taught me”.
  3. Create a list of the things that person did not teach you. Title the list, “Things that X did not teach me.”

Exercise 2: I want to know why

The goal of this exercise is to identify gaps in your understanding or knowledge in order to generate raw material for short stories.

How to do it:

  1. Create a list of at least ten items that fit into the category of things not known. You can impose constraints to avoid abstraction and “large” topics, or you can limit the things not known to things like events of the past week, encounters with a certain person etc., if it feels daunting.
  2. Do a free-write based on one of them.

Exercise 1: Things Oscar taught me

  • He taught me that tomcats aren’t broken, it’s simply natural for them to sound like hunting horns, as heard up close.
  • He taught me that it’s always nicer to have someone sit with you when you’re sitting quietly.
  • He taught me that unjudging companionship is the best salve when you’re wallowing in your mistakes and failures.
  • He taught me that a cat is more like a weird roommate that poops in a box than a pet.
  • He taught me that cats have actual magical powers of healing that they can use on you when you’re really sick. If you’re deemed worthy, of course.
  • He taught me never to put down a crocheting project or leave it unsupervised unless I was ready to have it shredded with his love of kneading.
  • He taught me that a purr is one of the best sounds in the world.
  • He taught me how comforting it is to have someone in your life who’s ready to take a nap at the drop of a hat.

Things Oscar didn’t teach me:

  • How to find another just like him. Can there even be?
  • How to pet him without making him slobber like a dog three times his size.
  • How to come across one of his things after he died and not cry.
  • How to get anyone to forgive you, no matter what you did, with just a soft nudge.
  • How to sing the song of my ancestors in the middle of the night so that the whole building wakes up.

Exercise 2: I want to know why (limitation: plants):

  1. I’m always drawn to the plants in the supermarket.
  2. I have an urge to buy more plants when we have no space for them.
  3. I kill so many plants with overwatering even after I’ve learned how to tell if they need more water or not.
  4. My plants get those stupid little bugs out of nowhere.
  5. My plants never look as good as other people’s plants I see on social media.
  6. Our neighbour is so good at growing tomatoes on the balcony and I’m not.
  7. I get really into plants, buy lots of them, then totally lose interest after a while and forget to water them until I have none left.
  8. I never seem to have the right kind of pot for a plant.
  9. The pot of the parlour palm keeps getting this coating on the rim.
  10. Self-watering pots are so damn confusing.
The free-write:

It seems like I can’t go into the supermarket without being drawn to the plants like a kid in a candy store. I started buying plants when Oscar died, partly, I think, because he thought of himself as an occasional herbivore rather than an exclusive carnivore and would eat anything green in sight, and partly because it gave me something to take care of.

For so long I was his primary caregiver, cleaning his wounds, giving him medicine several times a day, making sure he ate enough and making sure he didn’t just die. It became so normal to constantly check on him, to see if he needed anything. I mean, we all knew he was on the way out, it was just a question of when.

And then that one day, I felt a rush of energy go through me like a huge bird swooping in and just missing my scalp by inches. I thought he’d gotten a sudden burst of energy and gotten the zoomies, but when I turned around he was sound asleep on the bench. And I thought to myself then, “Did he just decide it was time to go?”.

It was the guilt of now knowing if we were waiting too long, making him suffer. But the vet agreed that we were taking good care of him and that it was just a question of time before he got too sick. And he seemed okay. Slept most of the day, ate when he pleased, was active and joined in things where he could just sit or lie and still participate. Until he didn’t.

In the end, there was no question, it was time. And I got that feeling that he’d already made the decision to leave a week before. Not that it made it any easier and it still aches to think that he’s not here anymore. The house feels empty and I sometimes think I still hear him. But then I turn around and he’s not there. So, now I have plants with which to try and fill some of that empty space.

Both these exercises are from The Making of a Story by Alice LaPlante.