The Workbook.

November 29, 2012 § 10 Comments

Each night at about three, I am suddenly awake, with no transition between dream and full alertness.

It is an artifact from being a young mother who had to go from dead asleep to wide-awake in the moment when my baby drew that deep jagged breath and began to cry.

With no baby to run to in that wakeful moment, I begin to think. The world is dark and, aside from the quiet mantra of my husband’s steady breathing, almost silent. It offers few distractions.

Sometimes, I wake up, not to an empty brain, but to an idea.

The other night, I woke up to the clear picture of a workbook, the kind in which a kid might practice the loopy letter L. I could almost smell its grainy acidic pages. The wire spiral that held it together had the slightly crushed look of a notebook carried in a backpack.

I realized that this was the workbook for creative writers—no wonder it looked so humble and hard-used.

It was open to an exercise.

Describe an ordinary object without naming it.


They rest in the dark of the drawer, nested together, convex matching concave, like an old married couple lying, knees tucked into folded knees, asleep.

This description of spoons, was there when I awoke, complete with commas.

My teacher-self picked it up and I thought, after the example there should be an explanation of why it works; what makes the written word the illuminating wonder that it is.

And here it is: By comparing one thing to another the writer can imbue the ordinary with emotional weight. Spoons in a drawer become the long-accustomed couple who sleep as they always have, together.

Then I thought of a variation on the exercise.

Describe something intangible without naming it.


It is not situational, not easily swayed, not open to compromise. It acts unseen exactly as it would before a watching audience. It is the spine of character.

This one—integrity—might be harder. Intangibles are. But for this one I’d point out that another tool in the writer’s kit is contrast. By listing what integrity is not the writer creates a shadow that makes what integrity is stand out.

Lying in the dark I wondered whether I should  try to create such a workbook, one equivalent to the carpenter’s box of screws, the fisherman’s assorted lures.

Nothing fancy, just the useful hardware I have learned to reach for when doing an honest day’s work writing fiction.

And I’d like it to be printed on the pulpy, quickly yellowing paper of my waking dream, paper that would not intimidate a beginner just learning the cursive of creative writing.

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