Experimenting with writing

When writers, teachers, and students experiment with writing, new doorways to creativity and learning are opened.

One of the most influential teachers I had in grade school was also the most subtle. My high school English teacher, Mrs. Christiansen, was never blunt or demanding. Rather, she preferred to let the class assignments do most of the captaining while she gently steered the course along during the year.

One of her methods was to give assignments that tapped into little-used aspects of the English language. There was the five-word poem that forced the student to think about how words work together. And there was also adjective story time, an exercise that sought to teach adjective order and use. And then there were assignments that encouraged absurdity.

I loved (and still love) absurdity in writing. But the art of absurdity needs to be as subtle as Mrs. Christiansen’s teaching methods. Sure, you can write a story about purple rabbits that fall up every time they sit, belch toads, and eat computer mice with salsa. That story would be blatantly absurd and be much like using a tanker truck as a hammer for your home improvement project.

But combining serious elements with subtle absurdity can often be very powerful.

My senior high-school English teacher (her name eludes me at the moment) also had a knack for subtle absurdity in writing. Through the combination of absurdity and special writing assignments, the class turned into a fun learning center rather than a drab repetition room.

I used this technique at times with my Spanish-speaking students in Spain. Some people frowned when told about their class assignment, but most grudgingly took to it and eventually laughed, all while learning.

Realizing that I haven’t done something like this in a while, I posted a request on Facebook yesterday, asking my friends to post a verb that begins with the letter “k” and add a definition if necessary. I explained that I would write a short story the next day using all of the verbs. What I didn’t tell them is that I’d also use all submitters as characters in the story.

What follows is the story I wrote today. I’ve changed the names of all the characters to respect the privacy of my Facebook friends, but the verbs remain intact.

I encourage all teachers and writers to perform such exercises to not only expand vocabulary, but also flex creativity. It’s perfect for writers and teachers as well as students. Poems that focus on the letter “l”, monologues with verbs that contain the prefix “over” or “out”, or songs with the “sh” sound… these all bring about creativity and learning.

And now, the story…

Verbs Submitted: to knurl, to knit, to know, to kick, to kiss, to keep, to knell, to key in, to kill off

“K” Is for Murder (Part 1) – by S.E. Douglas

Elli furtively made her way through the maze of passages that made up the basement level of the enemy’s headquarters. She knew it wasn’t going to be easy to hack into the database as it was heavily guarded by Dr. Cosmos’s Elite guard, but there was no other way. If Elli didn’t retrieve the secret codes, Dr. Cosmos would kill off the entire hamster population in an instant.

“Make a left at the next intersection,” whispered the voice of Agent Rice over Elli’s communication implant. “But watch for a set of pressure sensors about 50 meters down.”

“And how do I get past that?” Elli asked impatiently.

“You’ll be able to climb over the sensors. They’ve knurled the walls of the passage. That should give you enough grip to wedge yourself between the passageway’s walls and slip over them.”

Elli sighed. Why were these missions never easy?

She made sure her non-slip gloves were tightly fastened and like a ninja, made her way over the sensors by wedging her arms and legs between the walls.

“You’re almost there,” hissed Agent Rice. “There’s a metal access panel on the right about 20 meters down the passage. Use the pen-sized cutting torch that Agent Coal gave you to cut it open.”

After avoiding the pressure plates on the floor, Elli silently jumped down and padded off to the access panel. She glanced at the structure, removed the cutting torch from her breast pocket, and deftly sliced through the dull gray metal, revealing a gleaming air shaft lit by blinking electronics of unknown purpose.

Elli glanced over her shoulder and crawled into the duct, gently propping the metal panel up behind her. She didn’t have much time until Dr. Cosmos unleashed her fury.

“Keep going down the air shaft until you reach a ‘T’. Make a right and then an immediate left.”

“What gives with the electronic panels in the wall?” replied Elli. She was dubious of the blinking lights and displays in the duct. It wasn’t… natural.

“That equipment patches into the Destructotron. The engineers must have thought it practical to incorporate the panels into the cooling mechanism. A sort of dual-purpose setup, if you will.”

A slow steady flow of cool air brushed at Elli’s face as she crawled down the air shaft. She shivered. While the bulletproof body suit that Professor Qualls had knitted did well to keep bullets out, it didn’t keep Elli very warm.

“You should see a dual-monitor panel at the end of the duct,” said Agent Rice. “Next to that should be an access panel and two buttons. Use the false fingerprint we gave you to scan yourself into the system. Place it on the yellow button.”

Upon reaching the panel, Elli unfastened her left glove and placed her thumb on the dull amber-colored square. A few moments later, a small keyboard silently slid out from underneath the displays. The screens flashed and sprung to life.

She instinctively began keying in the commands that Dr. Ronald Patrick had drilled into her head. Dr. Patrick, head of the technology division, had made it a point to give Elli a full explanation of the finer workings of the computer architecture, something she found to be foreign and annoying.

“What happened to the good ol’ days of kicking people in the face to get the information you need?” pondered Elli as she cycled through the command prompts.

An alarm knelled from deep within headquarters.

“Shit,” she muttered under her breath. They were on to her. If she didn’t extract those codes in the next two minutes, the Earth would kiss its adorable hamster population goodbye.

“Hurry!” yelled Agent Rice over the communication implant.

“I know,” said Elli flatly.

“Juan needs at least 20 seconds to input the codes and send the shutdown command.”

“I know!”

With amazing lucidity, Elli dug deeper into the system, bypassing digital security checkpoints with ease. For someone who despised technology, she was rather proud of herself.

“Transmitting in eight… seven…”

Elli placed her left thumbprint on the other button, pulsating blue and white. The access panel swung open revealing a dark room with a faint glow emanating from underneath the doorway.

“…two… one…”

“Got it! Now get the hell out of there!” shouted Rice.

Elli slid her glove on and drew her Walther PPK/S. She quickly slid through the access panel into the room, silently landing on her feet. The panel closed behind her with a faint hiss.

She moved towards the faint outline of the door, unsure of her surroundings. She listened at the door.

Nothing.

She checked the door. It was locked. A faint blue and white button glowed next to the knob.

She listened again. She could only make out the faint incessant alarm droning in the background. She ripped the glove off her left hand again with her teeth and placed her thumb on the button. The door emitted a faint beep and slid open cleanly.

Elli opened her mouth, letting the glove drop to the ground as she gripped the gun tightly and swung into the lit room. She squinted, surprised by the amount of light in the room. Then she heard the distinct sound of guns cocking. She instinctively ducked behind a large computer panel.

“Oh, look what the cat’s brought in, sister!” exclaimed a familiar voice. Elli knew that voice.

“Indeed,” said another voice, also familiar. “Let’s play a little game.”

Beyond the bright lights—all of which were pointed towards her and the doorway—were men in black jumpsuits wielding UZIs. Just above them on a wall-hung monitor was the image of the Midnight Sisters, Maria “Deathstar” Roads and Natalie “Sashimi” Wataname.

It suddenly dawned on Elli that they had been waiting for her there.

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Posted in Teaching and Tutoring, Writing
2 comments on “Experimenting with writing
  1. Great Experiment! Very creative and seems fun, I might have to try this out.

    • And if you’re a teacher, these sorts of writing experiments are easily made into classroom games. I used another game that focused on community story writing. Each student (or a team of students) would begin a story after the mandatory “Once upon a time in a (insert location) far away…” and would be required to use certain vocabulary. After one to three sentences, each student/team passes the story to the right. Continue until all parties have had a chance to contribute to each story. It’s lots of fun and incoporates those elements of absurdity I mentioned.

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