Monday, January 31, 2011


by Laura Krauss Melmed 

Debbie Levy, author of The Year of Goodbyes (Disney-Hyperion 2010) and Maybe I’ll Sleep in the Bathtub Tonight and Other Funny Bedtime Poems (Sterling 2010) recently encouraged aspiring authors “to play when writing.  If a stream of words is running through your mind, you don’t have to channel it into something with a defined structure right away; get the words on paper (or on the screen) and see where they seem to want to go…whether writing fiction or nonfiction, consider using different formats and points of view.  There’s no one correct way to shape a piece of writing!”

Many books and on-line sources present games designed to stimulate creativity and jump start the process of playing with words.  It is also fun to come up with your own exercises.  Here for starters are several suggestions:

Play with Cut-outs:  Cut out pictures from online or hard copy magazines and newspapers, of subjects that you find compelling, and scatter them on the floor. Then, look out the window or at a blank wall for the time it takes to count ten breaths. Next, look down and pick a picture--do it quickly without giving yourself time to think. Put that picture on a mosaic board. Look at the pattern you've made from those pictures. What sort of mood do they evoke? What narrative do they bring into focus?  Write a narrative weaving together the pictures you’ve selected. (Based on a tip from

Play Story Tennis (requires a partner): One of you writes a few paragraphs of a story. It can be about anything. You then pass it on to your writing partner (email is perfect for this) who then writes the next paragraph and so on and so on. (From the “One of Us” creative writing website
Play Doubles: To minimize the waiting time when Story Tennis is being played face-to-face, and for a real right and left brain challenge, how about having two stories going at once and using a timer to signal when to switch with your partner?
Play with Magic: For my picture book, Prince Nautilus, I imagined the consequences of a girl finding a magic seashell on the beach.  Along these lines, author and artist Keri Smith, in How to Be An Explorer of the World, Penguin Group, 20008, suggests assembling a box of small objects (for example, a feather, a key, a mitten, a small figurine and a pinecone).  Each student selects an object, ascribes a magic power to it, and writes about it. 
Play with Dialogue: Alternatively, I might ask students to select two objects from the box and then write a dialogue between them.
Play with Poetry: Write a poem that incorporates all of the objects.
Lastly, here are two exercises based on games described in a YouTube video by Jamie Cat Callen, author of The Writer’s Toolbox:
Play Pick-up Sticks: Write a bunch of interesting sentences on Popsicle sticks.  For example, “No one knew how the cat with six toes got out of our house every night, but there he sat on the doorstop each morning, as regular as clock-work” or, “The ruby slippers were a little big on Darcy, but the minute she put them on, her heels began to click together involuntarily.”  Have students line up the sticks randomly face down and then select three sticks.  They must use all three sentences in a story.
Play Cards: To prepare, start with a stack of index cards of three different colors, say blue, green and yellow.  On each blue card, write a description of a protagonist.  On each green card write a description of a goal.  On each yellow card, write an obstacle.  Make all of these as wildly diverse as you can.  To play, each student picks a card blindly from each pile and then writes a story based on the selected protagonist, goal, and obstacle.
Remember when using these or similar exercises that the object is not to produce a polished piece of writing, but rather to follow where your words take you.  Above all, playing with words should be fun!

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