Obsession Exercise

I've got a great class this quarter, a smart group of graduate students willing to take real risks in their writing.

Here's a nifty exercise I concocted just for them, based on two fantastic (and very different) texts: Linda Smukler's Home In Three Days. Don't Wash. and Zachary Schomburg's The Man Suit:

English 502

Home In Three Days. Don't Wash. exercise: This is a book about obsession, and about the difficulty of translating a passionate lived experience into art. I want you to ask yourself (now and over time) where you draw the line between recording emotional intensity (as in a journal, as in a conversation with a friend, as with a therapist, as in your mind) and creating art out of emotional intensity (which involves editing, revision, alterations, a certain degree of detachment, and ultimately the desire to share deep emotion with a wide audience).

I also want you to think about the difference between a text like The Man Suit, which is driven by wordplay, humor, whimsy, history, visual images; and a text like Home In Three Days which is driven by emotion, kinesthetic impulse, hunger, characterization. What does each text do well? What does each text do less well or not at all? What can you learn from each text?

Your exercise for Home In Three Days is to mimic the kind of obsessive drive that lies behind works written in and out of passion. Other examples I happen to like – you can make your own list to share with the class -- include Sylvia Plath's Ariel, Carole Maso's Aureole, Jeanette Winterson's Written On The Body, Heather Lewis' Notice, Rebecca Brown's Excerpts From A Family Medical Dictionary, and Richard Siken's Crush.

Rather than allow you to search your own life for a living (or haunting) muse, I want you to fixate on something invented, something imaginary, and concoct a fictitious obsession.

Your assignment is to find an intriguing inanimate object located in some public place in Bellingham. (Your house and campus are verboten; you must go off-campus for this exercise.) Examples might include: that fantastic spray-painted dinosaur in an alley downtown; a junked car on someone's lawn; the phone booth used by dealers on Railroad Avenue; a painting in the museum; one of the wooden tables at The Temple Bar.

Find an object and become obsessed with the object. Get weird about it. Worry your friends. Do not take the object out of its location (don't take the phone booth home). Worship from afar, or up close but in public. It's fine if this veers into nonfiction (if, say, the phone booth reminds you of your ex-girlfriend, and you end up writing about her indirectly). It's fine if this veers into the fictionally fantastic, or becomes absurd. But there must be an obsessive drive to the writing, a force, a power, the sense that everything is about to get out of control really fast. You want to move your reader with this piece, break some rules, and create discomfort. Think about the contrast between chaos and control; defy the notion that good writing somehow soothes your reader. At the same time, be sure to allow space for revision later – when you revise, try to cut out melodramatic language, clich├ęs, and sentimental dross. Take note, then, of what you cut and what you revise. When is too much just right? When is too much too much? You might want to save your deleted passages on a separate sheet of paper (like the bloopers reel on a DVD), and bring them along to discuss with the class.


Anne Haines said…
Ooh, that is a fun exercise. I may have to try and steal that and do it myself.
Calvinx said…
Just came across your exercise while searching for 'Home in three days, don't wash." So good. I'm glad someone's using it in an exercise and that it's you.

I think it's queer and lustful, which is perfect.
Carol Guess said…
Thanks -- my students did some of their best work from this one.

The book amazes me, and works well
in conjunction with Plath and Siken.