Thanksgiving Exercise

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No, I’m not talking about the calorie-burning exercises we feel we must do in the days leading up to and following Thanksgiving, a.k.a. Day of Carbs. Rather, I’m talking about a favorite, and seasonally appropriate, writing exercise.

The first story in Bill Roorbach’s Flannery O’Connor Award-winning story collection Big Bend is titled “Thanksgiving.” The story begins with a phone call. Ted’s sister-in-law, Mary, is calling to convince him to come to Thanksgiving dinner this year. And because he has vowed to “become part of the family again,” he agrees to come—but he isn’t happy about it. By the end of the story, events have caused him, in a fury, to upend the Thanksgiving Day dinner table.

Roorbach’s story gives rise to a very straightforward writing assignment:

A character, in a fury, has upended the Thanksgiving Day table. Write the scene that causes him/her to do it.

What better tinderbox is there, emotionally speaking, than an entire family all gathered together for one night? I like this exercise because it isn’t quiet or subtle. There is no way to avoid conflict in a scene that ends with a flipped-over dinner table, especially on a holiday, especially the holiday during which we are supposed to give thanks.

Moreover, this exercise requires students to complete certain mini-exercises along the way, such as:

  • Writing a scene with multiple characters in it;
  • Creating a conflict that causes the climax provided in the prompt;
  • Providing sufficient detail so that we know exactly what is on that table prior to it being overturned.

I am thankful for this exercise, which students seem to have great fun doing. I am thankful for Thanksgiving for generating the sort of familial tensions that generate good fiction, and I am thankful that this is not the case in my family. And I am thankful for the leftovers in my refrigerator, which, I understand, really ought to bring about that other kind of exercise—the kind that doesn’t involve typing.

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 12/2/11.]] 

About the Author
Michael Kardos received his B.A. from Princeton University, his M.F.A. from Ohio State University, and his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. He is the author of the novels BEFORE HE FINDS HER (Mysterious Press/Grove Atlantic, 2015) and THE THREE-DAY AFFAIR (Mysterious Press/Grove Atlantic, 2012), as well as the story collection ONE LAST GOOD TIME (Press 53, 2011) and the textbook THE ART AND CRAFT OF FICTION (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2013/2017). His fiction has appeared in The Southern Review, Crazyhorse, Prairie Schooner, and many other magazines and anthologies, and has won a Pushcart Prize. His essays about fiction have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle and Writer’s Digest. He lives in Starkville, Mississippi, where he co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University. His website is