Write a story every day, part 10: Exercises in Style

I’ve been writing a short story every day for two years. For a while I ran out of creative juice and began resenting the daily short-story obligation. My wife suggested that I do exercises in style, much like those made famous in Raymond Queneau’s marvelous little book, Exercises in Style.

Queneau describes a banal incident in Paris: A guy witnesses a petty conflict between two people aboard a bus; the day after, he happens to see one of those people in front of a train station. Then Queneau tells the same story in 99 different ways: in film-noir style, in pig Latin, monosyllabic, and so on. In an overt homage to Queneau, Matt Madden did the same thing in the graphic-novel/comic-book format, in 99 Ways to Tell a Story.

I wrote up an incident that had happened to me in New York City last summer. While I was walking along Broadway on the Upper West Side, I bumped into a woman of my acquaintance. The day after, while leaving the Metropolitan Museum on 5th Avenue, I bumped into someone else I knew, this time a man. In my short story I described these two acquaintances, what we said to each other, how I felt about these meetings. I added visual details and invented some psychological quirks (“lies”) for myself and for my acquaintances, just to spice up the exercises in style. Then I re-wrote the story 45 times (“a short story every day, for forty-five days running”). I wrote it in the voices of Rene Descartes, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Anne Rice, Quentin Tarantino, and many others. I wrote it from the point of view of a paranoid psychotic, a military man, a law-and-order fanatic. I wrote it as a study in smells, then as a study in numbers. I wrote it as science fiction, like an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” I wrote it in the style of the King James Bible. I wrote it in baby talk. I wrote a version in phony German, a language in which my actual vocabulary is about five hundred words; in phony Spanglish; in not-so-phony Portuguese (which is my mother tongue).

Truth be told, the possibilities of the exercises in style are limitless. You could do thousands of them. The plus is that you have a lot fun and develop your craft. The minus is that the exercise might turn out to be emotionally sterile—there’s little depth to it, little universality; in the end, it amounts to a narcissistic head trip for the writer. But suppose you just don’t know how else to start, sustain, or renew your story-a-day habit: resort to the endlessly amusing exercises in style.

Lesson #3: When art fails you, work on your craft. There are plenty of low-cost, low-risk, low-brain writing exercises to keep you going over dry patches.

In my next post I’ll tell you about the nuts and bolts of writing a story every day.