Tonic Writing Exercise #1: And 27 Other Firsts

We recently did a writing exercise that inspired us to start a new series for The Tonic. Give it a go and check in for more exercises to help you stay in top form. 

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Scotch may be necessary for this one.

Like any art form or really any hobby, sport, what have you, writing is a practice. As Elissa Schappell, one of our virtual toast recipients, said, “the muse is a bum. The muse only shows up when you bait her by putting your ass in the chair. She can only be lured to your side by the sound of pounding keys, the smell of paper and ink.”

If you don’t sit down and do it every day, just for a little, then you can lose it. Some writers use a personal journal, but that does not necessarily work for all. For me, and for E, writing exercises are necessary to keep in shape. We would venture that for most artists it is simply not possible to work on the same project every single day. Writing exercises are the artistic version of cross-training.

Every week or so, we’re going to offer up a new writing exercise that has worked for us in the past, that has been gifted to us, or one with which we are currently wrestling. Here’s our first.


And 27 other firsts

This exercise was inspired by a recent episode of “The Heart,” a podcast well worth your attention if you have any interest in storytelling, sex, and love. Here’s the conceit: you write a list of 27 romantic, sexual, and experiential firsts in chronological order. Listen to the episode to get an idea of what is possible.

I think the best advice to give is to be as raw as possible when you start. Certain experiences will weigh more heavily than others and some will serve to mark a passage of time even if the experience is not necessarily a profound one. I made a first draft and had to take time away from it. The next day, I was able to pair it down and find clarity.

If you would like to create a complementary book and music list to illustrate what you were reading and listening to at the time, we highly encourage it. This component of the exercise has soothing properties.


a sample

For now, I am going to keep my full list private, but here is a selection to give you a sense of the exercise.

5. First time sharing a short story with someone before it’s finished. 

6. First I love you.

10. First time having someone there, not you, not your boyfriend, but a doctor.

12. First time being afraid of the depth of another’s feelings. 

16. First time having sex with someone while feeling out of body, feeling like this is not for me, but for someone else. 

19. First time falling out of love with my best friend.

20. First time running, cooking, showering, reading, sleeping with someone every night. 

23. First time being compared to another woman, first time feeling haunted by that woman.


5 things we learned 

  1. These lists will change over time. The narratives we form of our lives are never static. This may be an exercise to try every few years.
  2. There will be certain people who will not make your list. You would probably not make the lists of everyone that is or has potential to be on your list. This is fine. In fact, this is crucial. Take ownership of your narrative.
  3. The importance of being a little withholding when constructing a narrative. When in doubt, channel Lucille.
  4. This exercise provides a wealth of material for later work. I found it opened up a lot of experiences that I had been repressing and reinforced the fact that I needn’t be ashamed or too self-conscious to write about those moments.
  5. Fuck, writing can be cathartic. This exercise is proof of that.

xox J

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