I recently had an amazing time visiting Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens with my Philadelphia Young Playwrights Ed Staff, where we were inspired by the work and process of creator Isaiah Zagar. On our guided tour (which I highly recommend), we learned that when Zagar creates his mural mosaics, he pulls tiles out of his bucket at random because he believes, “Whatever tile you pick that’s the perfect tile. Wherever you put the tile that’s the perfect place.” As a group of educators who mentor students through the playwriting process, this philosophy deeply resonated with us.
At the end of the tour, we all got our hands dirty as our wonderful tour guide Olivia led us through Zagar’s process of creating doily tiles out of clay. As I rolled the clay into a ball and smacked it against the table, I knew had to be at least one writing exercise in this experience somewhere. Something that brought the tiles we were making and Zagar’s philosophy about artistic serendipity into the writer’s process.
After taking some time to experiment and reflect, I bring to you my latest concoction: A Tile and Place for Everything! As you’ll see, this activity is meant for classes and workshops rather than for individual writers to do on their own. But what better excuse for you to bring a group of writers together for some creative community?
To help warm-up participants’ minds and vocabularies before doing the activity below, I suggest playing a few rounds of Word Association or another word-based game.
A TILE AND PLACE FOR EVERYTHING: Inspired by Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens
Genres: Prose, Playwriting, Poetry, Memoir/Creative Non-Fiction
Writing Process: Idea Generating, Character, Setting, Writer’s Block
As it takes a day for the clay to dry, please note that this activity happens during the span of two workshops. If you only have one day, you can use foam sheets and an ink pad as you can see in my photo below. While this activity could be done by simply writing words on index cards, I encourage using either clay or foam because the more tactile nature of the making encourages more reflective word selection and creates deeper investment in the activity.
DAY I. Making the Word Tiles
To make a tile, participants should first roll the clay into a ball. Then, throw the clay down against a flat surface to flatten it. Flip it over and throw it down again to do the same to the other side. Repeat this step as many times as needed to get the clay flattened and then shape by pressing down and along the edges with fingers.
Have each participant make three clay tiles. Then, instruct participants to engrave one word per tile using letter stamps, one prompt at a time. Here are two examples of the endless prompts you can give students as they create their word tiles:
PROMPT SET #1 – For Fiction, Playwriting, or Poetry
- First tile: A word of action. (Verb)
- Second tile: A word of description. (Adjective)
- Third tile: A word that’s a person, place or thing. (Noun)
PROMPT SET #2 – For Memoir or Writing from the Self
- First tile: A word that represents something you worry about.
- Second tile: A word that represents something which brings you peace or joy.
- Third tile: A word that represents something you wish for.
Once the word tiles are complete, have participants place them on a flat surface to dry overnight.
DAY II. Using the Word Tiles
“Whatever tile you pick, that’s the perfect tile. Wherever you put the tile, that’s the perfect place.” – Mural Mosaic Artist Isaiah Zagar
One the tiles are dry, place them into a large cloth bag, gently mixing them up. If you like, make the number of tiles higher by adding some extra pre-made tiles of your own. Have participants stand in a circle. Pass the bag around the circle three times, instructing the participants to take one tile from the bag at random (without looking) each time the bag comes to them.
Have participants take their three tiles to their seats. You can lead participants through placing meaning to each tile through one of two ways:
Have participants mindfully place each word in one of the following categories.
For Prose and Playwriting:
- Category #1 – Select one tile to be a prompt for creating a character.
- Category #2 – Select one tile to be a prompt for creating a setting.
- Category #3 – Select one tile to be a prompt for creating a line of dialogue.
- Category #1 – Select one tile to incorporate into the subject or poetic question.
- Category #2 – Select one tile to incorporate into the first line of the poem.
- Category #3 – Select one tile to be repeated at least three times throughout the poem.
For Journaling, Memoir or Writing from the Self
- Category #1 – Select one tile to be a prompt to write about a person from the past.
- Category #2 – Select one tile to be a prompt to write about a triumph or loss.
- Category #3 – Select one tile to be a prompt to write about a dream (literal or metaphoric).
Or, to really activate artistic serendipity, have participants blindly assign each tile a number, one through three. Then, reveal the meanings behind each number by introducing the categories above.
For each category, give participants two minutes to brainstorm a list of as many ideas as possible inspired by the word tile. After participants have brainstormed ideas for all three categories, ask them to circle the ideas they like. Give participants anywhere from 10 – 20 minutes to begin writing their scene, story, poem, etc., based on the ideas they have selected.
You can allow participants to keep the tiles, or you can collect them and keep the bag in an easily accessible place to serve as a Writer’s Block Bag. Whenever a student has writer’s block, challenge them to reach into the bag and select up to three tiles to use as inspiration for a new direction or layer to add to their writing in progress. You can keep the tiles to use as a Do Now Bag to use at the start of each workshop, allowing one student to pull out a tile for the class to use as inspiration for a two minute freewriting activity.
I feel like this is an activity that can be adapted or remixed in so many ways – if you try an adaptation, I encourage your version of this activity in the comments! Remember, whenever I post an activity, prompt, or guiding writing exercise in the Support For Writers section of my site, I will always write a blog post about the activity as well. That way, if you follow my blog you’ll always know when new exercises become available.