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The Writing Dare, Part 1

Hi, everyone, and welcome back to Jess Anthony Week at the indefatigable Powell's Blog. For those of you just tuning in, we have covered a lot of ground so far, everything from Italo Calvino to dessert toppings.

I'm glad you're here.

I like you.

Over the next two days, I have a guest joining me, the writer Thomas Israel Hopkins. For the last five years or so, Tom and I have given each other writing challenges. Some of us have been successful at these challenges (Tom). Others have failed (Jess). Now when I say "writing challenge," I'm not talking about any of the commercial stunts out there like NaNoWhatWriPoWhatMo, I'm talking about a genuine creative challenge from one writer to another. I'm talking about asking someone to write from a kernel of an idea so ridiculous or absurd that it borders on a dare. In fact, from here on out, I am calling them dares. The designer of the Writing Dare must create a platform upon which another writer can build.The designer of the Writing Dare must create a platform upon which another writer can build. Dares must contain Interest, Possibility, and if you're lucky, Grave Danger. Which sounds a lot easier than it is. For example.

A lousy writing dare: "Write a story about a man who wants to be a clown."

A better writing dare: "Narcissistic vegetarian clown hates children."

So Tom and I are going to discuss the nature, strengths, and failures of writing dares over the next two days. Join us. It should be fun. And look, Tom is a friendly-looking fellow:

Sorry, ladies (and gents), he's taken:

Jessica Anthony (JA): One of the best things about writing dares is that they force you to inhabit a small writing space. (For some reason I am thinking of cats trapped in paper bags right now — dare!). As a writer whose drafting process diverts constantly from itself (making achieving FINAL DRAFT achingly difficult at times), I've found that such challenges are a useful restriction, and often help me take hold of a story in surprising ways.

Thomas Israel Hopkins (TIH): I agree completely! You and I have been talking about this stuff for a while, and I usually think about a writing challenge as a way to get started — a way to get your first words on a blank page (i.e., forget writer's block, start by simply describing those cats) — but you're totally right that it's also a way to maintain your focus as you go (i.e., forget the dogs playing canasta in the next room, your job is to hone in on the whole cat-bag situation). Coincidentally, isn't achieving FINAL DRAFT also something you do in a solar-wind-powered spaceship immediately before achieving MAXIMUM THRUST?

JA: "A guy tries to write a short story but ends up building a rocketship." Dare! I think you're right that challenges can help start the writing. Or at least help you overcome that singular moment when you sit down and stare at the white of the screen of your computer or notebook pages and feel [X]. Most fiction writers I know all feel that moment in different ways, to varying degrees. I was talking yesterday about how I usually begin with voice — but as soon as something has to be made concrete, the concreteness becomes its own challenge. Years ago, I wrote a story called "The Rust Preventer" which began simply about a guy lost in the jungle until I found a military pamphlet from 1945 entitled "RUST: Its Causes and Prevention." Suddenly the story had found its form. Research, in that sense, becomes its own self-imposed writing challenge.

TIH: I've had a lot of luck with challenges from you — really, I ought to hit you up for these things more frequently! You gave me: "Topic: Leaf-peeping. Rule: Must include Biblical metaphor." That turned into my story "The Samoan Assassin Calls It Quits," which ran in One Story. You also gave me the title "I Used to Have Fun with Reggie Kopalski's Rubber Mallet," which I combined with a challenge from my friend Eric Ozawa having to do with couples breaking up in Brooklyn pizza parlors. That turned into a story titled "Reggie Kopalski's Pizzeria" that was published in Sonora Review.

JA: You are really good at this — it is why I asked you to talk about it. And I want to say more about the creative value of these dares. I also mentioned yesterday that Updike once said his stories were born from two unrelated events coming together, and that's really at the heart of what we're talking about. You can easily see why: the unrelated scenarios provide an opportunity for the writer to deal with immediate external conflict. They have two paths to connect, which is ripe for metaphor. When we begin our challenges, we are giving each other completely unrelated themes and that's probably why they worked.

TIH: Both of those above stories, I think, are examples of what you're talking about — bumping these two weird things up against each other and seeing what happens. Life, I guess, is one thing that can emerge from weird bumping. Either that or art. (Speaking of weird love, anyone reading this who has not read Jess's story "The Rust Preventer" really, really, really needs to pick up a copy of Best New American Voices 2006, pronto. I bet Powell's has a copy!)

JA: "Life is one thing that can emerge from weird bumping." I believe we have reached some kind of philosophical apex with that statement. So dares help us start writing, and just in the way a poet writes a sestina or a villanelle, and the expression inhabits the space dictated by the rules of the form's design, a challenge or dare for a fiction writer can likewise be a useful restriction...

Wait, what's happening?...

It appears that cute kittens have taken over Powell's Blog.

...We are experiencing technical difficulties. Come back tomorrow for the riveting conclusion of "The Writing Dare" because Jess and Tom do have a point to make, and it's clear that the heat on the East Coast is starting to affect them in strange and unpredictable ways.

÷ ÷ ÷

Jessica Anthony is the inaugural winner of the Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award sponsored by McSweeney's. The Convalescent is her first novel.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Convalescent Used Hardcover $6.50
  2. Best New American Voices 2006: Fresh... New Trade Paper $18.95

Jessica Anthony is the author of The Convalescent

7 Responses to "The Writing Dare, Part 1"

    Catalina M. H. W. H. L. Bogan August 19th, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    Ha ha ha! Brilliant! I love it all, but especially "Life, I guess, is one thing that can emerge from weird bumping." Centuries of philosophers have pondered and argued and conversed over what Thomas Israel Hopkins states nonchalantly and in such a pleasing manner.

    Susan Bernofsky August 19th, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    Heinrich von Kleist's great comedy The Broken Jug was the result of a writing dare based on an etching hanging in a room where he and 2 friends were having drinks. One of the other two produced something kinda boring, and the third didn't follow through at all, if I'm remembering correctly, but Kleist's play is one of the funniest ever written. This was in the early years of the 19th century.

    Hannah August 19th, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    Neat idea. Not sure if you are making the challenge to those of us who connect via Facebook or not. Are you looking for cute stories about cute kittens?

    Holly August 27th, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    NaNoWriMo is not commercial. It's big and egalitarian; it's funded by donations and kept in motion by the passion of a kajillion volunteers and participants. And... they issue dares pretty much exactly like yours to each other every day during the writing process. Maybe "stunt" is just a snappier word for "genuine creative challenge from one writer to another"?

    Jessica Anthony August 28th, 2009 at 11:33 am


    Touché. However it works is how you should do it. Always.

    DebZ August 28th, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    I'm glad my mouth was empty as I scrolled over that first feline photo, or I surely would have done a spit-take all over my monitor. Pretty ballsy to slip knitwear over a kitten. Write on!

    nova August 28th, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    Go forth and read of the collapse of Americas economic system.

    What will it be like? Is there room for a Norse Goddess. Can a man with a single action Colt still win the west?

    I didn't even look down at what was waiting. I didn't care. I was also sure. Sure as a man could be that it was going to be all right. Instead I looked into the sun and the sky and screamed with pure freaking joy.

    I hit the ground, rolled, and sprung to my feet. In front of me were 6 guys in full gear including black plastic rifles. They were standing in semi-circle around a blond haired, blue eyed girl of maybe 12. She had a fresh bruise on her cheek and a bolt action wooden stock rifle about four feet from her. A large Black male was standing off to one side and in front of her. He had just finished saying "...sick shit." She was looking up at him calmly. The paleness of her face made her blue eyes really stand out. She was wearing a yellow dress. They were wearing helmets. Gunny had told me about them. Cheaters.

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