Those Creative Muscles: Writing Exercises

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A heads up. This is an interactive post. I hope you'll indulge me and play along for a bit. Get out a paper and pen. I will wait.

Ready? Awesome.


In my opinion, Vanilla Garlic is not a typical food blog. The focus of my posts is rarely a recipe. On the contrary, I often see the recipe as ancillary. The wrapping paper on the package within. The photos aren't highly stylized. They used to be, but behind every image was a lot of frustration. Styled and edited photos were and still are anathema to me. They're lepers I washed out of duty and not out of any aesthetic rectitude. The photos weren't representative of me, my ideas, or my style. It's why I switched to Instagram for both ease of use, time management, and it showed my life in the moment. It was more me this way.

The focus of Vanilla Garlic has always been the writing; both short and long essays, and essays of middling length. The writing has always been what fuels me and my Tuesday morning deadlines, and it always ensures I'm writing every single day to stay practiced. 

Now, like the rest of you, I have duties so sometimes passions take a back seat. Dinner has to be cooked, laundry folded, the cat needs his Prozac, and lawns have to be mowed. Things get in the way. The writing isn't always as great as it can be. Sometimes it suffers for legitimate reasons or for apathetic reasons (Real Housewives and Doctor Who), but most often if it suffers its due to a combination of the two. 

It's why I do so love practiced writing exercises. They force writers (that's you, by the way; not just me) to sit down and meditate on the process. You take one aspect of writing and explore it. Writing is a muscle, it has to be exercised to be made stronger. Just writing every day helps, the way running every day helps. Both keep you fit. But to stay in shape you also have to life weights, eat right, sleep, and stretch. Writers need to brush up on their grammar flubs, brainstorm, work on methods that collapse blocks, or simply focus on their basic communication skills.

This last weekend at a conference I was lucky enough to have a writing session guided by food writer, Kim O'Donnel. Below I've detailed the exercises themselves so that perhaps you can give them a try at home, and I've provided my results with each exercise. I encourage you all, even those of you who aren't food bloggers, to set aside the 5 or 10 minutes (that's all it takes, really) and give this a try. Do it on a lunch break at your desk. Flex your muscles a bit and pick up a pen. You won't be sorry you did.

The first exercise was simply this. Write the words, "I remember..." now for five minutes write a bunch of sentences that start with that. Don't muse over it too much. Just go.

  • "I remember visiting a Quaker farm and baptizing myself in the smoke from a hewn oak wood shed where bacon was curing over last season's pruning from the nearby apple orchard."
  • "I remember first finding an appreciation for tea. Coffee's bitter taste scratched at my tongue like a feral cat and no amount of sugar or cream would declaw it."
  • "I remember watching the flames from the campfire scurry up a chain of lighter fluid like so many damned hands grasping out reaching heaven."

Okay. Done. What did you have? I hope you'll share a few in the comments.

Next, set your timer for ten minutes. Pick your favorite sentence and expand upon it. No scratching out. No revision. Just go. Ready? Begin!

"I remember watching the flames from the campfire scurry up a chain of lighter fluid like so many damned hands grasping out reaching heaven. Heaven being the cup that my father held that contained his solution to starting a cooking fire in winter alongside a glacial lake in Banff, Alberta. 

It wasn't an explosion like in the movie. A quiet puff. An old lady fart. But it engulfed him completely. He was like a stunt man from the set of a film, testing his will and body. Going for a personal record. But through the flames and bitter aroma that filled the campsite and that my body sucked in greedily to confirm the situation I knew it was my dad. 

There was screaming. I don't remember what. "Dad." I know I said that. My mom and brother screamed, too. The cup's nuclear content hand belched fire onto the picnic table and surrounding green. My father instinctively threw off his jacket behind him like a dissident's burning flag and leaped for the ground.

Stop, drop, and roll. Stop, drop, and roll. Stop, drop, and roll. More screaming. 

As fast as it had started it was out. We were suddenly very glad for the wet ground and hazy drizzle.

Dinner was cold hot dogs and Spaghetti-o's out of the can. It took three months for dad's eyebrows to grow back."

And done. Honestly, I was really happy with what I had written during the session. Extremely proud of it, in fact. Sometimes you never know what'll come out.

Did you like what you wrote? Is there a bigger story there? Something worth going back on expanding further? What would you take out? What would you share with the class?

Next and last exercise. Write a recipe for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I'm not giving you any more detail than that. Set your timer for five minutes.


How to Make a PB&J

Take two pieces of bread. I prefer sourdough, but if that's not your bag then whatever. Dozens of saltines will do just fine too. Now grab some jelly or jam. If you have a privileged life then this is handmade and sits in a Kerr jar with a dated lid. If not, then I promise you life will get better someday. Smear it until one side reminds you of the bloody middle of a Hitchcock film. As for the peanut butter, it must first be tested. Give a fingerful of it to yourself. Now give a fingerful of it to your dog. Points if it's a corgi. If  you don't have a dog, then why not?

I ran out of time here before I could finish. So look at my entry. No yield. No ingredient list. Very off the cuff and humorous, but how helpful would the recipe itself actually be to someone who has never had or made or eaten a PB&J? Probably useless.

How were your directions? If you want a great test, read them out loud to someone who has to make the sandwich exactly as your directions entail. You'd be surprised what is or isn't there.

Anyways, no recipe for food today. Just a recipe for though and for your words. I hope that these exercises find you well.

Remember, that writing requires practice and investment. Keep doing it. Just a little. Just a few sentences every day can help you make huge leaps in your creative strength.


Garrett out.


  1. I remember... doing the peanut butter & jelly exercise in my college writing class, then we read them aloud and the teacher made the sandwich as per the directions. Talk about a good way to illustrate clarity in writing.

  2. Nice job. I remember the writing exercise we did together years ago in Mexico, and the contest you won on my site. Sounds like a great creative experience for you, Garrett. I think it's cool that, as a published writer, you can still learn from taking classes.

  3. I'll probably try this again on a day when my most interesting sentence is not about how I really should've bought clarinase for my cold, but that was actually pretty fun!

  4. That was pretty powerful. "I remember when my father cried because he was ashamed of me. I was scared of being pregnant and absolutely heartbroken over the sobs I was not meant to hear".

    1. Dang. Now I really want to hear the rest of this story. Intense.

  5. love the execise; brings back memories of creative writing classes in college; something I miss dearly now that my writing is constrained & formulaic (I work in PR).

  6. My recipe for peanut butter and jelly as a child was Oscar Mayer bologna on buttered white bread. Why you ask? Because as a kid my mom decided one day to take a neighbor's advice on feeding kids. Not a good idea since said neighbor had no children. On her next shopping trip my mom dutifully bought a jar of Skippy and one of grape jelly, made the sandwich and put it in my lunch box without telling me. Evil. When I arrived home after school, she proceeded to open the plastic lunch pail to clean it out for the next day, only to find the evil PB&J with one tiny bite taken out of it. She was baffled and asked why. I told her I'd tasted it, which was her requirement for any new food. The idea being that if I didn't like it, I didn't have to eat it. So that's exactly what I told her. To date, I've never eaten PB&J.
    I'm sure my Pembroke Corgi would though. But then he eats anything.
    Fun little exercise!


Hey, you're leaving a comment! That's pretty darn cool, so thanks. If you have any questions or have found an error on the site or with a recipe, please e-mail me and I will reply as soon as possible.

Vanilla Garlic All rights reserved © Blog Milk Powered by Blogger