Generative Writing Exercises

At the California Institute of the Arts, there’s a class you could take about Generative Art.

“Generative art refers to any art practice where the artist uses a system, such as a set of natural language rules, <a href="/work/dadadodomax/“a computer program, a machine, or other procedural invention, which is set into motion with some degree of autonomy contributing to or resulting in a completed work of art.”

Philip Galanter, What is Generative Art? Complexity Theory as a Context for Art Theory

Thanks to the class’ companion website, you can have some fun at home with the list of generative writing exercises, even without being a student. Most of the exercises stem from Bernadette Mayer’s List of Journal Ideas.

Generative Writing Exercises

  1. Pick a story from the newspaper (or a magazine, whatever-usually something from a business or science text is good; the Tuesday Science Times section of The NY Times is particularly useful). Choose 20 words from the story that you have never used in a poem before: try to pick the most interesting words you can, the ones that seem to leap out at you for some reason. Write those words down on a separate sheet of paper (so you’re not looking at the original text anymore"“if you want you can burn the original text, using proper fire safety procedures). Write a poem that is 20 lines long. Each line must use one of the words you wrote down from the article, and they must be used in the order in which they appeared in the article.
  2. Select a particular time of day when you know you won’t be disturbed for a few minutes: early morning, lunch time, before going to sleep, etc. At that time each day, in a notebook begin writing down whatever happens to be going through your mind. Once you begin writing, don’t stop to think, fix your language, etc. This isn’t a poem, just write about ten lines or more, then put the notebook away. Do this for five days. It’s important not to do this on a computer, but handwritten in a notebook and you should keep the notebook with you, because you probably will find after the first day or so that you feel like doing this more than once a day, when you see something interesting or just have time to kill. On a day when you have a chunk of time to work on a poem, take the notebook and write a poem using only the lines (or parts of them) that you’ve written during these sessions.
  3. Think of 50 titles, all of them for poems or short pieces of writing that you have no intention of writing. It’s a good idea to carry a notebook everywhere with you when you do this. Give the list to someone else in the class. Choose a title from the list you’ve received and write a poem.
  4. Homolinguistic translation: Take a poem (someone else’s than your own) and translate it “English to English”&#157; by substituting word for word, phrase for phrase, line for line, or “free”&#157; translation as response to each phrase or sentence.
  5. Homophonic translation: Take a text or poem in a foreign language that you can pronounce but not necessarily understand and translate the sound of the poem into English (Ex: French “˜blanc’ to blank or “˜toute’ to toot).
  6. Lexical translation: Take a poem in a foreign language that you can pronounce but not necessarily understand and translate it word for word with the help of a bilingual dictionary.
  7. Acrostic Chance. Pick a book at random and use the title as an acrostic key phrase. For each letter of the key phrase go to the page number in the book that corresponds (a=1, z=26) and copy as the first line of a poem form the first word that begins with that letter to the end of the line or sentence. Continue through all key letters, leaving stanza breaks to mark each new key word. Variations include using author’s name as code for reading through her or his work, using your own or a friend’s name, devise alternative acrostic procedures.
  8. Tzara’s hat. Everyone in a group writes down a word (phrase or line) and puts it in a hat. The text is composed according to the order it is randomly pulled from the hat. (On your own, pick words or lines from books, newspapers, magazines, your own work.)
  9. Burrough’s Fold-in: Take two different pages from a newspaper or magazine, article or book, and cut the pages in half or thirds vertically. Paste the mismatched pages together.
  10. Write a text with words cut somewhere in the middle and recombined with the beginning parts following the ending parts.
  11. General cut-ups: Write a text composed entirely of phrases lifted from other sources. Use one source for a poem or other text and then many; try different types of sources: literary, historical, magazines, advertisements, manuals, dictionaries, instructions, travelogues, etc.
  12. Cento: write a collage made up of full-lines of selected source poems, or texts.
  13. Substitution (1): “Mad libs”&#157;. Take a poem (or other source text) and put blanks in place of three or four words in each line, noting the part of speech under the blank. Fill in the blanks being sure not to recall the original context.
  14. Substitution (2): “7 up or down”&#157;. Take a poem or other, possibly well-known, text and substitute another word for every noun, adjective, adverb, and verb; determine the substitute word by looking up the index work in a dictionary and going 7 up or down, or one more, until you get a syntactically suitable replacement.
  15. Substitution (3): “Find and replace”&#157;. Systematically replace one word in a source text with another word or string of words. Perform this operation serially with the same source text, increasing the number of words in the replace string.
  16. Serial sentences: Select one sentence from a variety of different books or other sources. Add sentences of your own composition. Combine into one paragraph, reordering to produce the most interesting results.
  17. Alphabet poems: make up a poem of 26 words so that each word begins with the next letter of the alphabet. Write another alphabet poem but scramble the letter order.
  18. Alliteration (assonance): Write a poem in which all the words in each line begin with the same letter.
  19. Doubling: Starting with one sentence, write a series of paragraphs each doubling the number of sentences in the previous paragraph and including all the words used previously.
  20. Collaboration: Write a piece with one or more other people: alternating lines (chaining or renga), writing simultaneously and collaging, rewriting, editing, supplementing the previous version. This can be done in person or otherwise.
  21. Group sonnet: 14 people each write one ten-word line (or alternate-Write a text trying to transcribe as accurately as you can your thoughts while you are writing. Don’t edit anything out. Write as fast as you can without planning what you are going to say)
  22. Dream work: Write down your dreams as the first thing you do every morning for 30 days. Apply translation and aleatoric processes to this material. Double the length of the dream. Weave them together into one poem, adding or changing or reordering the material. Negate or reverse all statements (I went down the hill to I went up the hill, I didn’t to I did). Borrow a friend’s dreams and apply these techniques to them.
  23. Write a text made up entirely of neologism or nonsense words or fragments of words.
  24. Write a text with each line filling in the blanks of “I used to be —, but now I am —."&#157; (I used to write poems, but now I just do experiments; I used to make sense, but now I just make poems.)
  25. Write a text consisting entirely of things you’d like to say, but never would, to a parent, lover, sibling, child, teacher, roommate, best friend, mayor, president, corporate CEO, etc.
  26. Write a text consisting entirely of overheard conversation.
  27. Nonliterary forms: Write a text in the form of an index, a table of contents, a resume, an advertisement for an imaginary or real product, an instruction manual, a travel guide, a quiz or examination, etc.
  28. Imitation: Write a text in the style of each of a dozen poets or writers who you like and dislike: try to make it as close to a forgery of an “unknown”&#157; work of the author as possible.
  29. Write a text without mentioning any objects.
  30. Backwards: Reverse or alter the line sequence of a poem of your own or someone else’s. Reverse the word order. Rather than reverse, scramble.
  31. Write an autobiographical poem without using any pronouns.
  32. Attention: Write down everything you hear for one hour.
  33. Brainerd’s Memory: Write a text all of whose lines start “I remember “¦”&#157;
  34. “Pits”&#157;: Write the worst possible poem you can imagine.
  35. Counting: Write poems that conform to various numeric patterns for number of words in a line or sentence, number of lines in a stanza or paragraph, number of stanzas or paragraphs in a work. Alternately, count letters or syllables. Use complex numeric series or simpler fixed-number patterns.
  36. Write a text just when you are on the verge of falling asleep. Write a line a day as you are falling asleep or waking up.
  37. List poem: Write a text consisting of favorite words or phrases collected over a period of time; pick your favorite words from a particular book.
  38. List poem 2: Write a text consisting entirely of a list of “things”&#157;, either homogenous or heterogeneous (common lists include shopping lists, things to do, lists of flowers or rocks, lists of colors, inventory lists, lists of events, lists of names, “¦).
  39. Chronology: make up a list of dates with associated events, real or imagined.
  40. Transcription: Tape a phone or live conversation between yourself and a friend. Make a poem composed entirely of transcribed parts.
  41. Canceling: Write a series of lines or rhymes such that every other one cancels the one before (“I come before you / to stand behind you”&#157;).
  42. Erasure: Take a poem of your own or someone else’s and cross out most of the words on each poem, retype what remains as your poem.
  43. Write a series of ten poems going from one to ten words in each poem. Reorder.
  44. Write a text composed entirely of questions.
  45. Write a text made up entirely of directions.
  46. Write a text consisting only of opening lines (improvise your own lines, then use source texts).
  47. Write poems consisting of one-word lines; of two-word lines; of three-word lines.
  48. Synchronicity: Write a text in which all the events occur simultaneously.
  49. Diachronicity: Write a text in which all the events occur in different places and at different times.
  50. Visual poetry: write poems with strong visual or “concrete”&#157; elements-including combination of lexical and nonlexical (pictorial) elements. Play with alphabets and typography, placement of words on the page, etc.
  51. Write a series of poems or stanzas while listening to music; change type of music for each stanza or poem.
  52. Elimination: cut out the second half of sentences.
  53. Excuses list poem: Write a text made up entirely of excuses.
  54. Sprung diary: write a diary tracking and intercutting multiple levels of thoughts, experiences, anticipations, expectations, from minute to major.
  55. Make up more writing experiments

Combine any two of these experiments. Rewrite and recombine, collage, splice together the material generated from these experiments into one long ongoing text.

Bernadette Mayer’s List of Journal Ideas:

Journals of:

Other journal ideas:

Bernadette Mayer’s Writing Experiments