Creative nonfiction training exercises

Apr 2022

After a mutant spider bite, you take Fluffer to a dog park and realize he is bark-gossiping about you with the other dogs. What is he saying?

Fiction authors like to play around with writing prompts like this. The same thing should exist for creative nonfiction. So I tried to come up with a set of “training exercises” that:

  • anyone can write about
  • without doing any research
  • and provide value
  • even if lots of others do the same thing.


My heresies

List things that you think might be true, but are out of fashion or against the consensus of your in-group. Do not try to argue that your beliefs are true. Leave truth out of it. Instead, introspect and try to describe why you think you’ve come to different conclusions than others.

e.g.

Roger’s Bacon

Andy Matuschak

My predictions for 30 years in the future

What will the world look like? Will people continue to urbanize? What will happen with the climate? What will technological development look like? How will culture respond to these changes? Will people be more or less religious? Will the world be more peaceful or violent?

Don’t worry too much about probabilities. Instead, your goal is to paint a picture of one possible plausible future that other people shouldn’t totally ignore.

e.g.

Erik Hoel

Slime Mold Time Mold

Art of Non-Conformity

Atoms vs Bits

Strange Loop Canon

Roger’s Bacon

Stephen Malina

Experimental History

Things you should buy and use

I guess you could talk about how much you enjoy your upper-west side penthouse overlooking Central Park, but it’s unclear who’d benefit from hearing about that. Instead, focus on things with two properties:

  1. They have a high utility/cost ratio.
  2. Many of the people who’d benefit from them don’t know about them.

From these, I learned about small waterproof notebooks and blackout curtains and stannous fluoride toothpaste and the true power of the coatrack. I think I found Frixion erasable pens walking around Tokyu Hands but if I hadn’t, I’d be glad to the dozens of people who’ve recommended them.

e.g.

Alex Guzey

Rob Wiblin

Tynan in 2016 (In more recent posts Tynan seems to have transcended the material plane)

I recommend you buy the $13 VINDRIKTNING air quality sensor at Ikea and put it in your kitchen. It isn’t too accurate but is small and cheap and attractive and will tell you if particles are at crazy levels.

Ways you can live differently and make your life better

Don’t worry about creativity! Yes, every permutation of every possible bit of self-help advice has probably been given before. But how did they work for you? Did you try radical honesty and find that it was a disaster and you had to add some exceptions? Did you stop drinking and find that it was better/worse/harder/easier than you expected? Even better, did you try really obvious things, like just making a big effort to be nicer to people or avoiding carbs at lunch?

My review of book X

Go ahead, write the 10 thousandth review of Sapiens. Or, hell, review the Bible or your high-school yearbook. To fit with my criteria you must have already read the book, but don’t worry about summarizing it or conveying the key points, or even saying if it’s good or bad. The “review” format is just a platform for you to talk about what ideas the book brought to mind for you. If Sapiens made you think differently about golden-era hip-hop, well, OK! Be unfair to the book. Use it only as a flimsy justification for you to talk about other things.

Here’s my description of what actually animates me in life and what I’m hoping to do/experience/achieve before I die

Avoid cleverness. Be courageously sincere and vulnerable. Usually, the truth here will be a bit embarrassing and maybe even a little ugly. Every day people get up and go about their days. Do you understand why they do it or what they want? Somehow, sincerity is under-provided today. If you can make yourself seen, you’ll likely make others feel seen, too.

Things that scare me

These may be things that affect you personally, the people you love, a culture you care about, or the entire human race or planet. Whichever it is, cleverness is again your enemy.

The goal of this exercise is not to “describe a problem that deserves more attention.” The goal is to accurately describe your emotional state and try to understand where it comes from.

You need to be a bit careful here. You again want to be sincere and vulnerable, but you probably want to avoid giving off the vibe that you’re looking for sympathy. Try to describe what you feel, and give your best guess as to why.

Here’s a big problem humanity faces. Regardless of what I think should happen, here’s what I think will happen.

This could be nuclear war or climate change or engineered infectious diseases or artificial general intelligence. Whatever it is, most discussions do several things at once.

  1. They describe the problem is and argue it’s a big one.
  2. They argue for what should be done to address the problem.
  3. They try to predict what will happen.

Your mission is to un-bundle these. Almost all discussions of (3) come together with discussions of (2). That might be because of a feeling that it’s useless or maybe even counter-productive to give cold-blooded predictions for things where you’ve got skin in the game.

e.g.

Resident Theologian (More a discussion of the concept than an example.)

My favorite posts from relatively obscure writers that I think are great and also here’s why I think they are great.

The best argument that more people should do more writing is that there’s a huge opportunity for Pareto optimality—there are so many people out there and they have such different needs that it’s very feasible to write something that will be “the best” for at least someone. The problem is that we have no mechanism for that person to find what you wrote. Search engines and forums target broad populations and are heavily influenced by SEO and catchy headlines.

You can be the mechanism that helps people find stuff that’s great for them. People who’ve found you likely have similar preferences to you, so pointing them towards stuff you found useful is an easy win.

My observations about universal human experience X.

Have you recently had a baby? Left school? Had a health scare? What did it feel like? Was it like you imagined?

When talking about these things, you may feel the urge to come up with new or creative thoughts. Resist. Instead, be vulnerable. Say obvious things. Your goal is not to have new or interesting thoughts but just to take the thoughts you already have and accurately describe them. Imagine you were addressing a group of aliens.

If you do this well, you’ll be shocked at how many people say that they had no idea that it was anything like this at all. You’ll also be shocked at how many people say that yes—that’s exactly what it’s like and they are so happy to finally hear someone say it out loud.

Things I was wrong about

Surely, at some point in your life, you’ve changed your mind about something major. Have you switched political orientations? Did you become religious or non-religious?

When writing about this, you have two options:

  1. Picture someone who holds your current view. Give an empathetic description of how someone could end up thinking otherwise.
  2. Write a letter to your previous self. Give an even-handed argument that old-you should consider changing their mind.

You have several advantages when talking about changing your mind. For one, you have some credibility with the other side, and you have a better chance of figuring out how to persuade them. Most interestingly, you might find that there is no argument that would have changed your mind. If so, why is that?

e.g.

Gwern (Linking to archive.org as the actual page seems to be down.)

Why I am writing

Most people don’t write long things and post them on the internet. So why are you doing that? What are you hoping to achieve? Fame? Popularizing your ideas? Make friends? Raise your status? Be sincere and err on the side of listing “baser” motivations. (Base motivations of fun.) If the truth is that you’re writing because you hope to show the people who bullied you in high school what’s what, or because you hope it will help you make money or find people to date, say that.

What X is like

You have life experiences. It might be weightlifting or working for the government or living with a disability or growing up with an unusual family or hating onions or having a nervous dog. Whatever it is, describe it. Say obvious stuff.

My list of creative nonfiction training exercises that other people can do and provide value

(This isn’t a joke—I think I’m only scratching the surface here and genuinely believe you can do this.)


There are a few common threads here: First, focus on description rather than argument. Second, focus on naked honesty rather than cleverness and creativity. Finally, say “obvious” things. Do that because:

  1. You aren’t a good judge of what will be obvious to others.
  2. Your reactions to obvious things are unique.
  3. Talking about obvious things leads to non-obvious things but sometimes you’d never get there unless you went through the obvious stuff first.
  4. Often the most important things are giant blaring sirens right in front of us but we pay them no attention because we’re so used to them screaming away day after day.

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