My family has never let me live down the Christmas morning that I took charge of the video camera and escorted my loyal viewers on a tour of the table—from an ant’s perspective. To hear them tell the story you would think it was part of a premeditated plan to make them all sick. As it turns out, it was an excellent warm-up for Ana Pastor’s writing class that I took through the Hugo House.
In a nutshell (or an ant’s bathtub, as some of us prefer to think of it), the class followed Raymond Queneau’s book Exercises in Style, and taught us how to walk around and through and over and under a story. We started by writing a very simple story in the style of notation and then practiced 15 of Queneau’s 99 variations, including retrograde (telling it backward) and animism (giving the agency of the story to non-living things).
Did I get tired of thinking about my story? You bet. Were any two tellings of it remotely the same? No way. Turns out, you can say something again and again and again with varied results. Super interesting for a bunch of word geeks like my 2A posse.
And therefore, and so with, and wherein, I invited workmates to join me for a virtual lunch and test a couple of Queneau’s styles on our own unremarkable stories. We did notation, retrograde, and dream (in which you say it like it was…. well, a dream). Here are some of the results:
Toddler strollin’ and podcast rollin’
- Notation: Getting my kid ready for school takes 30 minutes when it should take 5. So sometimes I run him to school instead of walking him to school. And either way I get to listen to a podcast alone on the way home, which is a win.
- Retrograde: I started my morning alone listening to the NPR Politics Podcast after running my kid to school in our jogging stroller. It was a lovely slice of “me time” after negotiating with a toddler to put on shoes for 10 minutes.
- Dream: I show up to drop my kid off at school, but there’s a mom test I didn’t study for. All the other moms read the email and studied, but I missed the email and had no idea there was a test.
Zen and the art of dishwashing
- Notation: I put on headphones and walk into the kitchen. I scroll for some music or a podcast. I stare out the window. I turn on the water and wash the dishes.
- Retrograde: I turn the water on and wash the dishes. I stare out the window. I scroll for some music or a podcast, after walking in the kitchen and putting my headphones on.
- Dream: I float into the kitchen. Noise is everywhere. I look out the window and see our neighbor, my uncle, and old boss floating down a river.
Thin-soled, thick-skinned runner
- Notation: I stepped on a rock while running in my thin-soled shoes. My foot seemed fine for the remainder of my route. When I stopped running, my foot began to hurt.
- Retrograde: My foot hurts, like it’s bruised on the bottom. It seemed fine when I was running just a couple minutes ago. I guess I did step on a rock with my thin-soled shoes.
- Dream: I stepped on sharp stones, I couldn’t avoid them no matter how hard I tried, but I was able to continue on without pain. As I slowed the stones disappeared, and my feet felt cold.
Cool, right? Same ideas, same words, different stories. In summation (please approach the following as a choose-your-own-adventure call to action):
- If you’re feeling stuck in your writing, take a page from Queneau’s book and try a different angle or 78 of them.
- If you, too, need a fun way to give everyone at work a brain reboot, run an Exercise in Style workshop.
- If you’re more of a picture person than a word geek, check out Matt Madden’s 99 ways to tell a story to see how boss he was at making this technique his own.
- And, if you’re tempted to hijack a family holiday in favor of building empathy for ants, just hand over the camera.