Want To Make Your Brain Sweat?

Warning: The real purpose of this article is to get you to do some writing exercises. However, once started, those exercises can become seriously addictive. So think carefully before you read any further, because once you are hooked on this habit – honestly – only God knows where you might end up!

I often have people ask me where I come up with the ideas for my novels. There are many answers to that question, but one of those answers is that while doing a simple writing exercise one night, I found myself in the middle of a brand new novel about people, places, and events that I had never before considered for a story. My original intent, as I planned this article, was just to respond to this question about my own ideas. But as I pondered writing this for my readers, I decided that perhaps many of you would like to experiment with these exercises as well, so I’ve included some specific instructions in this article.

Now, back to my personal experience: At the time, I was in the middle of working on two separate books, but one evening, I just felt blah about working on either of them. I wasn’t experiencing anything like “writer’s block.” In fact, I’m not sure I really even believe that there is such a thing. But that’s a different subject. This particular evening, I was just not in the mood to “work” on either project – or to do anything else significant for that matter. That’s when I decided to do what I often had my creative writing students do in order to keep themselves honed: work on a writing exercise.

These writing exercises are similar to the “challenges” and “prompts” that WordPress offers in an effort to give their bloggers ideas to write about. The main difference between those prompts and the exercises is that, with the WP prompts, you can take your time and think, organize your ideas, and tweak things as you go. Not so with the exercises. One of the primary components of these writing calisthenics is to force yourself to give your innermost imagination totally free rein to dig deeply into that gold-mine of creativity that lies within.

You must write for the specified amount of time, and you must not stop to consciously “think” about what’s coming next. It’s a little like those psychological tests where the doctor says a word, and you must respond with the “very first” word that pops into your mind. You know: automatic reflex. So in order to get any good out of the exercises at all, you must be absolutely honest with yourself. If you cheat and “stop to think,” you’ve already lost a chance at the “gold” that’s lies deep within your own personal mine.

The basics are as follows: Decide on an allotted time span (3 minutes, 5 minutes, 15 minutes …). Grab the very first 2-word phrase that pops into your mind. (This can be done with only one word or with a 5-word phrase as well, but I’m just giving you an example. And it’s good to sit down once in a while and just jot down little phrases like that in a notebook so that they will be available for this kind of exercise whenever you’re in the mood.) Now, DON’T THINK about the 2-word phrase. Just write it onto the sheet of paper in front of you. Once you have written down those words, KEEP WRITING. Do not stop for any reason – especially not to think or plan what’s coming next. I keep repeating that part because that’s where everybody tends to bog down. (I know: I’m sounding like a teacher now, right?)

Now … back to my own experience once more: When I decided, on that fateful evening, to accept the challenge of doing an exercise, I sat down to the computer without any preconceived notions and just literally grabbed the very first two words that popped into my head. They were the words “peanut shells.” I was totally surprised. There was nothing going on in my life at the time that would have given me any expectation of those words being at the “top” of my thoughts. But I wrote down those two words and – without any further conscious thought – kept writing.

In this case, I didn’t bother with a time limit, because I was wanting something to do for a while anyway. I wrote until nothing was flowing freely any longer. By that time I had almost two chapters of a brand new novel, and I was so into the story that I felt it was going to be one of my best. It isn’t quite finished yet, although the ending is written. I know everything else that needs to go into it, but my “day job” has kept me from getting it completely finished.

I will throw in another thought here as well: One of the perks I’ve enjoyed as a creative writing teacher is that I’ve had many opportunities to work closely with some extremely gifted young people. It is such a pleasure to see what they are capable of, and this kind of exercise has gleaned some very good results for – and from – many of them. Generally, in the classroom, I have the students draw from a list of words or phrases that were made up by someone else, so that we are positive that no preconceived ideas got in the way. A few of their exercises have led to pieces that have been, not only fun, but quite funny as well. At the end of this article, I will share two of them that I think you will enjoy.

So … can we expect that every such exercise will bring us literary gold from which we can glean articles that will sell? No. Of course not. But if you want to write and enjoy all the pleasures and treasures that can come from that kind of career – or hobby – doing these exercises on a somewhat regular basis will eventually lead to a wealth of material that can be used in any number of projects that lie ahead. And periodically, there will be one that really will launch you into an entire book within a matter of minutes. Actually, even if you don’t particularly want to write professionally, but you just enjoy new challenges to your intellect and creativity, these exercises offer a storehouse of enjoyment.

Now, if you would like to try some of these exercises and would like to share what you come up with, you are very welcome to post a comment on here that includes your final product – or post it on your own blog and give us the link. But remember: DO NOT do any serious editing. I realize that you will automatically tend to stop typing and hit the “backspace” key if you see a typo pop onto the page, but try to hold the “backtracking” to a minimum. One thing that will help is to remember that this is not a “typing test.” You don’t have to type “fast.” Just don’t stop writing to mull over ideas before you put them down. And if you feel you are extremely slow with the keyboard, you might want to write your article by hand and then type it for posting. (But remember: no re-writing while you type.)

If, when you’re done, you have some typos, misspelled words, or punctuation that will make your article too difficult to read, then go ahead and correct those. But please do not sit and re-write sections before you share them with us. We will automatically assume that you would go back and make corrections and bring the article up to publication level before doing anything professional with it. Remember: these are “exercises.” You expect to look slightly grungy when the workout is just finished. The rest of us will not read your work as editors; we will just enjoy the fun of finding out – along with you – just how creative you really are.

5 Minutes:

If you are going to try an exercise, here’s what I suggest for the first time. Set a timer for 5 minutes. Choose a word or phrase from the lists I provide below. Write it down and don’t stop writing, no matter what, until the timer goes off. When the timer goes off, you may finish the sentence you are in the process of writing, but no more.

Now, if you find yourself on a roll, and you think you have something that may be growing into a piece you really want to publish, don’t stop writing completely. Do this: Mark the place where you were when the timer went off, but then keep writing. If you decide to share what you wrote in the 5-minute limit, give us just that amount.

And please do not feel obligated to share what you have written. You may want to do these exercises on a regular basis for your own sake and never share them with anyone. That’s perfectly fine as well. After all, the real purpose is for you to discover that creative gold inside. I’d just like to give you an opportunity to share if you feel inclined to do so. You can type the whole exercise into the Comment box attached to this article, or you may just put a link there to the exercise on your own site.

To All My POET Friends: I’ve never tried these exercises with poetry personally. I’m sure it’s more of a challenge for you because of not being allowed to stop and think of rhyming words. But if any of you are interested enough to try it, I’d really like to know what you come up with.

ONE FINAL IMPORTANT NOTE: Please bear in mind that my site is one that is devoted to wholesome and family-friendly material. If you find that you have written a piece that does not fall into that category, please do not share it on this site. Just think G / PG rating, and you will be fine.

Word List: (Must be the very first word in your piece)





Phrase List: (Must be the very first words of your piece)

the doorbell rang

I can’t see you

never again

in the laundry room

~      ~      ~

Here are two examples of results from writing exercises that you may enjoy.

Both of these pieces were the work of a high school junior named Joanna Allen, who holds the copyright. They have since been published in a book entitled Imagination X 6, which includes a variety of works by high school students.

Exercise # 1: The phrase “don’t eat that” had to be used as the first words of the piece.

Don’t eat that piece of gum your sister dropped on the floor! She was at school today, and she borrowed some gum from her friend. That friend has a father who is a professor of chemistry at the university. They are working with the CIA to devise a gum that they will give to foreign diplomats who are causing America problems.

The gum contains a chemical that they will ingest into their system. That chemical will kill them and their advisers within two weeks. The advisers will die by breathing their diplomat’s breath.

Then we will choose each of those countries a new diplomat with whom we can reason. So … don’t eat that!

Exercise # 2 Student was given one word: Period. It had to be used in the very first sentence of the piece.

Where is your period, Natalie?” her teacher asked.

I am truly sorry, Mrs. Conner, but you see, as I was trying to finish my rough draft, a bolt of lightning hit my computer, and then my dog went crazy, jumped up on my desk, and snatched my homework right out of my printer. I chased after him, but by the time I retrieved my homework, it was all wet and unreadable.

My dad went to Best buy and bought a new laptop, but when he got home, he told me I had to be in bed by 11:00. We set it up really fast, and at 10:59, I finished my paper with the last sentence. But before I could add the last punctuation mark, the clock chimed 11:00, and I had to go to bed. And that’s what happened to my period.”

~      ~      ~


12 thoughts on “Want To Make Your Brain Sweat?

  1. Here you go. Here is 5 min worth of writing. I started with “blue”

    Bluebirds are a bird I don’t get to see too often. When we volunteered at the Avon Park AF Range in Avon Park FL, we we assigned to clean the Bluebird houses on the Bluebird Trail. They had 100 houses that we on posts every 1/2 to 3/4 mile apart. The whole trail was 78 miles long.

    The Boy Scouts had apparently put them up several years prior. We had to clean them out and also fix the shields that were around the posts to keep snakes and other critters away from them.

    They had fledged 467 bluebirds the year before and we were glad to be able to help them out. Needless to say, we did not do it in a day. It took almost a week to get to most of them. Several were not done due to being in water.

    1. Wow, not only did you get through a lot of material in the 5 minutes, but it is all really interesting. I can’t imagine facing that many birdhouses that need so much work.

      1. It was quite enjoyable actually. We found little fruit bats in 3 of them. We had been told to leave them be and mark them as “off-line” for that year. It got us out in the field and got to do some birdwatching also. We volunteered there for 4 months.

  2. Ok, you said this could be addictive. I even downloaded a free timer (Cool Timer) from CNET so I could time this. With this one, I am out of here. I do need to get back to my blog writing.

    The doorbell rang, which was a miracle. Lately the doorbell has acted up and doesn’t always work. Sometimes it does a 1/2 ring when no one is there. So, I hesitated to go to the door, because of our flaky doorbell. When I got to the door, there stood my sister from Colorado. I had no idea she was coming here for a visit.

    I let her in after a big hug and greeting. Of course the house was not picked up because of working on my blog all the time.

    She overlooked the clutter and we sat down for a long and joyful chat. Later went out and got her suitcase and settled in for a very enjoyable visit.

    She stayed for 2 weeks and we did all kinds of things and of course did some bird watching.

      1. No, the event didn’t happen, but the doorbell does act up now and then.
        PS I just put a link to this site in my sidebar under Favorites.

        1. Bless you. I hope a lot of people come and just try out the exercises. They are fun and often a really good way to de-stress. And for those who are serious about writing, these kinds of exercises really are beneficial in a number of ways. Thanks for joining in. If you decide to do some more, feel free to pass them on.

  3. ALWAYS WITH ME Words and Music 2011, by Max C. Hanson

    Everywhere I go I know
    Jesus goes with me.
    Everything I try to do,
    He’s There Guiding me.

    And when I try to plan my way
    And pitfalls fail to see,
    He gently nudges me around —
    Keeps me on task and free.

    When I fret over details,
    He lifts my eyes ahead,
    Reminds me to trust in Him;
    Nothing there to dread.

    I feel,His presence at my side
    Throughout all of my days;
    Just as He said so long ago,
    “Lo, I’m with you Always!
    Waiting for my younest son to stop by my motel room to say goodbye before I headed back home from a recent visit to Aledo, IL to see my family and a few old friends, I set my keyboard on the small table to get in some practice and rehearsal for my one-man keyboard show. After about an hour, I began to unwind by randomly playing favorite tunes as they came to mind.

    Suddenly I found myself playing a new melody, measure after measure, over and over again. I liked it. I was so taken with it, that I began to experiment with different sequences of the various measures until I found a sequence I could play consistently.

    And then the words came! Desperately I grabbed a sheet of paper on which I had made some notes, flipped it over, and scrawled the lyrics on the back!
    The lyrics wouldn’t wait; scribbling was the best I, a slow and aging writer could do to stay even with them; it was a frantic race! The lyrics (yeah, I could make them out — just barely) and music notations required only a second draft for then final version. I usually have to do six to twelve re-writes before a poem song is ready to show to, or play for, other people.
    God’s hand is clearly visible in the writing of this song. I have to sing: “Have thine own way, Lord; Thou art the
    Songwriter; I only press the keys and hold the pen!”
    Max Carty Hanson

    1. Glad to see you made it on here, Max. Great example of how a whole piece can come together in just one moment of time. When you get time, give the exercise a try with something from the lists. You might come up with another brand new song.

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