Generate Short Story Ideas With This Powerful Creative Writing Exercise
The Brown Paper Bag Creative Writing Exercise
Many years ago, I was fortunate to have an English teacher who sparked his students' imagination with challenging creative writing exercises designed to provoke introspection. One of the exercises involved taking a walk outdoors while carrying an empty brown paper bag. The goal was to find five small objects, put them in the brown bag and examine them in detail, by drawing them, in order to generate short story ideas.
I recall vividly, all these years later, the day I participated in this creative writing exercise for the first time. It was an early spring day, warm and mild, and perfect for taking a leisurely walk after lunch before my creative writing class met. Following the only instruction we'd been given in our previous class, I had brought the required small brown paper bag for collecting the five objects.
Finding Five Small Objects To Put in the Brown Paper Bag
I don't remember actively looking for the objects I collected that day; rather, I remember that I kept my gaze wide and broad, looking neither up nor down. When an object caught my attention, I simply picked it up and placed it in the brown bag. I collected:
- a broken piece of linoleum tile I found on a stairway in the school
- a bird feather lying in a gutter
- a crumpled piece of white paper destined for a garbage can but having missed its mark
- a smooth round stone about the size of my thumb sitting oddly out of place on the top of a fence rail
- a thick shard of clear glass resting on the iron frame of a storm sewer grate
It had been a pleasant walk in a somewhat mindless state, and I felt relaxed.
Accepting the Found Objects for What They Were
When class began, I joined the other students in turning out my brown paper bag of small objects onto my desk. My objects, at first, did look pretty much like what they were: trash, junk, things broken and discarded by humans or animals. As a collection, my found objects dampened my mood into something like melancholy. I felt the bright, warm day go gray. Some of the other students had found colorful objects and even items of value like a coin and a lost piece of gold jewelry. I felt a twinge of envy, even resentment, about my fellow students’ more appealing finds, but my five objects were what I had to work with and so I did.
Words Become Associated with Drawn Found Objects
He Wants Us To Do What?
After we turned our objects out onto our desks that day, our teacher instructed us to draw each of the objects on separate sheets of paper in our journals and to write, next to the drawing of each object, whatever words and thoughts came to mind.
Moans, groans, and complaints went around the room. We weren't expecting this.
“We’re here to write, not draw!”
“Hey, I’m not an artist!”
“I can’t draw!”
Our teacher said nothing. Instead, he walked to the chalkboard and wrote:
“Drawings + associated words = short story draft due next class”
He then stacked his notes and books neatly, stood up tucking them under his arm, and left the room.
It took only a few minutes for the class to quit its griping and settle down. For the remainder of the class period, all you could hear were the sounds of pen and pencil on paper.
Drawing My Found Objects – What They Revealed
The Broken Piece of Linoleum Tile: As I drew the tile’s abstract shapes that were defined by a faux marble design in dull brown and dirty white, two dolphins began to emerge, one large and one small. I wrote the words “mother” and “child” next to my drawing.
The Bird Feather: The moth-eaten appearance of this feather gave it a hard, skeletal aspect. As I looked closely and began to draw, I could see that most of the vanes had lost so many barbs that the feather appeared prickly. I had the feeling that if I touched it carelessly, it would hurt. The word “fractious” immediately came to mind.
The Crumpled Piece of White Paper: There were so many creases, folds, and angles in this object that I had to half-close my eyes in order not to be overwhelmed with the task of drawing its detail. As I forced my eyes into a softer focus and started to draw, images of steep sand dunes and narrow beaches emerged. I wrote “erosion” and “Marconi.”
The Thick Shard of Clear Glass: I had to be careful handling this object because of its sharp edges. As I drew, I discovered that it was very slightly concave, a feature I hadn’t noticed at first. I wondered if it had been part of a container. If so, what kind of container? I remembered that I had found this object resting on the frame of an iron sewer grate, and sketched the frame behind the shard. I wrote the words “metal and glass - container - water - sharp” on the journal page.
The Smooth Round Stone: By the time I began to draw the stone, weariness had set in although I still felt relaxed. I skimped on this drawing. I drew an oval blob, lightly shaded to give it some depth, and abruptly quit drawing as the name “Mrs. Beans” nearly wrote itself on the page.
Before I closed my journal in preparation for leaving class, I took a few minutes to reflect on my mood which had been bright before finding the objects but had become increasingly dark as I drew them. I jotted these words in my journal: storm, wind, heavy, oppressive, destruction, loss, darkness, jealousy, resentment, biting.
When I arrived home a half an hour later, I was physically and emotionally exhausted.
Using the Drawings and the Words to Draft a Short Story
The next day, after a long and deep sleep which left me alert and refreshed, I looked at the drawings and words in my journal and saw them as if for the first time. Now, their messages were so obvious that I nearly danced for joy. Almost immediately, a story began to take shape, starting with the setting.
The Setting: Cape Cod had been an important place in my life since I was a child, but at the time of taking this class and implementing this exercise, it was no longer a part of my life. That loss had driven barbs through my heart. The setting for the story became the steep dunes of Wellfleet, near the site of the long-gone Marconi station.
The Characters: Mrs. Beans was a real person in my young life. She was an old woman (as I saw her in my youth’s eye) who ran a rooming house not far from Wellfleet, what we would call today a bed and breakfast. She was a kind and comforting woman, the antithesis of my maternal grandmother who excelled in the principle of divide and conquer. The main character of the story I eventually wrote was modeled on a combination of my grandmother and Mrs. Beans. The supporting characters were fractious hermit crabs imprisoned in a metal and glass aquarium.
The Plot: The story begins with the heroine facing her life’s losses as they are played out in the impending destruction of her family home. Her home had been built on a cliff above the sea two hundred years ago. Through recent decades, the sea had been eroding the cliff, and now a late summer storm, reaching its height in the darkness of night, would make the final assault.
The Conflict: Does she leave, or does she stay?
I completed the draft on schedule and eventually revised and finalized the story. But it wasn’t until months later, when a cousin of mine read the story and shared her thoughts about it with me, that the full emotional impact of what I’d written hit me. This brown paper bag exercise is a powerful tool not only for writing creatively but also for gaining insight into your thoughts, feelings, and memories.
The Model for the Secondary Characters in the Short Story
5 Tips for Getting the Most Out of the Brown Paper Bag Creative Writing Exercise
- Leave your mind open when collecting found objects. Don’t actively look for them. Let them find you.
- Keep in mind that your drawing ability or lack of has nothing to do with this exercise. Use the pencil in your hand to help you observe your found objects more closely, more slowly. By coordinating your hand with your eye and focusing only on letting your pencil record the details of your found objects, you will quiet your conscious thoughts, giving your subconscious a chance to step forward.
- Find a quiet environment - no radio, no TV, no cell phone, no child looking for your attention. All you want to hear is the sound of pen or pencil on paper.
- After you’ve made your drawings and recorded the words that came to the surface of your mind, put your journal away and sleep on the experience, even if the drive and desire are there to keep on going. Your mind needs that restorative sleep time for you to understand the import of what the exercise is telling you.
- Pay attention to your mood and your feelings. Record them in your journal along with the drawings and the words you associated with them.
© 2012 Sherri