Reclaiming the Joy of Writing: Go Random

By Ethan Gilsdorf

I think back to the time when I first began writing seriously. 


It was the summer after I graduated from college. I was free. I was determined. I had the fire in my belly.

Yes, I still needed to learn my craft. As a somewhat naive writer, I didn't know the different between a dactyl and a dangling participle. But it didn’t matter. I sat at my manual typewriter in my sweltering apartment in Northampton, Mass., and in between kitchen shifts at the local macrobiotic restaurant (this was the early 1990s, after all), I clanked and clattered and scribbled away. It was blissful (at least the way I recall it now.)

I miss those more innocent, deluded days. I made lots of mistakes, but I didn’t care. Everything I didn’t know about writing wasn’t in my head to dissuade me, to tell me "No." My ignorance made writing more fun.

Now, at times, writing can feel like a burden. For someone who makes his living as a writer, writing can seem a chore, a duty, an obligation.

In the immortal words of Bob Seger, “Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then.” (The words some from “Against the Wind,” another song that for me recalls those more unguarded and inexperienced days.)

I hanker for the times when I could just knock out a sestina for the sheer delight of it. When I’d begin a short story on the back of an envelope in pencil while riding the bus, then rush home to scribble the rest of it down on a yellow legal pad.

How can I, and you, reclaim that joy? That fire in your belly? That wanton desire for writing? Dare I say, the fun of writing? And how can we quiet the voices in our heads that say, “That’s no good. Why are you wasting your time on this silly novel/scene/poem?”

I think the answer is to go random.

Without fail, carving out 10 or 20 or 30 minutes to knock out an arbitrary exercise can help restore your love for writing. By writing something in which you have no emotional investment, before you know it, you’ve refreshed your writing well and pulled off new and exciting work that might even surprise yourself.

Any low-pressure prompt lowers the bar.

Ideas: You can try to write the story of your life in 250 words or less. You might try an essay in the form of plaques and captions for a museum exhibit about yourself. You might write a poem as an instructional manual. Or use five random words --- dentist, Red Sox ticket, late, elephant, Red Line --- as the framework around which you must write a short work of flash fiction.

Where do you get good writing exercises? Here are some collection of of my favorites which I use in my classes: Naming the World, And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, by Bret Anthony Johnston or any in the “Now Write!” series, which comes in three flavors: Now Write! Nonfiction: Memoir, Journalism and Creative Nonfiction Exercises from Today's Best Writers and Now Write! Fiction: Writing Exercises from Today's Best Writers and Teachersboth by Sherry Ellis; or Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror: Speculative Genre Exercises from Today's Best Writers and Teachers by Laurie Lamson. And there are countless others.

Get out your dice, roll ‘em, and consult the page number indicated on the dice. Then write.

Or, if you want to be in the company of others as you try some new tricks, take my “Kickstart Your Writing Mojo with A Random Exercise” class this Friday, June 20th, from 10:00am-5:00pm. I’ll be bringing in some of my favorite, foolproof exercises for a day-long boot camp of writing joy. And we’ll use my 20-sided die to decide what exercise to try next.

Your joy of writing will almost assuredly be restored.



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About the Author

A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and he is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D. Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and is also the instructor of GrubStreet's 8-month Essay Incubator program and serves as coordinator of GrubStreet's Providence program. He’s also the lead instructor for the Westerly (RI) Memoir Project. He has led writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations and also teaches writing and Dungeons & Dragons classes for younger students, in schools, libraries and community centers. He had also served on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and as a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.

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