No Word Allowed

No Word Allowed

A few months ago, I gave my Intro to Creative Writing class this assignment:

Create a story, essay, poem, or play that is composed in anything EXCEPT Microsoft Word (or any word processing program). You must type the text into some other kind of software or application or tool, such as Google Maps, Facebook, Flickr, Xtranormal, Power Point, Ebay, Survey Monkey, Blogger, etc. Basically: if it’s got a dialog box you can type in, then you can use it. Your piece must engage with, make use of the medium or mode you’ve selected.

At first they thought I was crazy, but I spent some time showing them examples:

Like Jennifer Egan’s “Power Point story” from A Visit from the Goon Squad.

First slide of story


Like Dinty Moore’s Google Maps essay about George Plimpton.

Like Patrick Madden’s Ebay story about Michael Martone’s water bottle.

Like this “Facebook Story” covered and edited by the Washington Post.

Like Rick Moody’s Twitter story published by Electric Literature.

Students: So you want us to write a story and tweet it?

Me: No, that is exactly what I don’t want you to do. I want you to compose something in Twitter, for that storytelling platform that takes into account the way we read and experience Twitter. I want you to compose something in PowerPoint that takes into account the way we read and experience PowerPoint. Recently, Jennifer Egan had this to say about how she wrote her story in PowerPoint:

EW: What was your process of writing the Power Point chapter?

JE: Well, I took a crack at writing it on yellow legal pads, by hand, which is how I write most of my fiction, but that was basically a nonstarter…I bumbled quite a bit at first, just trying to figure out how to use PowerPoint and avail myself of its features. I finally settled on a methodology something like this: I’d pinpoint the fictional moment I wanted to portray (PowerPoint only allows for the creation of moments, without connective tissue). Then I’d list what seemed to me the essential component parts of that moment as a series of bullet points. Then I would study those bullet points and try to understand their relationship to each other: was it cause-and-effect? Was it circular? Was it a counterpoint? An evolution? Having identified the relationship of the parts to each other, I would choose (or, when I really got comfortable, create) a graphic structure to house the bullet points that would clearly manifest their relationship. There were lots of revisions and reconsiderations, of course, but that was how I did it, slide by slide.

Students: Like how the Twitter story is told in a series of epigrams? And you can almost read it either up or down?

Me: Precisely. Or you could do it this way and create a Twitter Murder Mystery, like this Ball State student.

Students: What else can we do?

Me: You can dramatize a scene, put on your own puppet show, with Xtranormal.

Students: So you want us to fool around on Xtranormal?

Me: Sort of, yes. I want you to write something that takes advantage of its capabilities and builds those capabilities into the story. You can also write a poem presented in Power Point. What does Power Point do? It gives you information one bit, one slide, at a time, forcing you to slow down (a perfect medium for the poetic line. Power point also allows you to link between slides and add sound effects and images) a perfect medium for a simple Choose Your Own Adventure story.

[Contemplative silence.]

Students: We don’t know what you want.

Me: Okay, okay, open up your laptops and type in

[Everyone is riveted by this interactive film, watching themselves virtually run around their own personal “Wilderness Downtown.”]

Me: Okay, now watch this one.

[Classroom yawns.]

Me: How did you feel when you saw your childhood house? Your neighbor’s house? Those places you know so well? You probably felt many emotions. Have you ever taken someone you love to see the house you grew up in and felt like you could never explain why that place matters to you so much.

Students: [vigorous nodding]

Me: How did you feel when you saw someone else’s “Wilderness,” like the one on YouTube?

Students: Nothing much.

Me: Right, because that’s what storytelling is–taking those images, those feelings inside you and putting them inside someone one else, using nothing but language.

Students: Oh. Yeah. Wow.

Me: So, here’s Google Maps. Show me your “Wilderness.” Tell me about it. Take advantage of the fact that I can zoom in on Street View and see whatever you want to show me. Tell me a story.

[There were so many great ones, but this was my favorite.]

Students: Is that fiction or nonfiction?

Me: That’s nonfiction.

Students: What if we want to write fiction in Google Maps or Power Point?

Me: When composing digitally, remember this acronym: MAPS. Media + Audience + Purpose + Situation (rhetorical context). For example, Egan’s power point story has an invented rhetorical context in that it’s “narrated” by her character Alison Blake. It says so on the first slide. That’s how we know it’s fiction.

Students: Why are you making us write this way?

Me: Because this is the way we will tell stories. Because this is how you’re already telling stories. Every day.

Teaching Writing


  1. John Vanderslice says:

    Great assignment, Cathy. I loved looking over those examples. I’ve been looking for a way to do something like this with my classes, and your post was really helpful. Most were clear examples of the medium defining the work and enabling an original outcome, but I have to say that I think Dinty’s essay would work just as well written “straight.” Maybe better. His words really engaged me, but Google Maps didn’t. That’s probably just a statement about me as a reader, though.

  2. Lowry Pei says:

    Okay, this is flippin’ amazing. Up until now I would have said that I hate PowerPoint at all times, under all circumstances, no exceptions. Well, Jennifer Egan’s story is the first exception.

    The “Facebook story” from the Washington Post is quietly heart-rending, too.

    Cathy, what a terrific bunch of ideas. This is a very heartening view of unexpected new ways art writing can be made or performed.

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