Brain Oil

35 Creative Writing Exercises by Aggie Burke, Katherine Hage, and Brian Tanaka


In the winter of 1991 the writers' group I belonged to collected 35 of the best writing exercises we had created and compiled them in a small pamphlet called Brain Oil.

Perhaps calling them exercises is misleading. Think of them instead as diving boards. Walk out to the end of one and jump!

You can use them any way you like, but if you're interested, here's how we would use them:

Have Fun!

  1. It's the middle of the night. The phone rings.

  2. Write off the page. Pick a line from a poem or story by a favorite author. Write it down and write something from that starting point. (From Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.)

  3. Write a story from an overheard conversation.

  4. Describe the first time you got in trouble with someone other than your parents.

  5. Describe a favorite place.

  6. Make a short story out of a personal anecdote. Flesh it out. Exaggerate.

  7. You've just eaten LSD on death row.

  8. You are suddenly compelled to interact with a familiar stranger.

  9. You are a worker in the Lithuanian Telephone and Telegraph office. Russian troops have just come in to shut down phone service.

  10. Write about something that is commonly cliched (eg. Spring, motherhood, dawn breaking, death) in exactly the opposite tone ordinarily taken (eg. the vileness of motherhood, the silly side of death).

  11. Describe the first time you ever got lost. (Or any time you were lost.)

  12. Write a short piece whose main character is not of your gender.

  13. Describe your father when: 1) Angry 2) Happy 3) Drunk.

  14. Describe a cusp when you feel extreme emotion but you can't decide if you're happy or sad.

  15. It's your wedding night and your spouse isn't with you.

  16. Describe a character's emotional/mental state without telling. Show it.

  17. Write a story entirely in dialogue.

  18. Your boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/whatever has just informed you that you probably have crabs (or any VD except AIDS).

  19. Write about something that happened in the last 24 hours.

  20. Write a one page story excerpt with at least three characters. Rewrite the story in the first person. Rewrite it once for each character, using that character as the narrator/Point of View character each time.

  21. From an overheard conversation: Little girl talking to her father, who is holding a baby in his arms, on a Market Street bus says, "I remember when you had your car... We used to always ride up and down this street."

  22. You're late for something.

  23. Write about your relation to writing.

  24. Write from the perspective you would have had you been born 100 years ago.

  25. You're in a cafe writing and someone walks in.

  26. Describe your first romantic encounter.

  27. Find an object. Anything. Describe it: 1. by sight 2. by smell 3. by sound 4. by touch 5. by taste. Go somewhere. Do the same for this place.

  28. You are trapped in a broken elevator.

  29. You are making a special meal. What's it for? Describe how someone is feeling by the way they are cooking.

  30. Someone is walking through a graveyard. Why?

  31. Write from the perspective of someone who doesn't speak the language or understand the culture.

  32. You hear a dripping in the middle of the night. You get up to turn off the faucet and find that it's something else.

  33. Write freely. Start with "I remember". (From Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life by Natalie Goldberg.) Start with "I don't remember".

  34. Try writing with your monitor off.

  35. You wake up and everything's different.