The Writing Life

…a literary journey

Eating Your Words thru Chance Operation


There was a poet. As a regular exercise, he would lock himself in his house and play Pink Floyd’s The Wall non-stop for two days. During this time, he would sit and jot down random words that came to mind. When the time was up, he would take the pieces of paper and cut them up so that each word was on one slip of paper. He then took all the slips of paper and sautéed them in a pan, ate them and then finally sat down to write.

Last night, tucked into bed I was listening to one of my podcasts from The Writing University (courtesy of iTunes U, which I will rave about before I end this post). I find it such a great way to end each day, either by writing long-hand my next scene, or if I don’t feel the muse, at least listen to people talk about writing.

This particular podcast was from The Eleventh Hour Series, part of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival was led by Poet Dara Wier, who also teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Part of Wier’s presentation was about “Chance Operations”. The opening example above was one, albeit extreme, that she relayed. Apparently a common technique among poets (Chance Operation, not literally eating your words!), I had never heard of it – and after researching it online today, I find many examples. Not just poets, but also writers of all genres, photographers, musicians and artists using the technique. One common example used by poets is using numbers as the chance operation – so for example I open a book and take the 9th word from the first line, the 8th word from the second line, the 7th word from the third line and so on until i get to the 1st word from the 9th line. So here’s an example from a book I’m currently reading, We Were The Mulvaneys, by Joyce Carol Oates.

was, customer, out, barn, the, intensity, when, was, antique

The idea is to play with the words and see what – or if – you can structure something interesting out of them. I certainly did not come up with a complete sentence, but I can see where one who writes poetry could use this sort of thought generator. Reply to this post if you are creative enough to hit upon something here!

Another interesting part of the podcast was Wier describing a photography exhibit she visited. There was no introduction, so visitors just viewed the photos – a series of house fronts. Nothing special, just different houses. No great photo technique, just different houses. At the end of the exhibit, there was a poster that defined the exhibition. In all of these houses, horrific crimes had taken place – unspeakable violence. What effect did that have on the viewers? Well of course, as I would have, they would all go back to the beginning and look at all the photos again; trying to see if there were any clues. Of course there were not. It was just a study by this artist that proved that how we look at things depends on what information we have – and if the information we get is prior to or after we look at the art. As writers, we have to decide what information we give and when we dole it out. Makes all the difference in the world, right?

Just a thought-provoking seminar, so I hope you enjoy. And as promised, I do have to rave a bit on iTunes U. I may seem naive, and late to the party. I’m not quite sure why, in all these years of owning an iPhone and iPod, that I never clicked on this link. I feel like I’ve fallen into the sweetest candy store! Just plugging in “writers”, I’ve found the free MFA program I need! Happiness.

Here’s just a sampling of what I’ve downloaded so far:

  1. Start Writing Fiction  – The Open University
  2. University of Iowa – The Writing University Podcast (this is where I listened to Weir)
  3. Writing at Wesleyan – Wesleyan University
  4. Warwick Writing Challenges – University of Warwick
  5. Creative Writing – The Open University
  6. Vanderbuilt University – The Writing Studio
  7. Ohio State – Writer’s Talk
  8. University of Alabama – Creative Writing / MFA Readings

Maybe there are others who don’t know about this great resource, so share and write on…

3 comments on “Eating Your Words thru Chance Operation

  1. Tristan
    March 5, 2014

    (was, customer, out, barn, the, intensity, when, was, antique)

    “When I was out in the barn last week, Solomon Jones happened by. He surprised me, in fact, as I was hardly expecting him. We hadn’t spoken for months; not since his wife, Shirley, passed on. He’d been a regular customer at the feed store and I’d often run into him there, but he sold his farm after he lost Shirley and apart from being noticed getting groceries from Sookie’s Natural Market every other week or so, hardly anyone recollected seeing him. But all of a sudden, there he was, staring me down with a sullen sort of intensity I’d never seen on his face before. His antique Colt revolver he always carried in its aged leather holster wasn’t a surprising sight, but seeing the guard unsnapped sent my throat right down into my gullet.”

    Love your post, Vicki! I’m not an iTunes customer, but now I wish I were. I wonder if any of that material is available through any other source. Would you happen to know?

    • iamvickiroberts
      March 5, 2014

      Hi Tristan! Thanks for the reply and prompt example – you always were a whiz at those :).
      I believe some of the universities themselves hold their podcasts on their own websites, but it really is worth it just do download the app on your phone – androids work too. Here’s another link that can get you started:
      http://www.open.edu/itunes/getting-started

      Stay in touch!
      vicki

      • Tristan
        March 5, 2014

        Thanks!! I’ll check out that link today! 🙂

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