Create Your Own Creative Writing Exam

For the last several years, the first semester exam for my high school creative writing class has come in two parts, spread out over a few class periods.

For Part One, students receive a small slip of paper that says “CREATE YOUR OWN CREATIVE WRITING EXAM,” and just a couple of sentences’ instruction. They have one 50-minute class period to create an exam for the course, and the only requirement is that they use the entire period. They may take the full 50 minutes to make the exam, or if they finish it before the period is over, they can actually take the exam themselves. One or two students usually panic, afraid that they won’t do it “right”; I more or less refuse to give any other direction, but if a student is sincerely worried I’ll just tell them, “Create an exam you would like to take” or “Just be true to the spirit of the course, and I promise you’ll be fine” — and after a little hand-wringing they start writing.

Somehow I usually manage to convince at least most of the students that Part Two of the exam will be completely unrelated to Part One, that Part One is a stand-alone exercise, a warm-up for something more exam-ish. But of course it is all a set-up: before they come back for Part Two I compile questions and prompts from all twenty-something exams into a single, epic document. They have a little more than two hours, over two days, to accomplish as much as they can. They can skip any questions and go in whatever order they want. Again, the only requirement is that they use the entire allotted time: they shouldn’t try to do it all, just to do as much as they can.

Both parts of the exam are always great fun for me to read. I’m always impressed by how funny and poignant, how creative and absurdist and profound these students can be, even in the middle of exam week, and I’m always reminded how glad I am to know all of them.

In case you would like to take this year’s exam for yourself, I am posting it in the link below. Set a timer for 60 or 90 minutes or whatever feels right and see what you can do. I did not create any of these questions; each one was created by a sophomore, junior, or senior in high school.

Good luck.

Create Your Own Creative Writing Exam 2017

P.S. A couple of students’ questions reference the wonderful artist and writer Lynda Barry and this 14-minute video, which we’d recently watched in class — and which I recommend also to you.

This Is What You Shall Do

This one’s quoted often but rewards frequent revisits. So — from the original preface to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, published in 1855 …

Version 2

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”


Keep kicking.

Tonight I had a half hour to kill so pulled off my shelf, randomly, a book I hadn’t opened in years: The Incompleat Folksinger, a collection of columns, essays, liner notes, and other odd writings from Pete Seeger.

In my last house the book lived on a very high shelf — lived, in fact, on top of my biggest bookcase — and I never made the effort to pull it down. Recently, when I moved my books and shelves in with Glory and Norah, I got wild and put some books that had been long out of reach where they might be more easily and impulsively grabbed. So tonight my eyes landed on this book I hadn’t spent any real time with since college.

I opened to somewhere in the middle, and the first thing I read was this — a column Seeger wrote for Sing Out! magazine in June of 1968. It began with a parable:

A farmer once left a tall can of milk with the top off outside his door. Two frogs hopped into it and then found that they couldn’t hop out. After thrashing around a bit, one of them says, “There’s no hope.” With one last gurgle he sank to the bottom. The other frog refused to give up. In the morning the farmer came out and found one live frog sitting on a big cake of butter.

Here is Pete Seeger’s moral:

It pays to kick. 

* * *

Really, that’s all I set out to share tonight. But here are three short postscripts — a memory, an internet search, and a gratitude — if you care to read on.

Postscript 1 (on the subject of Seeger):

One weekend when we were in college, maybe in 1998, my friends Lilah and Christo and I drove down to Beacon, New York, for the Clearwater Festival. When we pulled up, the first thing we saw was Pete Seeger, bent over and stirring chili. My heart may have exploded. This is the defining image I’ll always have of the man: not with a banjo, but with a big pot of chili, an equally appropriate symbol of the values he espoused.

Pete Chili

When I got a chance I approached him and tried to tell him what his music had meant to me. He discouraged me from being so excited to meet him. I understood what he was saying, but I couldn’t help it. Lilah or maybe Christo took this picture. I had lots of hair back then and we’d been in the car for an hour with the windows rolled down; once the photos were developed I was embarrassed at how preposterous my hair looked. But I’ll share it with you, now, these 19 or 20 years later:

Pete Seeger and me

Postscript 2 (on Seeger, continued):

It seems The Incompleat Folksinger is out of print — so I’m glad I held on to my copy. I’ve noticed lately that several books I cherished in my late teens and early twenties aren’t currently in print. They will be again, I’m sure. Meanwhile, this one you can still find pretty easily, used.

Postscript 3 (on the subject of kicking):

When I read tonight about the two frogs I thought: I’m grateful to a number of friends whose indefatigable kicking inspires me every day. I’m trying to learn to be more like them, and more like that second frog.

There’s hope, everybody. Keep kicking.



How to be a poet (drawing)

Wendell Berry

A few years ago I drew this picture of Wendell Berry for my friend Daniel on his birthday. Daniels wife Lucy commissioned the drawing and gave me one of Wendell Berrys books as payment. She also suggested the text, “How to Be a Poet.”

A few weeks ago, while I was moving, I came across my copy of the drawing, which I’d mostly forgotten. Now I’ve put it where I see it every day. I’m not a poet exactly, but I find Berrys reminders a comfort and encouragement. Heres the full poem. Maybe it will be useful, also, to you.

Don’t forget to breathe.

How to Be a Poet
By Wendell Berry
(to remind myself)
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.