Writing Wonder: The Scramble

I asked my friend Cathy to write-up this exercise she introduced me to because it produces such surprising results. We use it often in class, and I also frequently modify it by simply cutting paragraphs and sentences apart to a) find a more compelling start for a story and/or b) to show that story structure can be highly malleable. Use this to shake-up and add verve to your flash writing.

Guest post by Cathy Tenzo

Some afternoon you may sit down to work on your memoir or other piece of writing and find yourself completely blocked. The blank page is staring at you with its accusatory white glare. You are frozen, but you are not doomed.

Usually this sort of thing happens because you are thinking too much. One way to get around your internal editor and to access deeper memories is to try writing exercises. One of my favorite is called “The Scramble” and I learned it from Pat Schneider’s book Writing Alone and with Others.

Step One: Write a short narrative on lined paper about the topic you are trying to discuss. Number the lines. Write large and break the lines wherever they break. I’ll use eighteen lines for my example for the sake of brevity, but any multiple of three will do. You just want to free write—do not invite your internal editor to this party!

Example:

  1. I remember it like it was
  2. yesterday, wearing my green plaid
  3. school jumper, singing hymns in
  4. the church choir like “Michael Row
  5. the Boat Ashore” and “Morning has
  6. Broken”. When I was twelve, the
  7. Monsignor’s mother died and the
  8. choir took a field trip to New York
  9. City. It was really exciting—eating
  10. chicken cacciatore in the Knights of
  11. Columbus hall to celebrate her life and
  12. then we went to the wake.  I had never
  13. seen a dead body before and her lips
  14. were sewn shut with red thread. I will
  15. never forget that moment or the el
  16. trains which roared constantly by during
  17. her funeral, echoing the roar within
  18. my own head while we sang hallelujahs.

Step Two:  Take a new sheet of paper and number the lines 1-3 six times and copy what you wrote the first time, filling in all the ones first, then the twos, then the threes.

Example:

  1. I remember it like it was
  2. Monsignor’s mother died and the
  3. seen a dead body before and her lips
  1. yesterday, wearing my green plaid
  2. choir took a field trip to New York
  3. were sewn shut with red thread. I will
  1. school jumper, singing hymns in
  2. City. It was really exciting—eating
  3. never forget that moment or the el
  1. the church choir like “Michael Row
  2. chicken cacciatore in the Knights of
  3. trains which roared constantly by during
  1. the Boat Ashore” and “Morning has
  2. Columbus hall to celebrate her life and
  3. her funeral, echoing the roar within
  1. Broken”. When I was twelve, the
  2. then we went to the wake.  I had never
  3. my own head while we sang hallelujahs.

Step Three: Look at the results and weird combinations and use that as raw material to find your poem, essay, or story. The exercise is only a starting point. Feel free to discard material and add something new. It’s amazing what you remember when you’re not trying so hard. Here’s the poem I got:

Requiem

I remember it
Monsignor’s mother
her fresh lipstick
her dead lips
pink and puckered

I remember her funeral
the roar within
the roar without
the el train rumbling by
the chicken cacciatore

I wore my green plaid jumper
she wore a smart blue dress
her lips were sewn shut
with startling red thread
I remember it

Cathy Tenzo is an award-winning writer, poet, and historian who helps people write their own memoirs. Check her out at http://cathytenzo.wordpress.com/ and follow the tab to Maypole Memoirs.

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Categories: guest posts, writing exercises

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  1. 3 November 2013 — #haiku & #writing | Haiku Plate Special - November 16, 2013

    […] blog about a writing exercise I love and that she finds helpful in workshops. You can find it here. It inspired a longer poem (at the post) and this shorter […]

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