Blog

A very exquisite corpse

white-goat-eating-grass-1228438There’s a game my students love, called Exquisite Corpse. We played it often, in the before time—each writer starts a story and writes it for a period of five minutes. At the buzzer, you pass the story to your left and receive a story from the writer on your right. You add to that story till the buzzer goes, and so on, until you’ve written on every story. The result is riotous, confusing, hilarious, as what began as a heist story becomes a romance, what began as a drawing room comedy becomes a western, what began as a romance ends with dragons erupting from the earth suddenly (another favourite device among certain of my students.

We’ve been continuing our workshops via Zoom, and one of my students hit on a way to play Exquisite Corpse even though we’re not gathering in public. I set up a Google Drive folder, with individual Google Docs inside, numbered one through eight—one for each of us. We moved through the documents as we would in person—with some chaos and confusion and “what number am I supposed to be on??”

With eight writers, it took us two sessions to finish all the stories and we’ve only just begun reading them. But one stands out as a shining example of what’s possible in the world of the Exquisite Corpse. There was raucous laughter and so many virtual high fives, my hands are still a bit sore. With the kids’ permission, I’m sharing this story. The story was started by Charlie, and you can see where each new writer picks it up. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed writing it.

 

Charlie:

And there it was. That goat. It was the one I’ve been seeing in my dreams. It was amazing. It was incredible. It was a goat. It looked at me with tired eyes munching on some garbage.

 

ALICE:

I hastily made my way over to it, eyeing this strange beast warily. To be honest, I am terrified of animals, but this particular goat, I’d been seeing in my dreams quite often, and was at ease with. The goat seemed docile (I’d learned the hard way that not all animals were), so I approached it. The garbage in its mouth slowly disappeared, and thus the goat began lumbering away. I, a pursuer of justice (I saw that on a TV show once), wanted to know more, so I chased after it. The goat turned around and gave me tired eyes again, but this time, they seemed to be saying, you just know I can talk. And that was honestly what I suspected. This goat seemed intelligent enough to be able to talk. It gave a quiet, indignant bleat, and then began to talk. I could barely hear what he said, because I was thinking over and over,  I knew it. I knew it. I knew it. After a minute of the goat chatting and me not listening, I shook my head impatiently and realized that, if a goat was speaking, I should probably listen. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” I asked politely, not wanting to offend the talkative animal. The goat gave me a wounded, frustrated glare and bleated in a Russian accent, “Long story short, you stick with me, kid, and we’ll go places.”

 

Stephanie:

“Okay,” I said, “but my mother is going to expect me home for supper.” The goat rolled its tired eyes, turned away and began moving down the road. I stood rooted to the spot, watching it go. The goat turned back to me and looked incredibly aggravated. I could imagine that it was annoyed that of all the humans to talk to, it had seemingly chosen a complete idiot. 

“You coming?” the goat asked wearily. 

I nodded and shouted “Yes!” louder than was necessary. 

“Well come on then,” said the goat. “Hop on my back.”

That was surprising, but then, so much of what had happened in the last few minutes was surprising. I hopped on the goat’s back and it took off at a gallop and then became airborne. Surprises on surprises, on surprises! 

Across the countryside we flew, the goat talking the whole time, in that Russian accent. “I’m Yuri,” the goat said. “I’ve been watching you.”

“I’m Marcus,” I said, for lack of anything better to say, and the goat sighed and said “Yes, I know. I chose you specifically.”

“For what?” I gawked.

“For what,” Yuri mocked me, just the way my older brother did behind our mother’s back. “You’ll see.”

As we flew, Yuri told me about his upbringing in rural Russia, the flying lessons he’d had to take, and the spy agency that led him to me and my dreams. Yuri was involved in some very high level stuff—stuff I barely understood then and hardly understand now. Suffice to say, Yuri had been sent to pick me up for a secret mission. 

“And,” he told me as we cruised into downtown Moscow, landing in the middle of a town square, “you will absolutely not be home for supper.”

Lucy:

“Well, what am I going to get out of this?” I asked. My stomach was already grumbling. Yuri just gave a rather loud bleat, and looked at people with eyes that said, “Can you believe this kid? He’s talking to a goat,” while still having an expression that said, “Don’t blame me! I’m just a goat!”

“Oh, it’s going to be like that?” I said, and walked straight into a group of old ladies sporting fanny packs and I love Moscow T-shirts.

I looked back into Yuri’s eyes, and this time they said, “There will be ramen.”

I stopped straight in my tracks, picturing a steaming bowl of salty goodness. 

“I’ll follow you,” I smiled, not even caring that people were staring at the 14-year-old American boy who was following a goat into a glass apartment complex that could easily be worth millions.

As we strolled down the glass hallways, Yuri suddenly turned into a dragon and spat red fire at me.

Gabi:

Long story short, I ran. I fled the scene, as the police would say later. Right then, my only thought was, OMAGADITSADRAGON!!!! I vaguely noticed people screaming behind me, but I didn’t pause. I ran on, faster than I thought was possible. Then there was a pole. It was in my way. It didn’t move (stupid, rude pole).

And I blacked out.

Jane:

I woke up in an eerie room. It was painted gray, which just caused me grief for the society we live in as this designer was not very good at his occupation. I felt for a cushion for my throbbing, pulsing, pounding head and was shocked to find that I was on the floor. Couldn’t my kidnappers have at least found adequate bedding? 

 It was then I discovered the last disturbing straw. 

There were 17 goats staring at me.

My eyes widened. “Ya know,” said one of the goats sporting a fedora, “the kids could use some sorta food, no?” The next goat over sighed. “No, Armand, we’ve been over this. 

Then I woke up from my dream.

Brooke:

Astounded, I sat up in my small single bed. The white sheets engulfed my small person, just about smothering me. All that was a dream? Yuri, the dragon, fedora goat/ Armand were all a dream? I couldn’t believe it. 

Just then, my ears picked up a small sound. It seemed to be some sort of authoritative, constipated bleat. As I glanced toward the source I just barely caught a glimpse of a thin white goat. In a thick Russian accent he bleated, “Long story short, you stick with me, kid, and we’ll go places.” 

Amelia:

“Ok one minute,” I said, taking as much control over this situation as the situation would let me. “I just woke up from a dream, and in the dream you were here, and you said that and—”

“Let me interrupt before you tell the audience stuff they already know,” dralled Yuri in a voice far deeper and more Spanish than before. “That was prep,” Yuri went on in this new voice, “You remember all the explanations I gave in the air, right?”

“Yes,” I said. (I’ve always remembered my dreams well.)

“Well the real journey we’re about to go on is way too dangerous for me to be explaining things so we decided to give you all that crucial info in a dream, you see?” 

“Ok..” I said “then what was with the dragon, and your russian accent?”

“Darn programers made me russian again,” Yuri groaned, “And the dragon part was probably where we ended our message and your own stupid head kicked in. Now come on, as I said there is little time for explanations.”

The dream prep was probably good because I was already used to flying on Yuri’s back, but things were a lot more dangerous now. Every so often a massive rock would come flying at us from space and Yuri would have to dodge. Suddenly as we came in sight of some mountains Yuri began to nose dive. I screamed in a way I’m not altogether proud of in hindsight and before I knew it I was laying in bed again. 

“What! Wait!” I yelled.

“Long story short, you stick with me, kid, and we’ll go places,” said a goat from the corner of my room.

“Yuri!” I yelled, more frustrated than confused at this point. “Was that a test too?!”

“No,” said Yuri, “Chill out I was messing with you. Get used to it because you’re in the Institute of Frembonflickoincy now.”

Long story short, that’s how my life changed forever.

 

 

Growing inspiration

IMG_5816Yesterday the weather was gorgeous, a classic spring day such as you read about in books, but rarely experience here in Nova Scotia, where spring can really hang you up the most. The sun was shining, the air was balmy, the birds were singing their hearts out. When my workshoppers arrived, I could tell they were a little school-stunned and logy. “We’re going to try something different,” I told them. “We’re going to go out into the garden and use all our five senses to observe the afternoon. Pay close attention, because afterward, we’ll come back in to write about what we’ve noticed!”

Out we all went into the sunshine. Already, they were perking up. They wondered what there would be to taste in the garden. Mint, I said, or tulips. Tulips?!? They’d never heard of such a thing. I pulled petals off my red tulips and handed them around, and watched the idea of eating flowers blow their minds. One kid liked the petals so much she ate an entire tulip. A small price to pay for the inspiration the garden time brought. The kids were totally engaged in paying attention, thinking up metaphors and similes to use in their descriptive paragraphs, bringing narrative to bear, explaining what they’d observed in minute detail.

IMG_5819

One wrote about the red tulips as garden sentries. Another compared the white tulips to the lightning on a Percy Jackson novel cover. A third noticed the leaves of rose geranium are soft and fuzzy and delicate, like a peach. The fourth got up close and personal with a fiddlehead fern. Myself, I described two haskap bushes in detail. It was a great afternoon in the garden, and in the workshop.

IMG_5818

If there’s a young writer in your house, encourage them to pay close attention to a corner of the garden (or window box, if that’s all the space you have, and if you’ve no garden at all, a corner of a park will do!), using all their senses to observe a few minutes in the garden’s life. Then, they can return to their notebook and write a paragraph of two using the most descriptive language they can muster. A great exercise for practicing metaphors, similes, and descriptive writing in general, which is key for building theme and bringing stories to life.

IMG_5817

Writes of summer!

IMG_5711

I never went to summer camp, but it loomed large in my childhood imagination, probably because so many of the books I loved involved camp in some way. It seemed my fictional friends were always having some kind of summer camp fun: tipping a canoe, going on hikes and getting bitten by bugs, being ostracized by everyone else in their cabin… wait, why did I want to go to camp so bad?

In my house, summer camp was edged out by helping my dad in the humongous vegetable garden that took over our whole backyard. In suburban Mississauga, we were growing rows of corn, green beans, zucchini, tomatoes, lettuces, onions, carrots, herbs—a veritable farmers’ market, all in our backyard. So, instead of picking a new best friend at camp, I picked endless rows of green beans, and endless buckets of stone out of the soil. Later, the garden itself was edged out by an in-ground swimming pool, an incredibly luxury in our family of six. That swimming pool stood in for summer camp and vacations to exotic places—we didn’t do any of that. Instead, we had glorious family swims, pool parties with our friends (the ones who weren’t away at camp), lazy afternoons reading with our feet in the shallow end. It was pretty great.

But still, there’s something about camp that just appeals to my inner nerd (and also to my outer nerd). And so, I’m delighted to be launching my first-ever camp: Tiny Empire Writing Workshop Summer Camp! Our inaugural session is this summer, from July 23 to July 27, nine am to noon. Kids have the option to bring their lunch and stay till 1pm (some parents find that easier for pick up than noon), reading a book, listening to a podcast with the group, or chatting about their projects. During class time each day, we’ll dig deeply into character, plot, setting, theme, and descriptive writing, using writing exercises, discussion, and examples from kid lit. A motivated kid could use this week to complete a novel, probably. At the very least, kids will get lots of experience with exploring elements of story, more facility with giving and receiving feedback, and a great week of hanging out with their peers, using their imaginations. We’ll go outside each day, too, to observe the world around us and talk about how to weave real-life details into our stories. It’s gonna be great. And no one will fall out of a canoe and have to walk back to camp in their wet clothes.

The details:

  • What: Tiny Empire Writing Workshop Summer Camp!
  • When: Monday July 23 to Friday July 27, instruction from 9am to noon, till 1pm if kids want to hang out and eat their lunch
  • Where: My place, in central Halifax
  • Who is it for: Eager young writers between the ages of 8 and 13
  • How much: $200 per child for the week

Get in touch to enrol your young writer today!

 

 

Once upon a time

Since I learned to grasp a pencil, I knew writing was the thing for me. I didn’t have a chance to meet an actual writer till I was in high school, and there was no opportunity for me to take extracurricular classes to practise my writing. Other kids did piano, or dance, or played baseball, with coaches and teachers to help guide them. I made stories by myself, with the feedback and encouragement of my excellent parents.

A recent conversation with a friend who homeschools her daughters made me think about starting a writing workshop for kids. After the first session, I was hooked. I was so dazzled by the kids and their passion for writing. Watching them think through plot and character problems, listening to the language they reach for to freshly describe mundane objects and events, learning from the kindness and curiosity they bring to giving feedback to their peers—it’s all been incredibly rewarding.

Tiny Empire Writing Workshop is exactly what I would have loved when I was a young writer. An hour a week to meet with other writers, learn a little more about plot, character, setting, structure, how to use language, how to share work and respond to the work of others, and lots of fuel to keep writing. Heck, it’s what I love as a not-very-young-anymore writer.