The Power of the Five-Minute Writing Exercise
During my final year of college, I began a writing group of five (and later four) people to motivate constant written production. We met for two hours every Monday in one of the campus cafés, mostly to workshop each other’s submissions and discuss the elusive elements that make pieces in The New Yorker or New York Times Magazine so excellent. I, of course, loved having a scheduled time every week to openly discuss and hone of my greatest passions with a group of similarly dedicated creatives, but my favorite part of every meeting lay not as much in the conversations as in the quiet writing time at the beginning of every meeting.
I’ll explain: to get the “creative juices” flowing, I’d ask everyone to take out a writing implement of their choosing (computer, pen and paper, colored pencil and journal, etc.), and write, for five minutes, about a single word or phrase that the group voted on. No judgment, no need for masterful organization — simply stream-of-consciousness craftwork without any pressure to perform.
The first two or three meetings, we were all skeptical of the exercise’s value; our writings were disjointed, confused, and faux-profound. One of my particular writings (on the subject of “Table of Bones”) began with the phrase, “Whenever I think of tables in a non-utilitarian context, I think of that Billy Mays ad, where he declaims the power of Mighty Putty,” and somehow devolved into a strange meditation on death and human decay: “I wonder what dead people look like in the ground after a few years… Are their bones pure white or tarnished brown?” Nothing to write home about, obviously.
I was afraid I’d have to either rework the way we approached the exercise or scrap it entirely, but by the fourth or fifth meeting, we finally hit some kind of stride, however wobbly. My friends were writing quicker, had developed more complex and fluid ideas, and even managed to add real emotional power to their short pieces — all in the span of a few minutes. By the time second semester came, we had all become comfortable enough writing and sharing with each other that we extended the exercise time from five to six, seven, eight, nine minutes.
I hadn’t looked back at these writing samples (which are all saved on my computer) until today. Maybe it’s because, with time and distance, and the sad realization that I am no longer in contact with a few people in the group (damn you, graduation!), I’ve been reluctant, even anxious, to look back on a time in my life that seems so idyllic and precious in retrospect. I might even say that I feared looking back on these snippets would distort the true magic of that period.
I’m happy to say that it didn’t. In fact, it only bolstered the memories I hold so close to my heart. Take this passage, which I wrote on the subject of Spring (in the middle of Spring, of course):
“Spring is my favorite season despite my having been born in June. It’s got something to do with the poetry of its becoming: a wintry tundra full of dead leaves and frostbitten bark blossoming into a multicolored haven for poets. My only gripe is that it doesn’t last very long, this period of moderate temperatures that, thankfully, don’t make me sweat out my body weight. I’ve always wondered about the etymology of the word Spring, the way it connects to a greater idea of becoming: the springing of the world from death into life, a cycle that recurs annually, without cease. I wonder if all things are so cyclical, even if that cyclicality isn’t immediately obvious, and wonder if death is some kind of return to winter, and whether or not there’s a Spring afterward, or just more winter, and that the cycle ends once our bodies start to feed the earth in preparation for the Earth’s next spring.”
I see, in this, two things: a wonderful reflection of my emotions, perceptions, and ideas at the time, and an indication of my growth as a writer. What’s perhaps the most fascinating thing about this is that it only took comfort and consistency to bring about the changes I so clearly value. I’m convinced, after a whole year practicing this exercise, that it’s led me to examine, more closely and open-heartedly, my initial judgments, feelings, and opinions; I’ve also come to see that the brain is an amazing, confounding place full of jumbled emotions and often useless thoughts, but also a place of profound beauty and incredible imagistic prowess. I don’t think we should take this gift of the moment-to-moment human mind for granted; I think we should learn to befriend it. Or, at the very least, tolerate it, and benefit from all that it can give us, whether creatively or otherwise.
So take out your notebooks and your computers and your loose-leaf packets, pick a word or phrase, set a timer for five minutes, and start writing! See where it takes you. You might be surprised.