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Writing Games as Secret Educational Nutrition
and the rules and variations to Exquisite Corpse
I used to nanny for a little girl who did not eat produce. Not vegetables, not fruits. She would drink milkshakes (I mean, who wouldn’t?) so her mom would slip things like avocados in them. Writing games are like the avocado milkshakes of learning to write. Kids are so busy enjoying them they don’t notice all the gross educational nutrition in them. Which is fine by me. Why should nutritious things have to be boring?
The point of a writing game is humor and speed. Spelling just needs to be guessable. Punctuation is useful, but probably not too necessary. It’s a moment where kids’ sense of humor and imagination steps forward and pulls their reluctant pencils along.
Here is a classic (for a reason) writing game:
Exquisite Corpse: the rules
One of the most classic writing games is Exquisite Corpse, so named by the Surrealists, hence the playful and macabre title. The premise is simple: everyone gets a piece of paper and write a title at the top. Then they pass the paper to the left. The next person writes the first line of a story that could have that title. Then they fold the paper over so that only what they wrote is showing, pass again, and the next person adds another line. And so on, until the paper is full. Then open the paper and read the strange story.
When playing with children, it’s helpful to make the additional suggestion that everyone has to write either a whole sentence or a full line, whichever comes first. This keeps the game from devolving into something like:
At which point no one has any idea what is going on, and which can really only be funny for so long.
It can also help to make sure to give the next writer some clue. For instance, if the first sentence said “Once there was a girl named Anya who wanted to eat the moon,” then the next person could say something opaque like, “But she didn’t know how,” or they could pass on some piece of info: “but she didn’t know how the moon would taste,” or “but Anya did not have a spoon that could reach the moon.” Even if only the adults playing do this, it can help the story cohere just the slightest, pleasing amount.
If you’re playing in a small group, have everyone start two papers, so no one can track which paper they are writing on, which lets the stories get weirder.
It’s fine to stick the papers into the middle for someone else to grab instead of passing them, or to have some papers skip over the slower writers. This can take the pressure off them, and keep the faster writers engaged.
You can include pre-literate kids by having them sit to the left of an adult. The adult can write their own line, then help the child write the line that follows it.
Write a poem instead of a story. In that case, instead of thinking about what happens next, think what line would sound good after the line before it, or what image might follow.
Write in some other genre, agreed upon beforehand: tech manual, romance novel, text message.
Alternate writing and pictures. The first person writes a sentence, the next person draws that sentence, the third person (who can only see the drawing because the first sentence is folded over) writes a new sentence explaining the drawing and so on. Feel free to be abstract.
Alternate writing and pictures but instead of a sentence, write an adjective and noun pair (secret nutrition! practicing parts of speech!), like “stinky dog” or “dancing potato chip.”
And some really exquisite ones:
These were written by my class in Seattle in 2017. They were poem versions, so we were focusing on having some kind of resonance or continuity between lines. Which mostly happened!
Because of the Oak
I feel good when I run to the park
I also feel good when I play video games
And I was mooed, oh I was mooed
I shook my hands and stomped my feet
You don’t know anything! she yelled
“Yes I do” he yelled back
and he kissed the bride
Into the pit
of cold winter snakes
“I want to bite you”
he screamed with bared fangs
and ran away
boom went the car
stereo so loud it shook the baby
“all the single ladies all the single ladies”
ugh he moaned I hate this song
but he played the song anyway
because he felt like it
and he fell
who fell? a owl.
No! A rocket ship made of pizza boxes
It’s Harry Potter
Silence is a Verb
I hate silence
he yelled with relish
he sang like a bird
yes, a crow
a crow with dark blue eyes
a cow with dark red eyes
Moo! Moo! Moo!
Ow! Ow! Ow! said the human
but the mountain only grumbled
and shoke and exploded
lava then ash then nothing
it burned on
the flames reaching up
for the sky
for the stars
no I won’t. no no no
I cried to the stars, but they did not believe me