The Mermaid Exercise

Whenever I do this exercise with students, the results are always utterly astounding. I sometimes worry that they’re going to get stressed out, but in the end, they always seem to enjoy the challenge.

The Mermaid Exercise

  1. Start with a word – a noun. I always choose “mermaid,” because not only is it rich with descriptive potential, but it’s embedded enough in the American psyche that we have a lot of powerful, automatic associations with it (“The Little Mermaid”) and a pretty specific image of what a mermaid is. You can always pick some other noun, of course, if you find one that works better, or if you want to do this more than once with the same class. (From now on, I’m just going to use the word “mermaid,” but of course, substitute your chosen noun as necessary.)
  2. Write the word “mermaid” on the board. Tell the class that you’re terribly sorry, but you’re confused and you don’t understand what a mermaid is. Ask them: “Can you tell me what a mermaid is, in a few sentences?” Have them write down a definition of a mermaid.
  3. Then, have them read their definitions out loud. Chances are, if you’ve chosen the right word, their definitions are going to be very utilitarian, and very similar to each other. As they read them out loud, put key words on the board that you hear: “Fish,” “half,” “woman,” “tail,” “ocean,” “little,” “Disney,” etc. I usually put about 6 – 8. These (and any variations of them–”fishes,” “women,” “fishtail,” etc.) are now “forbidden” words.
  4. Ask the students to take a minute to write you a 1 -2 sentence description of a mermaid that does not use any of the forbidden words.
  5. Once they have done this, ask for a handful volunteers to read their descriptions out loud. Listen closely for key nouns and verbs that the students are using, especially if more than one student uses them. Write these nouns and verbs on the board. “Swim,” “fins,” “sea,” “myth,” “creature,” “human,” “water,” etc. You are making the list of forbidden words larger.
  6. Again, ask your students to write a 1 – 2 sentence description of mermaid, not using the (updated) list of forbidden words. Again, ask volunteers to read theirs aloud, and add to the list.
  7. You can repeat this process as many times as you want. Obviously, the more rounds, the larger the list, and the more challenging the final step will be.
  8. After you have a list on the board that you feel comfortable with, give the students time (I usually do anywhere from 7 – 15 minutes, depending on the time available in class) to write a scene in which a person encounters a mermaid, again using none of the forbidden words.
  9. Have some of them (or all of them) read their final scenes out loud. Talk about what makes each scene work. Ask students how they thought to get around some particularly choice word restriction.
  10. Encourage the students to compare their final description/scene to their original description. Ask them how they’re different. Do they prefer one to the other?

The great thing about this exercise–whether it’s being done by students or professional writers–is that it pushes your brain to the limits of your stylistic capabilities. Sometimes people get really stymied by this challenge, but often the results are incredible. My class yesterday ended up with some truly impressive, absolutely gorgeous scenes, all using really unconventional approaches to the myth, idea, and visual of the mermaid. And it really drives points the home that you can use your own personal take on a subject, and style, and create an image that’s uniquely yours, even if the subject is something that’s been written about before.

I worry sometimes that, when people teach fiction, style and language end up behind character and plot. But I think style is just as important, and this exercise is a really good way to show students how to bust through cliché and do something new.