You’ll need a pen

Last night I taught writing games to my Toastmaster’s group. It was my turn to play Toastmistress, and I like to intersperse the speeches with something fun. I taught them all about a surrealistic technique called Exquisite corpse. This method introduces random bits of serendipity into writing, poetry and even artwork. You may have even played a variation on it at a party.

It works like this. Everyone starts with a big sheet of paper, writing down the first line of a story or poem. The line doesn’t have to be finished, and it doesn’t have to be brilliant. It just has to be there, and the more quickly you can write this, the better. The sheet of paper is then passed to the right, where the next person writes something to follow it. The sheet of paper is then folded backwards so that only the most recent line is visible. The paper is passed, and another line is written. At some point, everyone is alerted that they will be writing the last line. Once that is done, the masterpieces are read out loud. It’s a funny thing, too, because the resulting works can be funny, deep or bizarre but they are almost always good in some way. The collective consciousness knows what it’s doing. The instinctual line is often best.

These little corpses can then provide inspiration for entire works. The visual version folds over the paper and only leaves a few lines extending for the next person to work from. Sometimes the game specifies that an anthropomorphic figure is being drawn, sometimes it doesn’t.

I’ll leave you with another party variation. It’s called Eat Poop You Cat and it’s played like this: The first line is a phrase or sentence, sometimes well-known, sometimes not. The next person does a drawing or pictogram of the sentence and folds. The following person writes down what they thought the sentence was from the drawing, and so on. It ends with words. The results are read aloud with the displayed pictures so that it can be seen whether any of the original phrases remained intact. They often don’t. I encourage you to try these games. It’ll stimulate your creativity, and it’s a whole lot of fun with a few sheets of paper.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

176. Next time you’ve got a group of people together, try one of these games. No artistic or writing ability is needed. You may be impressed with the results.

Links, should you desire them:


The sky was gray

The woman at the bus stop was telling her boyfriend how bad her job was. While she talked she fingered her curly blond hair. Her complaint was punctuated by the snapping of gum in a rhythm as steady as raindrops hitting a tin roof.

“I mean, she gave me a half an hour lecture on Wite-Out—how to use it, where to put it back, and she told me not to take her bottle. It was insane! I mean, I’m twenty-five years old! I know how to use Wite-Out.” The boyfriend grunted sympathetically. Off to the other side a teenager slumped against a post, his headphones so loud that some kind of disco music was leaking out the sides. His jeans were pulled down low, the crotch falling somewhere around his knees, hobbling him. In the street horns were honking, and I could hear cars rolling by. Occasionally there would be another song to mix with the kid’s headphone noise, as vehicles with open windows cruised on past.

The air was fresh, still damp and clean from a recent rain. I was grateful for that, because sometimes the bus shelters have a funk about them, a certain smell that reminds me of all the alcoholics we have out on the street. Instead the scent in the air was damp earth with the slight undercurrent of exhaust which lingers near any roadway.

My heels were a little sore from dancing, and I rested against the bus sign, so that the sidewalk would not take my full weight. It helped a bit. I was looking forward to getting home; looking forward to the tangy zip of the gazpacho I had planned for dinner.

Today’s little slice of Seattle was brought to you by the five senses. Including a little bit from each sense helps a scene come to life, to inhabit a reader’s brain. This skill is helpful for writers, but is applicable to anyone—when you’re telling a story to someone, you want them to know what it was like to be there. Make them feel it with you, and you’ll captivate your listener every time.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

96. Describe something that happened today. How did it smell, feel, taste, sound and look? Do you remember more because you used all your senses? Is the telling more vivid?

Sign me up

Tonight I’m going to a speech contest for my local Toastmasters organization. I will be greeting observers, supporting my competing friends, and helping to get the work of the evening done. I’m really looking forward to it.  

Some people are not joiners, but I am. Writing is solitary in some ways, and I need time alone each day to think and to create. I also need the company of others who are trying to achieve the same goals, who are striving to become better. We help each other out. Writing groups increase the learning curve as long as the people in the groups write and share their work. Some groups are all talk and no pen on paper.  That doesn’t help anybody.

I joined Toastmasters for my writing. It helps me with poetry performance, and I want to be ready for those book tours later in my career. I was already a good speaker, but I knew I could become even better with the feedback of others. Toastmasters has a proven training program, and I’ve learned a lot by watching my fellow speakers. The polished orators within the group are great teachers, and so are those speakers who still need improvement. Bad speakers teach you what not to do. Badly-written books do the same thing—they alert you to what doesn’t work.

People with the same interests understand each other’s needs and desires. I’ve joined a local country dance group, and we were meeting in a church rec room the other day. One of the more practiced dancers was helping me with my two-step. I was doing okay, and he said “now we’ve got to get you into some cowboy boots.” The slippery bottom will help my foot slide properly during a waltz, and the heel will make a more satisfying stomp when I’m line dancing. He told me where to go find them, too. I’d never even envisioned myself in cowboy boots—I wouldn’t have made that leap on my own. I was excited, and shared that with another dancer. She proudly showed me her first pair, now scuffed by the year’s dancing. I can’t wait to scuff my own.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

63. What are your interests? Check out groups devoted to that interest and see about dropping into a meeting.

Fly me to the moon

Last night I got an aviation lesson, a hands-on practicum in the art of flying by the seat of my pants. I was not trained at SeaTac airport. Instead, I took the instruction at a Toastmasters meeting. This club is a lovely thing, an organization based on improving public speaking skills in a socially supportive setting. It works for those who are afraid to make even the tiniest audible peep—which is not me—and for those who would like to become better at skills they already have. I am always working on improving my speaking, and the group helps me a lot. We support each other in mutual progress.


Yesterday evening our Toastmaster fell ill. It was his job to act as a master of ceremonies, to run the whole show. The Toastmaster also provides entertaining filler in between the speakers and other events of the meeting. With two hours notice I was assigned the job. My improvised theme was “flying by the seat of your pants,” a term which comes from the early days of aviation when pilots had to rely more on their wits than instrumentation. I had fun, and it made me think about ways that I’ve been introducing more of this improvisational feeling into my daily writing and art practices.

I’ve recently taken up visual journaling and am drawing every day in a blank book. I am using disposable technical pens for these forays onto paper. This is scary but exhilarating. I want to get things perfect, and I can do that if I use pencils. I can erase and redraw as many times as I need to get the angle of each line just right. In pen I’ve got one shot—if I put a person’s nose in the wrong place it stays there. This has been great for me, because I am learning to look more carefully before I place the first line. I’ve also learned to enjoy the wobbly imperfections that come about as I commit unpremeditated art. There’s a lot of imperfections to appreciate.

Spontaneous writing exercises are also a great way to keep flexible. I’ll tell you more about that Friday. Tomorrow will be something else entirely. Curious? Come back and see me! 

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

24. Take out a pen and draw something in your immediate surroundings. Do not erase. Honor the imperfections in your little masterpiece.