C. M. MAYO
Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.

C.M. Mayo < For Writers <

GIANT GOLDEN BUDDHA
& 364 MORE 5 MINUTE WRITING EXERCISES

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March 1 "IfDuh!"
This is a simple exercise in writing comedy. In an interview in Esquire (I think it was) a couple of years ago, actor Benicio del Toro said, "if my aunt had balls, she'd be my uncle." The other week on TV, I heard actor Jimmy Fallon say (more or less), "If George Washington were alive today, he'd be, like, oh my god, I'm 274 years old, what's wrong with me? Why can't I die?" The exercise is this: take some phrase that begins with "if" and then, as did del Toro and Fallon, tack on the "duh"
the absurdly obvious conclusion. Do as many as you can in 5 minutes.

March 2 "Orange Traffic Cone, etc"
Write a brief scene that incorporates the following: an orange traffic cone; a miniature cat; fried fish; velcro; Teddy Roosevelt; polkadots.

March 3 "The Piano Tuner"
Describe the piano tuner. What did he do to the piano bench?

March 4 "Princess Di"
This is an exercise to explore and help round out one of your characters. Take one you have already written about, or that you have in mind to write about, and answer the following questions in a single sentence. The first thing that pops into your mind is usually the most revealing. (And by the way, this can be a helpful exercise even if your character lives in a different time period.)
~What would he/ she think of Princess Di?
~If he or she were to have met Princess Di in person, how would he or she have behaved? (Be as specific as possible.)
~If he/ she were to come across a book about Princess Di, what would he/she do with it?
~What would he/ she think of Princess Di's marriage?
~Of Princess Di's affair with Dodi?
~What would he/she believe about Princess Di's death?
~What would he/ she do or say (and to whom?) upon learning the news of Princess Di's death?
If you have time, make up and answer more questions along these same lines.

March 5 "A Little Scene"
The aunt loves to play the piano but she has arthritis. Her neice comes to visit. The neice offers to play the piano. Write the scene.

March 6 "60 versus 16"
Suppose you are, or your character is 60 years old. In your (or his/her) opinion, in what ways does a 16 year old lack wisdom and/or perspective?

March 7 "Montage"
In a movie, montage creates the story / context by juxtposing images. For example, (1) we see a field of mud; then, (2) we see a plow cutting into the earth; then, (3), a farmer wiping his brow as he looks off into the distance. Thus, we assume we are being shown a farmer plowing his field. There is a direct anaology in writing
we can take out what I call the "filters" (e.g., "he looked"; "she noticed"; "they saw") as well as much needless explanation by using montage. Here is an example:

The door banged shut.
The cat leapt down from the top shelf.
The room smelled of burnt tuna fish.
She set her bag on the table.
Geese cried in the distance.
"Where is the bag?" he cried.
She spoke to him from the opposite side of the refrigerator.
"We're not going."

Try taking these same lines and rearranging them to create a completely different scene. Then, create your own montage.

March 8 "Curtains of Paperclips"
In an art show in Mexico City as an installation piece, an artist had strung together thousands of paperclips and hung them in several rows, like a series of curtains over open doorways. Walking through these curtains of shimmering silver paperclips was quite an experience. The writing exercise is this: take three ordinary, everyday objects (such as paperclips or, say, bottlecaps, or milk cartons) and briefly describe three "installation pieces" you might make from them.

March 9 "Rollercoaster Ride"
From the point of the view of the person riding in the front row of the car, describe a rollercoaster ride. Then go back and see how you can revise to make the sound and rhythm of the writing reenforce the meaning.

March 10 "Your Dentist's Waiting Room"
This is an exercise in really probing your memory for specific detail. Describe your dentist's waiting room.

March 11 "Gone Fishing"
Bob and Joe went out in their canoe. What they reeled in was not a fish. What was it?

March 12 "Ten Hands"
Describe five different pairs of hands. (Some things to consider might be color; teture; shape; symmetry; condition; scars; tattoos; jewlery; etc.) For each pair of hands assign a name and a profession.
C.M. Mayo's podcast "How to Break a Block" includes this 5 minutetimed exercise.



March 13 "Fruit Galore"
Make a list of all the different kinds of fruit you can think of: bananas, apples, pomegranites, etc. Once you've completely run out, go back and circle the three you like best. Circle the three that you like least. Circle the three that you have thought about the least in the past year. Finally, circle the one you find most ugly; and the one you find most beautiful.

March 14 "Vegetables Galore"
Make a list of all the different kinds of vegetables you can think of: potatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, etc. Once you've completely run out, go back and circle the three you like best. Double circle the three that you like least. Triple circle the three that you have thought about the least in the past year.
Underline the one(s) you have no idea how to cook. Double underline the ones you have eaten this week. Finally, cross out the one you find most ugly; and draw a star over the one you find most beautiful.

March 15 "Napo Says"
One way to bring energy into your writing is to bring in other voices. Try this: write somethin
anything that includes at least two of the following quotations by Napoleon I:
"There is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous"
"[The Channel] is a mere ditch"
"Not tonight Josephine"
"An army marches on its stomach"

March 16 "Dogs-o-rama"
Briefly describe the following dogs:
~The one you own now (if you own one)
~The one that lives closest to your current residence
~The last one you happened to have seen (other than your own dog, if you own a dog)
~Your favorite dog
~Your least favorite dog
~Lassie (from TV)
~The Taco Bell Chihuahua
~The first dog you ever owned (if you ever owned one)
~A neighbor's dog in your childhood

March 17 "I Love Her, But"
"I love her, but--- " fill in the blank. (Feel free to change the gender.) Do three different versions, then circle the one you like best. Use this as your first line, and start writing.

March 18 "Cat's Eye View"
Most adults see things at a very few different levels. They lie down, they sit up, they walk around. But what about a cat? It can slink under the bed or leap up into a tree. Imagine you are a cat. Make a list of all the things you might see in and around your residence that the human you normally would not. Be as specific as you can.

March 19 "Shuffle Qs"
This is a wierdly effective exercise for getting insight into your characters.
First, take 6 post-its or 6 small and identical scraps of paper. On each write a number and a question about your character, leaving one side blank.The questions might be, for example, why did he quit school? Or, what does she really think of her best friend? Or, what is going to happen to her in chapter 3? Close your eyes and shuffle them number-side down. Now you have 6 unknown "cards" to draw from. Without peeking, set them aside. Now, take another sheet of paper. What you want to do is hold in your mind the clear intention
crazy as it may seem to you, by the way, it's not crazy at all to your "artist's mind"to answer the questions in the order in which you will draw them from the pile. In other words, you are quieting your conscious, everyday mind, and letting your artist mind take a flying leap.
So, for the first question
without knowing what the question is!as an answer, what pops into your head? Whatever it is, write it down. It will probably be some kind of symbol. Maybe you will see a giant ostrich. Or a car crash. Or a thunderstorm! You might "hear" some words, or suddenly remember the smell of rhubarb pie baking. Whatever, it is, jot it down. (If you hesitate, the exercise does not work nearly as well so KEEP YOUR PEN ON THE PAGE.) (You may find that it helps to first close your eyes and take three long, deep breaths before "receiving" each answer.) Once you have six, then, draw the cards. If, say, you draw #5 first, then that is the question that matches your first answer. And so on. What do your answers tell you?

March 20 "Quilt & Quotient, Etc."
Write a brief scene that includes the following:
~a quilt
~the word "quotient"
~a ball of rubber bands
~a morbidly obese hippopotamus
~the perfume of lillies
~the sound of popcorn underfoot

March 21 "Show Me The Money"
How a character handles their money can be very telling. Does he pay his phone bill on receipt; or, does he file it by due date in a color-coded filing system; or, does he shove it into a pile with the junk? When splitting the bill in a restaurant, does she whip out a calculator and calculate everything to the last penny with a tip of 12%? Or, 20% Or, does she wait, doe-eyed, for someone else to handle it? Using highly specific detail, list your character's actions, feelings, and gestures around money.

March 22 "200 Million Dollar Lottery"
Your character finds a lottery ticket in the street. It turns out to be the winning ticket
$200 million dollars. (If your character is from another century or country, just assume the equivalent amount of resources.) What does he or she do with the money? Be as specific as you can. (What does this reveal about about your character's true desires?)

March 23 "Permutation / Diary"
In a "permutation exercise," one takes a line or more from another work and, keeping the phrasing, inserts one's own nounds and/or verbs and/or adjectives, etc. Here are a few lines from Mary Chestnut's Diary of March 21, 1861:
Dined yesterday at Judge's. Made himself eminently disagreeable. Abusing everything & everybody. Came back & in Camden had a tooth pulled
home miserable with pain found Mrs Reynolds who told me Kitty Boykin is engaged to Mr Savage Heyward, a man twice married & ten children. I do not believe it. Talked all nightexhausted. & nervous & miserable todayraked up & dilated & harrowed up the bitterness of twenty long years all to no purpose. This bitter world.
(From C. Vann Woodward and Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, eds, The Private Mary Chestnut: The Unpublished Civil War Diaries, Oxford University Press, 1984)
The exercise is this: Take her lines and style, but insert your own nouns, adjectives, and/or names, etc.

March 24 "Yellow List"
What things are yellow? Make a list. At the end of the five minutes, circle the three you find most curious.

March 25 "Karl's Scene Objective (Charlie's House)"
In
The Power of the Actor, Ivana Chubbuck shows actors how to use their emotions to empower a goal. Actors identify their characters' overall objective, as well as their scene objective. Applying this to writing, assume your character is "Karl"; his overall objective is to prove that he has high status; his scene objective is to impress "Charlie," his snooty neighborand maybe even take Charlie down a rung. The scene takes place in Charlie's livingroom.

March 26 "Where the Dust Settles"
This exercise is about bringing your attention to highly specific detail. In the room where you are right now, where does the dust settle? (Make a note of the some areas / objects / parts of objects you don't have a word for
later, when you have a chance, look them up in a Visual Dictionary.)

March 27 "Euphemisms"
For example:
~ garbage collector
> "sanitation engineer"
~ tax collection
> Internal Revenue Service
~ innocents killed / injured
> "collateral damage"
Usually euphemisms are made up of latinate words; they tend to sound pompously obscure, as indeed, they are intended to obscure something unpleasant, low-status, or offensive. Have fun with this one! Try concocting euphemisms for the following:
~candy for breakfast
~a defective tricycle
~a gas guzzler
~a ridiculously big bouffant hairdo
~unemployed
~painted the wrong color
~a stolen election / ballot stuffing
~excessive redtape
~a cover-up of heinous corruption
~the dog peed on the carpet
~civil war
~a failing grade
~tax evasion
~a size too small
~this building could not withstand a minor tremor
~the living room is the size of a mop closet
When you've finished, circle your favorite one
and then, sometime today or tomorrow, use it in your writing (even it's just in an e-mail).

March 28 "Image Patterning, Starting with Jell-O"
This is an exercise in working with imagery to create a sense of connectedness within a narrative. Take this as your opening line:
The Jell-O was not his favorite dessert.
Write on
but be sure to use the following imagery (in addition to Jell-O): overdone steak; a barking dog; too much perfume; a squishy blue velvet couch. Then, tie it up with an ending that somehow in some way returns to the Jell-O.

March 29 "Body Language: Two People Talking"
Two people talking usually do a lot more than "smile" and "nod" at each other. One might cross his legs, or, scratch an ankle, or smooth her hair, etc. Then there's interaction between the two: one might reach across the table and lay his hand on top of her wrist. She might touch her own lip, to indicate that he has a crumb of muffin hanging on his, etc. Make a list of all the little (and big) gestures you can think of that two people might make while talking to each other.

March 30 "Improbable Rescue"
In his delightfully wacky
Pronoia Is the Antitode for Paranoia, Rob Brezsny writes:
"Bach's St Matthew Passion is a highly regarded musical composition. Yet the score disappeared and the work wasn't played for years after Bach's death in 1750. In 1829, composer Felix Mendelssohn rediscovered the long-lost manuscript being used as wrapping paper in the estate sale of a deceased cheese salesman. He arranged for a public performance of the piece, and its revival began."
Please note the marvelous specificity: "being used as wrapping paper in the estate sale of a deceased cheese salesman."
Recount
or invent another improbable cultural rescue in 5 sentences or less.

March 31 "Once Upon a Time"
Write the beginning of a story that begins, "Once upon a time."
If you need some more of a nudge: include the following:
a girl named Florinetta; a dog with three legs; a swing; a porch: boiled celery; the air smelling of autumn.

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