Writing Exercise: The Bucket

Helps With: Imagery, concrete nouns, active verbs, symbolism.

Great readers and writers must be great observers, and great observers hone their observational craft on people, places, and objects.  In other words, they’re always looking at things (which in this case includes people), and watching what those things do. That’s what most writing is about: things doing stuff.  

(If you want to really fall down a rabbit hole on this matter, poke around this website for a while.  Suffice to say, I’m a big fan of John Maguire’s methods, and this will not be the last time they come up.)

In the Bucket exercise, you assemble a bucket (natch) of small objects.  If you’re like me, you’ve accumulated enough random crap in your house that you could sweep your arm across a shelf in a cabinet and fill at least half your bucket.  Each student pulls an object out of the Bucket. To get the most out of the exercise, allow at least ten seconds between each student so that everyone has a chance to see what everyone else pulled out.  Welcome the outbursts of “what the heck is this?” and “why do you have one of these?”; they are part of the fun.

Your students must now write 20 sentences about their object, adhering to the following rules:

  1. No more than five of their sentences can have the same subject.
  2. They must use active verbs that are not forms of “to be” or “to have.”
  3. They must create imagery that appeals to at least three of their five senses.
  4. They must write a combination of short (fewer than eight words), medium (eight to fifteen words), and long (more than fifteen words) sentences.

Here’s a sampling of sentences my students have pulled out of the Bucket:

  • (About a rice paddle) The handle curves gently upward, then slopes down.
  • (About a tea infuser) The mesh basket smells of old Earl Grey.
  • (About an HDMI cable) The cord snakes around my fingers in smooth loops.
  • (About a crocheted coaster) Orange and green thread blend together to make the color of an old leaf.
  • (About a brain-shaped stress ball) When I press the brain with my finger, it leaves a split-second crease, which disappears as soon as I let go.
  • (About a clamp) The jaws spring shut with a little pop when I let the handle go.
  • (About a plastic level) I set the level on the table; the table, it seems, is off-balance.
  • (About a stitch remover) What does that tiny red ball above the point do?

Aren’t those lovely sentences?  Maybe we’re not working with the next Yeatses or Dickinsons here, but their sentences are lively, engaging, pleasurable to read, and make me want to hear more about whatever the object is.

Once students have completed their twenty sentences, depending on the level of your students, you can have them do several follow-up exercises with their sentences as the building blocks:

  • For a low-level class: choose 8-10 of your sentences and form them into a descriptive paragraph with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
  • For a mid-level class: write a short story (one to two pages) in which a character interacts with your object, using at least 10 of your sentences.
  • For an advanced class: decide how your object could function symbolically and stand in for an abstract concept.  Write a short story (one to two pages) in which your object becomes a symbol for the story’s major theme. [My student who chose the stitch ripper, and had no idea what it was, wrote a hilarious story about two anthropologists from the future deciding it had been an ancient eating utensil.]
  • Or, get creative and write your own!

You can contact me for a template for The Bucket, or you can create your own.

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