For my mystery and horror writing class, I did an exercise that I am calling “One Hundred Fears.” The exercise is loosely based on a blog post by Kelly Link, in which she recommends making a list of your obsessions, and would be appropriate for any kind of writing class–poetry, fiction, or nonfiction.
It’s pretty straightforward: tell your students to write a list of things that scare them. They have to write, at minimum, one hundred entries. It’s permissible for the entries to be connected in some way (for example, one can be “Getting into a car accident,” and another “Getting into a car accident and hurting somebody besides myself.”) You can also tell students that list can also encompass revulsions (“Milk-skin!”), discomforts (“The sensation of something crawling on my body”), worries (“That my parents will die”), and anxieties (“I’ll mess up my taxes”), in addition to “fears.” If you’re going to be collecting the lists, assure them it’s all right to redact any entries that they don’t wish to share with you.
When they get to the next class, talk about the exercise. Have them share some of their fears–any they feel comfortable sharing with the group. When they do, explore the following questions:
- What do they do to alleviate the fear, if anything? (If they’re afraid of a stranger walking into their house, do they obsessively check the locks? Have a security system? Sleep with a baseball bat near the bed?)
- What, precisely, about that thing scares them? (Three students might be afraid of brain tumors, but one might be afraid because they hate hospitals & medical procedures, another might be afraid of dying, and a third might have anxiety about their personality being altered beyond their control.)
- Is there any origin to this fear they can identify? (Are they afraid of car accidents because of a friend who died in a car accident?)
The length of the list is critical because it pushes them beyond the most obvious entries, forcing them to really dig deep. When I was doing this exercise myself, I became stressfully aware of everything that scares me on a day-to-day basis. Terrors that normally just flashed across my brain were caught, noted, and catalogued. It was simultaneously empowering and unnerving, and also helped me sort out a story I was working on.
If you’re doing this with a class, make sure that you, the instructor, do the exercise yourself. Let your students know that since you’re asking them to be vulnerable, you’re willing to do the same. If you collect their lists, make a note at the end thanking them for their honesty and bravery. (You can also do this verbally, in class.)
This exercise is really great for anyone–writers, teachers, their students. Honestly, any person who wants to explore their own psyche would benefit from this list. It kicks up ideas, unleashes vivid memories, and when it comes to writing, can push stories, essays, and poems to powerful places. An obvious but necessary warning: this exercise can be triggering and stressful. Make sure that anyone participating knows this, and takes appropriate steps for self-care, should it be necessary. Weird and upsetting dreams are not uncommon when you’re focusing on your own fears so acutely.
If you do this exercise with your class and you make any observations/adaptations/etc. that aren’t listed above, please comment and let me know!