If I ever teach creative writing, this is what my first lesson will be.
I will make the students put away books and laptops and desks, leaving only one table in the middle of the room. I will put a chess set, a monopoly set, and a deck of cards on the table. I will ask everyone if they know how to play. Presumably, most students will know the basic rules of chess, monopoly, and at least one card game. We will turn to the game they know best and talk about the feel individual games of that game can take. Think of chess: it can play out as a long set-up with a careless move as a sudden turning point, or maybe as a careful vying for position followed by a series of calculated trades that slowly shifts the gravitational center of the board this way and that. A chess game can be a slow choking as one player forces the other into choices between two unpleasant moves, or a violent crashing as two bloodthirsty players go at each other.
Then I will ask my students to think of a single rule we could change. What if the game ended with the capture of the queen instead of the king? What if, instead of moving a piece, each player were permitted to make one of his pieces explode, taking out every adjacent piece, friend or foe? What if the object were to lose?
I hope they will see that changing a rule can change everything, that a good game-maker becomes familiar with the structure of the game and gets good at imagining how different rules changes will change the overall dynamic.
Then I will ask them to come back the next week with their own alternative game using the available equipment. They will need to explain what the rules differences are, what the new game is called, and what the feel of play might be like.
Why start with games instead of texts? Because I believe that beneath all considerations of genre and purpose and language and originality, writing is about taking what we’ve got and spinning it a little. Writing is about learning to see words not as a way to record our thoughts, but as living interactions in space and time.