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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Homolinguistic translation: Take a poem (someone else’s than your own) and translate it “English to English” by substituting word for word, phrase for phrase, line for line, or “free” translation as response to each phrase or sentence.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- Write a text with words cut somewhere in the middle and recombined with the beginning parts following the ending parts.
- 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.
- Cento: write a collage made up of full-lines of selected source poems, or texts.
- Substitution (1): “Mad libs”. 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.
- Substitution (2): “7 up or down”. 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.
- Substitution (3): “Find and replace”. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Alliteration (assonance): Write a poem in which all the words in each line begin with the same letter.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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.
- Write a text made up entirely of neologism or nonsense words or fragments of words.
- Write a text with each line filling in the blanks of “I used to be —, but now I am —." (I used to write poems, but now I just do experiments; I used to make sense, but now I just make poems.)
- 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.
- Write a text consisting entirely of overheard conversation.
- 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.
- 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” work of the author as possible.
- Write a text without mentioning any objects.
- 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.
- Write an autobiographical poem without using any pronouns.
- Attention: Write down everything you hear for one hour.
- Brainerd’s Memory: Write a text all of whose lines start “I remember “¦”
- “Pits”: Write the worst possible poem you can imagine.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- List poem 2: Write a text consisting entirely of a list of “things”, 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, “¦).
- Chronology: make up a list of dates with associated events, real or imagined.
- Transcription: Tape a phone or live conversation between yourself and a friend. Make a poem composed entirely of transcribed parts.
- 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”).
- 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.
- Write a series of ten poems going from one to ten words in each poem. Reorder.
- Write a text composed entirely of questions.
- Write a text made up entirely of directions.
- Write a text consisting only of opening lines (improvise your own lines, then use source texts).
- Write poems consisting of one-word lines; of two-word lines; of three-word lines.
- Synchronicity: Write a text in which all the events occur simultaneously.
- Diachronicity: Write a text in which all the events occur in different places and at different times.
- Visual poetry: write poems with strong visual or “concrete” elements-including combination of lexical and nonlexical (pictorial) elements. Play with alphabets and typography, placement of words on the page, etc.
- Write a series of poems or stanzas while listening to music; change type of music for each stanza or poem.
- Elimination: cut out the second half of sentences.
- Excuses list poem: Write a text made up entirely of excuses.
- Sprung diary: write a diary tracking and intercutting multiple levels of thoughts, experiences, anticipations, expectations, from minute to major.
- 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:
- writing ideas
- ideas for architects
- city design ideas
- beautiful and/or ugly sights
- a history of one’s own writing life, written daily
- reading/music/art, etc. encountered each day
- elaborations on weather
- people one sees-description
- subway, bus, car or other trips (e.g., the same bus trip written about
- pleasures and/or pain
- life’s everyday machinery: phones, stoves, computers, etc.
- answering machine messages
- round or rectangular things, other shapes
- daily changes, e.g., a journal of one’s desk, table, etc.
- the body and its parts
- tenant-landlord situations
- telephone calls (taped?)
- coincidences & connections
- times of solitude
Other journal ideas:
- Write once a day in minute detail about one thing
- Write every day at the same time, e.g. lunch poems, waking ideas, etc.
- Write minimally: one line or sentence per day
- Create a collaborative journal: musical notation and poetry; two writers
alternating days; two writing about the same subject each day, etc.
- Instead of using a book, write on paper and put it up on the wall (public
- and so on …
Bernadette Mayer’s Writing Experiments
- Pick a word or phrase at random, let mind play freely around it until a
few ideas have come up, then seize on one and begin to write. Try this with
a non- connotative word, like “so” etc.
- Systematically eliminate the use of certain kinds of words or phrases from
a piece of writing: eliminate all adjectives from a poem of your own, or
take out all words beginning with ’s' in Shakespeare’s sonnets.
- Rewrite someone else’s writing. Experiment with theft and plagiarism.
- Systematically derange the language: write a work consisting only of
prepositional phrases, or, add a gerund to every line of an already existing
- Get a group of words, either randomly selected or thought up, then form
these words (only) into a piece of writing-whatever the words allow. Let
them demand their own form, or, use some words in a predetermined way.
- Eliminate material systematically from a piece of your own writing until
it is “ultimately” reduced, or, read or write it backwards, line by line or
word by word. Read a novel backwards.
- Using phrases relating to one subject or idea, write about another,
pushing metaphor and simile as far as you can. For example, use science
terms to write about childhood or philosophic language to describe a shirt.
- Take an idea, anything that interests you, or an object, then spend a few
days looking and noticing, perhaps making notes on what comes up about that
idea, or, try to create a situation or surrounding where everything that
happens is in relation.
- Construct a poem as if the words were three-dimensional objects to be
handled in space. Print them on large cards or bricks if necessary.
- Write as you think, as close as you can come to this, that is, put pen to
paper and don’t stop. Experiment writing fast and writing slow.
- Attempt tape recorder work, that is, recording without a text, perhaps at
- Make notes on what happens or occurs to you for a limited amount of time,
then make something of it in writing.
- Get someone to write for you, pretending they are you.
- Write in a strict form, or, transform prose into a poetic form.
- Write a poem that reflects another poem, as in a mirror.
- Read or write a story or myth, then put it aside and, trying to remember
it, write it five or ten times at intervals from memory. Or, make a work out
of continuously saying, in a column or list, one sentence or line, over and
over in different ways, until you get it “right.”
- Make a pattern of repetitions.
- Take an already written work of your own and insert, at random or by
choice, a paragraph or section from, for example, a psychology book or a
seed catalogue. Then study the possibilities of rearranging this work or
rewriting the “source.”
- Experiment with writing in every person and tense every day.
- Explore the possibilities of lists, puzzles, riddles, dictionaries,
almanacs, etc. Consult the thesaurus where categories for the word “word”
include: word as news, word as message, word as information, word as story,
word as order or command, word as vocable, word as instruction, promise,
- Write what cannot be written; for example, compose an index.
- The possibilities of synesthesia in relation to language and words: the
word and the letter as sensations, colors evoked by letters, sensations
caused by the sound of a word as apart from its meaning, etc. And the effect
of this phenomenon on you; for example, write in the water, on a moving
- Attempt writing in a state of mind that seems least congenial.
- Consider word and letter as forms-the concretistic distortion of a text, a
mutiplicity of o’s or ea’s, or a pleasing visual arrangement: “the mill pond
of chill doubt.”
- Do experiments with sensory memory: record all sense images that remain
from breakfast, study which senses engage you, escape you.
- Write, taking off from visual projections, whether mental or mechanical,
without thought to the word in the ordinary sense, no craft.
- Make writing experiments over a long period of time. For example, plan how
much you will write for a particular work each day, perhaps one word or one
- Write on a piece of paper where something is already printed or written.
- Attempt to eliminate all connotation from a piece of writing and vice
- Experiment with writing in a group, collaborative work: a group writing
individually off of each other’s work over a long period of time in the same
room; a group contributing to the same work, sentence by sentence or line by
line; one writer being fed information and ideas while the other writes;
writing, leaving instructions for another writer to fill in what you can’t
describe; compiling a book or work structured by your own language around
the writings of others; or a group working and writing off of each other’s
- Dream work: record dreams daily, experiment with translation or
transcription of dream thought, attempt to approach the tense and
incongruity appropriate to the dream, work with the dream until a poem or
song emerges from it, use the dream as an alert form of the mind’s activity
or consciousness, consider the dream a problem-solving device, change dream
characters into fictional characters, accept dream’s language as a gift.
- Structure a poem or prose writing according to city streets, miles, walks,
drives. For example: Take a fourteen-block walk, writing one line per block
to create a sonnet; choose a city street familiar to you, walk it, make
notes and use them to create a work; take a long walk with a group of
writers, observe, make notes and create works, then compare them; take a
long walk or drive-write one line or sentence per mile. Variations on this.
- The uses of journals. Keep a journal that is restricted to one set of
ideas, for instance, a food or dream journal, a journal that is only written
in when it is raining, a journal of ideas about writing, a weather journal.
Remember that journals do not have to involve “good” writing-they are to be
made use of. Simple one-line entries like “No snow today” can be inspiring
later. Have 3 or 4 journals going at once, each with a different purpose.
Create a journal that is meant to be shared and commented on by another
writer–leave half of each page blank for the comments of the other.
- Type out a Shakespeare sonnet or other poem you would like to learn
about/imitate double-spaced on a page. Rewrite it in between the lines.
- Find the poems you think are the worst poems ever written, either by your
own self or other poets. Study them, then write a bad poem.
- Choose a subject you would like to write “about.” Then attempt to write a
piece that absolutely avoids any relationship to that subject. Get someone
to grade you.
- Write a series of titles for as yet unwritten poems or proses.
- Work with a number of objects, moving them around on a field or
surface-describe their shifting relationships, resonances, associations. Or,
write a series of poems that have only to do with what you see in the place
where you most often write. Or, write a poem in each room of your house or
apartment. Experiment with doing this in the home you grew up in, if
- Write a bestiary (a poem about real and mythical animals).
- Write five short expressions of the most adamant anger; make a work out of
- Write a work gazing into a mirror without using the pronoun I.
- A shocking experiment: Rip pages out of books at random (I guess you could
xerox them) and study them as if they were a collection of poetic/literary
material. Use this method on your old high school or college notebooks, if
possible, then create an epistemological work based on the randomly chosen
- Meditate on a word, sound or list of ideas before beginning to write.
- Take a book of poetry you love and make a list, going through it poem by
poem, of the experiments, innovations, methods, intentions, etc. involved in
the creation of the works in the book.
- Write what is secret. Then write what is shared. Experiment with writing
each in two different ways: veiled language, direct language.
- Write a soothing novel in twelve short paragraphs.
- Write a work that attempts to include the names of all the physical
contents of the terrestrial world that you know.
- Take a piece of prose writing and turn it into poetic lines. Then, without
remembering that you were planning to do this, make a poem of the first and
last words of each line to see what happens. For instance, the lines (from
- When at the reception
- Of sense-impressions, memory pictures
- Emerge this is not yet thinking
- And when. . .
- Would become:
- When reception
- Of pictures
- Emerge thinking
- And when
- And so on. Form the original prose, poetic lines, and first-and-last word
poem into three columns on a page. Study their relationships.
- If you have an answering machine, record all messages received for one
month, then turn them into a best-selling novella.
- Write a macaronic poem (making use of as many languages as you are
- Attempt to speak for a day only in questions; write only in questions.
- Attempt to become in a state where the mind is flooded with ideas; attempt
to keep as many thoughts in mind simultaneously as possible. Then write
without looking at the page, typescript or computer screen (This is “called”
- Choose a period of time, perhaps five or nine months. Every day, write a
letter that will never be sent to a person who does or does not exist, or to
a number of people who do or do not exist. Create a title for each letter
and don’t send them. Pile them up as a book.
- Etymological work. Experiment with investigating the etymologies of all
words that interest you, including your own name(s). Approaches to
etymologies: Take a work you’ve already written, preferably something short,
look up the etymological meanings of every word in that work including words
like “the” and “a”. Study the histories of the words used, then rewrite the
work on the basis of the etymological information found out. Another
approach: Build poems and writings form the etymological families based on
the Indo-European language constructs, for instance, the BHEL family: bulge,
bowl, belly, boulder, billow, ball, balloon; or the OINO family: one, alone,
lonely, unique, unite, unison, union; not to speak of one of the GEN
families: kin, king, kindergarten, genteel, gender, generous, genius,
genital, gingerly, pregnant, cognate, renaissance, and innate!
- Write a brief bibliography of the science and philosophy texts that
interest you. Create a file of newspaper articles that seem to relate to the
chances of writing poetry.
- Write the poem: Ways of Making Love. List them.
- Diagram a sentence in the old-fashioned way. If you don’t know how, I’ll
be happy to show you; if you do know how, try a really long sentence, for
instance from Melville.
- Turn a list of the objects that have something to do with a person who has
died into a poem or poem form, in homage to that person.
- Write the same poem over and over again, in different forms, until you are
weary. Another experiment: Set yourself the task of writing for four hours
at a time, perhaps once, twice or seven times a week. Don’t stop until
hunger and/or fatigue take over. At the very least, always set aside a
four-hour period once a month in which to write. This is always possible and
will result in one book of poems or prose writing for each year. Then we
begin to know something.
- Attempt as a writer to win the Nobel Prize in Science by finding out how
thought becomes language, or does not.
- Take a traditional text like the pledge of allegiance to the flag. For
every noun, replace it with one that is seventh or ninth down from the
original one in the dictionary. For instance, the word “honesty” would be
replaced by “honey dew melon.” Investigate what happens; different
dictionaries will produce different results.
- Attempt to write a poem or series of poems that will change the world.
Does everything written or dreamed of do this?
- Write occasional poems for weddings, for rivers, for birthdays, for other
poets' beauty, for movie stars maybe, for the anniversaries of all kinds of
loving meetings, for births, for moments of knowledge, for deaths. Writing
for the “occasion” is part of our purpose as poets in being-this is our work
in the community wherein we belong and work as speakers for others.
- Experiment with every traditional form, so as to know it.
- Write poems and proses in which you set yourself the task of using
particular words, chosen at random like the spelling exercises of children:
intelligence, amazing, weigh, weight, camel, camel’s, foresight, through,
threw, never, now, snow, rein, rain. Make a story of that!
- Plan, structure, and write a long work. Consider what is the work now
needed by the culture to cure and exact even if by accident the great
exorcism of its 1998 sort-of- seeming-not-being. What do we need? What is
the poem of the future?
- What is communicable now? What more is communicable?
- Compose a list of familiar phrases, or phrases that have stayed in your
mind for a long time–from songs, from poems, from conversation:
- What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
- By any other name would smell as sweet
- (Romeo and Juliet)
- A rose is a rose is a rose
- (Gertrude Stein)
- A raisin in the sun
- (Langston Hughes)
- The king was in the counting house
- Counting out his money. . .
- (Nursery rhyme)
- I sing the body electric. . .
- These United States. . .
- (Walt Whitman)
- A thing of beauty is a joy forever
- (I summon up) remembrance of things past
- Ask not for whom the bell tolls
- It tolls for thee
- Look homeward, Angel
- For fools rush in where angels fear to tread
- All’s well that ends well
- I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness
- (Allen Ginsberg)
- I think therefore I am
- It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,. . .
- brave new world has such people in it
- (Shakespeare, The Tempest, later Huxley)
- Odi et amo (I hate and I love)
- Water water everywhere
- Nor any drop to drink
- Curiouser and curiouser
- (Alice in Wonderland)
- Don’t worry be happy. Here’s a little song I wrote. . .
- Write the longest most beautiful sentence you can imagine-make it be a
- Set yourself the task of writing in a way you’ve never written before, no
matter who you are.
- What is the value of autobiography?
- Attempt to write in a way that’s never been written before.
- Invent a new form.
- Write a perfect poem.
- Write a work that intersperses love with landlords.
- In a poem, list what you know.
- Address the poem to the reader.
- Write household poems-about cooking, shopping, eating and sleeping.
- Write dream collabortations in the lune form.
- Write poems that only make use of the words included in Basic English.
- Attempt to write about jobs and how they affect the writing of poetry.
- Write while being read to from science texts, or, write while being read
to by one’s lover from any text.
- Trade poems with others and do not consider them your own.
- Exercises in style: Write twenty-five or more different versions of one
- Review the statement: “What is happening to me, allowing for lies and
exaggerations which I try to avoid, goes into my poems.”