build Two Truths and a Lie

by Camille Renshaw

Published in Issue No. 34 ~ March, 2000
  1. Doing the ten exercises below will improve your sex life.
  2. The ten exercises below can be used to teach writing students, or you can use them yourself to generate fresh ideas for poems, stories, or essays.
  3. I owe many thanks to the dozens of professional writers and writing instructors who contributed to this article.

If #1 is not the lie, please let me know what you’re doing.

“Two Truths and a Lie”

While at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference this past summer, a group of us began playing the old drinking game, Two Truths and a Lie. We’ll call our speaker Julie. Julie said, “#1 – At last year’s conference a staff guy professed his love to me on the first day. #2 – At last year’s conference Hannah and I flirted with the idea of sleeping together. #3 – At last year’s conference I went to a concert in Chattanooga and asked the whole band to sleep with me.” Someone immediately guessed that #2 was the lie because it was the only statement that implicated another person by name. And he was right.

A version of this can be used in the classroom (sans Jack Daniel’s) by having students write three paragraphs (two truths and a lie) and read them aloud with the group guessing which is the lie. This exercise neatly teaches several principles of writing: the necessity of lying well, how to do that, and how fiction can be more believable – and certainly more interesting – than the truth.

-Thanks to Shari Fineman, Susan Davis, Gina Piccalo, Whit Coppedge, Gina Hyams, Anne Burt, and Colette Sartor

“Deliberate Mistranslation”

Find a poem written in a language you don’t know. (If you are a teacher giving this as an assignment, withhold the name of the author.) You may choose something by Ovid, Leopardi, Mandelstam, etc. Produce a translation of the poem without the help of a glossary, a dictionary, or a friend. “This experiment encourages the recognition that writing is or can be a collaboration with the language (or with several languages). It also dramatizes the notion that poetry is a system of sounds, and it gives the writer license to have a good time, be inventive, and take advantage of the natural randomness of words and word-associations. Many pseudo-translations seem to have an intuitive sense of what the original was ‘about.’ Thus the exercise provides practical evidence of the point T. S. Eliot made, apropos of Dante: that you can enjoy poetry before you understand it.”

-exercise and quote from David Lehman

“My Mother Never…”

Jesus, how many different ways could that end. Simply take those opening words, and write a short story. A good companion exercise works similarly with the opening lines, “I wish my father knew…”

-“My mother never…” exercise by Lynn Freed, via Douglas Bauer

“In a Name”

With a group, write down names (real or fictional) and three self-descriptive attributes. Compile all names and attributes on a single page, and distribute this list. Then decide, based on the sound value and association of the name, which of the attributes might best fit the fiction of the name you’ve chosen. Write an initial paragraph or short poem developing character from the name, using as many of the attributes as you want – or none. Afterwards read your paragraph or poem to the group and defend your combinations of names and attributes. This exercise gives writers an opportunity to discuss what sound and rhythm do for developing point of view.

-exercise from Page Richards

“The Best Secrets Dismantle Your Sense of Self”

Write down your biggest secret, the worst thing you have ever done or are most ashamed of. The purpose is not sadistic but to find a story of great personal relevance. Once you have your real story down, fictionalize the painful elements while retaining the emotion. If nothing else, this exercise forces writers to pick a story too compelling to set down once they’ve begun it. It teaches the importance of high stakes in fiction.

-exercise from Susan Magee, lead quote from Gordon Lish

“Free Write Your Perceptions”

This exercise can be done alone or in a group. Read the following aloud three times:

The five colors can blind.
The five tones deafen,
The five tastes cloy.
The race, the hunt, can drive men mad
And their booty leave them no peace.
Therefore a sensible man
Prefers the inner to the outer eye:
He has his yes, — he has his no.

-Lao Tzu (translated by Witter Bynner)

Afterwards, concentrate on what you smell – only on what you smell – and record in free write style (in prose, poetry, nonsense, listing) your perceptions. Take about 2 to 3 minutes to write. Then concentrate on what you heard, again free writing your perceptions. Move then to taste, to touch, and last to sight. Afterwards, if you’re working in a group, share your work with the group. Consider in what way your writing was influenced by Lao Tzu’s words. Look carefully at your poem (and at each others’ poems), searching for echoes – in form, sound, meaning, figurative language – of Lao Tzu’s poem. This exercise allows room for the writer and yet insists that the writer be responsible to craft as well as to inspiration.

-exercise from Victoria Clausi

“Interview Your Character”

Interview the main character(s) of your story, and decide on one secret that only you know about the character – something that you don’t tell in the story but that informs it. A few interesting questions are: What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? Do you think you’re smart? Have you ever been attracted to a family member? Have you ever cheated on your taxes? Do you believe in God? What do you hope God will say to you when you die? What do you want to be in five years? Have you ever been arrested? What do you do to “numb out”? If you could tell your mother anything, what would it be? What is your favorite food? What is your favorite curse word? What is your biggest fear?

-exercise from Jen Bergmark with a combination of her questions, Rick Moody’s, and mine

“The Other Person’s Diary”

Put yourself back in the kitchen of your youth, and recall an incident that happened in the kitchen involving another person. (Substitute a character’s experience for your own, if you’d like.) First, write about that incident from your own point of view. Then write the same incident as a journal entry in the other person’s diary. This exercise teaches the relevance of point of view and can give insight into the childhood of an adult character.

-exercise from Karen Essex


Eavesdrop on a 3 to 5 minute conversation, and then rewrite the scene (in prose or poetry) stealing actual dialogue. Some writers will record the conversations of others in order to examine speech patterns. This exercise works “just because real speech, out of context, is wonderfully mysterious and doesn’t often sound like ‘written’ speech.” What becomes noticeable is how often speakers don’t respond to dialogue or they respond inappropriately.

-exercise from Dr. Nancy Walker, quote from Amy Hempel

“Morphing Clichés”

Find a cliché or familiar phrase, like: “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” Change this statement one word at a time using original and specific language. For example, a writer once transformed this to “You better count your children before they are born,” and from there wrote a story about a pregnant teen. This kind of amendment can also be done with quotations from philosophers.

-exercise from Anne Doolittle

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Camille Renshaw is from Nashville, TN, where she also completed her graduate work in English at Vanderbilt University. An avid hiker, she had just returned from hiking the Appalachian Trail when her first poems in Pif Magazine were published. Camille later became managing editor of Pif Magazine.