“How to Become a Writer” Exercise

For the second day of class in ENG 2031: Craft of Prose, students will begin the day by reading an excerpt from Lorrie Moore’s piece “How to Become a Writer” and then write directions for themselves about becoming a writer in this “How to Become a Writer” Exercise on Google Drive.

“Ornithology” Poetry Analysis and Imitation Exercise

Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
Genre:
Poetry
Purpose:
To become more scrupulous readers of poetry

In order to prepare my Intro to Creative Writing students for talking more about poetry with regard to the author’s intentionality before their poetry workshop, I’m asking them to read and examine the poem “Ornithology” by Lynda Hull. They then have to answer questions about specifics in the poem. I’ve provided these questions via track changes in Microsoft Word:

Ornithology Poetry Analysis Exercise screenshot - 1 Ornithology Poetry Analysis Exercise screenshot - 2 Ornithology Poetry Analysis Exercise screenshot - 3

Once they respond to these questions on their own, we will then discuss the possibilities. My hope is that they will see the value in discussing the possibilities rather than strive to make proclamations about what the poem is or what it’s doing.

After they complete the analysis, I’m going to ask them to try to write an imitation of at least ten lines (the formal unit that’s repeated throughout the poem) with special attention to sound and rhythm.

Two Poetry Exercises: “The Side of the Road” and “A Pig Is A Pig Is An Idea”

Map of Henrico, VA showing Fortifications Around Richmond North and East of the James River, detail.

I gave the following two exercises to my Writing Poetry students in the last month. Because these exercises encourage students to build their poems upon concrete description, I’ve presented them together.

Class: Writing Poetry (Virginia Commonwealth University)
Genre: Poetry
Purpose: To explore strategies employed by authors we’ve read as well as situate poems in concrete details, settings, and narratives
Readings:Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey and When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz

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“The Side of the Road” Exercise

“What matters is context— / the side of the road”
—Natasha Trethewey, “What the Body Can Say”

  1. Only using concrete details, describe as much as you can about your hometown or your current neighborhood without editorializing. For instance, if you believe something is “pretty”, describe those features that create its aesthetic appeal (the fleur de lis ornamentation on the porch railing, the ivy trellised up the front of the house, etc.). Your readers will likely know how you feel about the looks by how you describe what’s there. (7 min.)
  2. Look at what you’ve written and underline those concrete details that seem signficant to a reader’s understanding of the place. Meaning, the descriptions must provide us with a clue about what’s going on there or what someone is like. Ex. On China Street in Oregon Hill, there’s a house that has abstract acrylic paintings nailed on the siding. Across the street, a small sherbert green house flies a Confederate Flag above its porch junked up with a recycling bin full of Miller Highlife and several ashtrays full of cigarette butts. In the window is a sign: “Roomate Needed / Must like Dogs” accompanied by a phone number. What does each detail reveal about the invidiuals that live in each house? What does it reveal about the neighborhood? (2 min.)
  3. Say someone from another part of the country—or even another neighborhood—visited you here. Speculate about what that person would notice about the area. What would excite them? What would trouble them? (3 min.)
  4. Consider what assumptions that person might have about you based on your affiliation with the place. (3 min.)
  5. Rewrite all of this in lines, cutting out excess wording and ending on one of the telling images you previously identified without explaining what it means. Think of Trethewey ending “Again, the Fields” with “his hands the color of dark soil.” If I wrote about the two houses in Oregon Hill, I might end with this image: “the paintings and the flag will both fade in the light of day.” (5–7 min.)

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A Pig Is A Pig Is An Idea Exercise
[Note: This is a variation on my “Headliner” exercise.]

An image is a detail that allows us to feel as if we “see” rather than understand what happened or is happening in a literary work. It’s imitative of the tangible. It suggests meaning rather than explains it. It can be within the “real world” or it can be figurative, Natalie Diaz’s men “leaning against the sides of houses” (realistic) or the coins “We are born with spinning coins in place of eyes” (figurative). In understanding how image often serves the function of both providing us with concrete details, narrative, and/or abstract ideals, thoughts, or emotions, complete the following exercise.

  1. Describe the narrative implied by one of the following real headlines. Be sure to use descriptive details that will reveal the place/setting. In doing so, try to be as objective as possible. Only describe what’s happens as it happen. Remove any commentary or statement of meaning. Focus only on tangible details and action. You may have opinions about the people, animals, or objects involved, but don’t reveal them. Through the attention to details, you may even empathize with these characters. (15 minutes)
  2. Pig in Australia Steals 18 Beers from Campers, Gets Drunk, Fights Cow
    Hiker discovers an abandoned town inside Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park
    White Ohio lesbians suing sperm bank over mixed-race baby
    Donkeys reunited at Polish zoo after sex scandal
    Two die, three injured after woman drops cell phone in toilet
    (China)
    Swiss Town: Have Cave, Want (Social and Outgoing) Hermit
    Davidson Co. home catches fire after man smoking tries blowing his nose
    (North Carolina)
    Jogger hospitalized after being hit by airborne deer (Dulles, Virginia)
    Alejandro Melendez Puts 911 Dispatcher On Hold To Complete Drug Deal (Cleveland, Ohio)
    Philly Bomb Scare Caused By Hotdogs At Ballpark, Mascot Implicated
    Reputed Colombian Drug Lord Complains Of Claustrophobia From His Prison Cell In New York
    Man In Wheelchair Robs 7/11 Of Condoms
    (Dallas, TX)
    Asian elephant cured in rehab of heroin addiction (Beijing, China)
    Python Kills Intern Zookeeper (Venezuela)

  3. Now go back through your description and circle any images you find. Make a column for at least three of the images you identified. Underneath them, write down what the image literally represents to the reader and then record the literal and abstract connotations that might arise from each image. For instance, if you wrote “the pig’s jowls, bearded in foam” for the first headline, you might come up with this: (10 min.)
  4. Literal Representation: the pig has just been drinking beer that produced the foam
    Connotations: the pig has rabid qualities; the beard implies a kind of personification, taking on of man’s roles/behaviors; the pig is out of control; the speaker is in awe of the scene and endangers herself by looking this closely at the pig; the pig is fat because of the word “jowls”; “jowl” is used in butcher charts, so therefore this pig is meat, it’s a commodity; the pig is adorned with things outside its natural habitat and therefore this poem suggests that there’s an intersection between nature and humanity; etcetera.

  5. Based on these literal and abstract connotations, select the image from your list that best represents you personal feelings about the people, objects, and/or actions in this narrative. Now rewrite the poem and end only on that image without explanation. (10 min.)

On Writing Poems, Workshop, and Reading Like a Writer

ON WRITING POEMS, WORKSHOP, AND READING LIKE A WRITER

Reduction of the Flesh from Health and Beauty for Women (1923)

Reduction of the Flesh from Health and Beauty for Women (1923)

Class: Writing Poetry (Virginia Commonwealth University)
Genre: Poetry
Purpose: To introduce my students to the expectations of the course while providing them with some insight into the process of reading, writing, and workshopping poems.

On Writing Poems

In this course, I will not assign topics or subject matter for your poems. This is meant to give you the greatest freedom on the page to discover your obsessions and “fundamental orientation toward language,” as psychologist D.W. Winnicott calls it. (Poet Tom Sleigh eloquently talks about this concept in relationship to poetry.) If you want to spend all semester writing poems about abandoned amusement parks around the world with lots of white space and dashes to indicate absence and something severed or cut off from the world, go for it. As long as you turn in at least twelve lines on time for each of your seven poem assignments, I have no qualms about the subject matter or style. Some of you may find that your natural orientation toward language is one of concision and twelve lines is all you can muster; others will write voluminously. Some with short lines, some with long. That said, don’t worry about “finding your voice” in this course. In fact, I hope that many poets don’t ever “find their voice” but rather chase the echo of the voice they have in their heads. That way they don’t get too comfortable with the way they write, and they are free to keep challenging themselves to create something new every time they sit down to the page. So every time you write about an abandoned amusement park, challenge yourself to make that poem as unique as that locale.

Some General Rules About Writing Poems

  • Always put your name on your poems. We’re going to have a lot of paper floating around every workshop week, and we want to be sure we know who belongs to the poems.
  • Do not write with end rhymes. Only the truly skilled will be able to handle full end rhymes with any kind of zest and originality. For the rest of us, we’ll be forever shackled to “moon” and “soon.” For the purposes of our class, we’ll write primarily in free verse so that you can get into the habit of writing regularly and freely. That said, if you want to continue studying poetry, I encourage you to investigate form, prosody, and rhyme on your own or in a Form and Theory of Poetry class.
  • Please only use standard fonts. That means Times New Roman, Garamond, Arial, and maybe Cambria, Baskerville, Caslon, or Book Antiqua. If you turn in a poem in Comic Sans, Papyrus, Chiller, or similar fonts, I will return it to you until it’s in an appropriate typeface.
  • Never, ever, ever, ever put your poems in different colors or accent them with clip-art. This isn’t fun. This is distracting and irritating.
  • Eschew abstractions. Yes, some of the very best poets do engage with abstractions, but they do it in ways that engage the tangible. “Love” in Sylvia Plath “set [her] going like a fat gold watch.” It didn’t “descend from the cerulean blue heavens on the wings of temptation.” Fat gold watch = good writing. “The cerulean blue heavens” and “the wings of temptation” = terrible, terrible. For the purposes of this course, I want you to use clear, specific, and significant details. Fat gold watch = clear, specific, and significant detail. Love = abstraction. “The cerulean blue heavens” and “the wings of temptation” = flowery, overblown, cliché, abstract, highly coded, unrealistic, and uninteresting language. We will talk about this throughout the semester.
  • Slam poetry and spoken word are compelling art forms, but they are not a part of this course. Think about it this way: You wouldn’t expect to make sculpture in a painting class, so why would slam poetry—a form of performance art—fulfill requirements in a class about poetry on the page? If you want to talk about slam or spoken word, please make an appointment with me, and I’ll be happy to talk about these topics.
  • Always read your poems aloud when you write, edit, or revise. You’ll be surprised how much your poems will begin to engage the part of you that’s geared toward rhythm and sound. You’ll hear internal rhyme and hear where the poem slows down or speeds up. You might even find where there’s some grammatical hiccups, and it allows you to distance yourself from your head. When you read aloud your poems, you become audience to your own poem. This distance will make it easier for you to recognize what’s working and not working, too.
  • Sometimes you have to kill your darlings. This phrase has been in almost every writing workshop in the last one hundred years, but it still remains true. Say you love one section of your poem and you’ve crafted a compelling narrative around that section, but the section you love so dearly derails the narrative by waxing poetic. You may have to remove it to save the poem. But hold onto it. You never know when a new poem might come out of it.
  • Sometimes the best revision is to start a new poem. Regardless of whether or not a poem makes the cut, you should learn something from the process of writing it and sharing it with others. What we learn from one poem we take with us into the next, and the next, and the next. We’ll talk more about revision as the first one’s due, but keep this in mind throughout the semester.
  • Your poems don’t have to be perfect. Isn’t that a great feeling? This is a workshop after all, and everything should be in progress. Don’t turn a poem in that you feel is finished, because you’ll likely find that it’s not. This only leads to disappointment. Besides, when your peers are asked to comment on something, they will. Even the most famous poems would be taken to task in a workshop setting. But that’s okay. This is a place to receive constructive criticism. Not praise.

On Writer’s Block

I don’t believe in writer’s block as a phenomenon. I believe that what we call “writer’s block” is simply second guessing oneself before getting anything on the page. Sometimes the best way to start writing is to start writing. Sound like a paradox? It’s like feeling sluggish about going on a run because you haven’t gone on a run. If you don’t know what to write about, go out on the Compass and people watch. Start writing about someone there. Read the newspaper and write in the persona of the Congressman arrested for a DUI. Describe the condiments on the table at The Village. Start somewhere, and you’ll get somewhere. Often what’s troubling us or what excites us most will come out in whatever we’re writing about, overtly or subtly. The roller coaster has to climb the hill before it can achieve its speed.

On Finding Subject Matter and A Poet’s Life (On Writer’s Block II)

A student in a class once asked, “My parents never divorced. I don’t know a single person who’s died, and I’m happy. How can I write a poem?” How can you not? Flannery O’Connor wrote: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” That means both good and bad things. And being a poet doesn’t mean you have to slug fifths, chain smoke, listen to jazz, and say, “Yeah, man.” That’s a stereotype, a hold over from the 50s. (And one that’s brilliantly parodied in Roger Corman’s 1959 B-movie, A Bucket of Blood.) Yes, it’s harder to write a joyful poem than a dark poem, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. And, surely, you’re capable of great feats of imagination and empathy. Remember Mark Doty wrote: “Literature makes other people more real to us.” I say: Writing poetry makes other people more real to us.

Why Workshop?

Workshop allows you to receive comments from peers about the effects your poem—what’s working and not working—has on a reader. In the same way that Hollywood tests films before releasing them to theaters, you have a “test audience” for your work. As you are all submitting and responding to poems in this workshop, the class should establish a trust that will allow you to be receptive to and comfortable providing feedback. The format should also encourage you to do things on the page you wouldn’t normally try. Additionally, and just as importantly, you will become more adept at talking about poetic craft. In my own undergraduate and graduate workshops, I often learned just as much by reading, thinking about, and responding to my peers’ poems as I did in my own workshops. Therefore, writing your own poems and reading others’ poems are equally valued in this course. Here you will not only become better writers, you will become better readers of others’ work—and your own.

8-Minute Workshop Procedure

  • Poet reads poem aloud for workshop so that it’s fresh in all of our minds. Note: After reading aloud the poem, the poet cannot speak until prompted by the instructor at the end of the workshop.
  • A workshop participant should provide a brief synopsis of the subject matter, narrative (if there is one), and/or the major associative leaps. If anyone else disagrees with the synopsis, that opinion should be voiced as well. Contradictory understandings of what the poem is about will let the poet know that some more work needs to be done to set up the poem.
  • The class should locate and analyze what’s working well in the poem.
  • The class should locate and analyze what’s not working well in the poem. (Hint: Sometimes, asking questions about what the author intends is the best way to reveal a poem’s inadequacies.)
  • The instructor will open up the floor to the poet to ask or answer questions.

What Are Helpful Comments?

  • “The couplets [two-line stanzas] reinforce our attention on the two characters that are present in the poem.” This demonstrates that you’re thinking about how poetic form can support subject matter.
  • “The metaphors here don’t seem to be in the same wheelhouse as the subject matter.” This demonstrates your attention to significant details.
  • “I’m not sure exactly what’s happening in this stanza. I can see two possibilities, which are…” This demonstrates your willingness to engage in speculation and your desire to really understand how the poem works.

What Are Unhelpful Comments?

  • “You need a comma here.” At this stage, nitpicking small grammatical features isn’t useful to the workshop. It will take up time that we could use talking about more important issues that will help the poet in revision and new work. Even if you fix all the commas, it doesn’t matter if the poet has to take apart the poem and start from scratch. But if you must direct the poet’s attention to this sort of thing, write it on your copy of the poem. Don’t be Captain Obvious and point out something that, in all likelihood, the rest of the class has noticed.
  • “We all love our mothers, so we can really see this happening.” See the “On ‘(Un)Relatability’” section of this document. It’s essentially the same thing.
  • “I just don’t like the speaker.” Perhaps the author intended you not to like the speaker. Demonstrate your ability to discuss the poet’s intentionality and speculate as to how the speaker’s “unlikeability” works within the poem.

Some General Rules

  • Always refer to the “speaker”/”character” of the poem. We never assume that Suzie Q. the author is the same as the Suzie Q. of the poem. (Even if we were workshopping Dante, we’d always say “the speaker” or “the character of Dante” in the Divine Comedy.) This helps us focus on the craft of the poem and not the circumstances behind it and therefore protects confidentiality and makes your peers more willing to share their work with you.
  • Focus on how language is working (or not working) in a poem. This takes practice and a lot of experience with reading poetry, but now’s the time for you to start to think about language
  • Workshop is not therapy. None of us are licensed professionals and, besides, we’re more interested in how you put together that poem than what motivated it.
  • Workshop is also not the place for you to exercise your personal beliefs on politics, religion, sexuality, etcetera. When we talk about poems, we talk about how they are crafted, regardless of whether or not you agree with the subject matter. Should I see or hear any response to a poem that attacks the poet’s personal beliefs, I will address this matter, at the very least, with a deduction to your participation grade.
  • On that note, the class should never—never, never—workshop the poet and/or the poet’s beliefs/actions. We will be reading a lot of poets who represent many different aesthetics, beliefs, and lifestyles in this course. If you can’t get past the subject matter or the context, you will never be able to appreciate good poems.

On “(Un)Relatability”

For the purposes of this course, the term “relatable” and all of its derivatives (“I can/can’t relate to this”) is prohibited. The poet Chad Davidson has summed up my concerns about “relatability”:

Here’s the rub: whether or not someone in a workshop relates to someone else’s poem is of very little consequence to me or to the poem. It’s the reader’s job to go in there and get some of that relation. A failure to relate, in my book, is a failure of the reader, not the poem. There may be all sorts of other problems with the poem, but relatability is never one of them.

Example: I am not a Danish prince with an existential (if quite eloquent) crisis. Hence, I cannot relate to Hamlet. Neither am I a whiny, self-important, late-medieval Tuscan on a journey through hell. Hence—mi dispiace, Dante—sorry, buddy, but can’t relate. I’m not even Catholic.

. . . Put another way, the idea of relating to a poem is absolutely the lowest common denominator of judgment. More so, it’s just a cover for what we really mean: I don’t understand the poem or I am uncomfortable with the poem or, perhaps most disturbingly, I just don’t care about the poem. All of those questions we can handle in a workshop. That’s in fact what the workshop is for.

(To see the rest of his essay “Can You Relate?,” go to: http://www.32poems.com/blog/7048/prose-feature-isnt-life-enough-three-takes-workshop-part-1)

Reading Like a Writer

Francine Prose, in Reading Like a Writer, reminds us that “language is the medium [writer’s] use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.” So, in reading like a writer, we’ll look at language as a set of raw materials in much the same way that any craftsman would look at raw materials. A boatmaker might say, “This wood has a fine grain, except for this spot here, this knot, that’s a weak spot.” What words stick out in the fine grain of the sentence? A cook might say, “Cinnamon and fish don’t go together.” We might say, “This long line that takes forever to read doesn’t go well with your subject matter of a piano falling fast from an open window.” See how that works?

Poetry Analysis Exercise

Détail de la carte de Montréal de 1859 faisant ressortir Pointe Saint-Charles.


Class: Intro to Creative Writing
Genre: Poetry
Readings: A poetry packet featuring the poems listed below
Time: 30 minutes

Group 1: “Wherever My Dead Go When I’m Not Remembering Them” (Shapiro) and “In the Waiting Room” (Bishop)
Group 2: “Perpetually Attempting to Soar” (Ruefle) and “The Lovers of the Poor” (Brooks)
Group 3: “Your Wild Domesticated Inner Life” (Banias) and “Dorothy’s Trash:” (Johnson)
Group 4: “My Story in a Late Style of Fire” (Levis) and “The Day Lady Died” (O’Hara)
Group 5: “The Mare of Money” (Reeves) and “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes” (Corral)
Group 6: “Scrabble with Matthews” (Wojahn) and “Ode to Browsing the Web” (Wicker)
Group 7: “The streetlamp above me darkens” (Faizullah) and “A Pornography” (Rekdal)
Group 8: “To a Fig Tree on 9th and Christian” (Gay) and “Animals Are Passing From Our Lives” (Levine)

Read each poem assigned to your group. Answer these questions:

  1. What’s the dramatic situation of the poem? Meaning, what’s going on? What’s the scene or the conflict? (Ex. For Matthew Olzmann’s “Notes Regarding Happiness,” the speaker is attempting to post a happy birthday message on a friend’s Facebook wall.)
  2. How does each poem get from its beginning to its end? Is it narrative (a story) and therefore moves in a linear fashion? Are there associative connections between images? Examine the relationship between images in these poems.
  3. Describe the tone. Is the poet sincere?
  4. Describe the style of this poem. Is the language conversational or esoteric? What does the poem sound like?
  5. Describe the form of this poem. Is it in couplets? A single stanza? Etcetera? How long are the lines? Why do you think the poet chose this form?
  6. Do these two poets have anything in common in terms of their style, strategies, or motivation for writing?
  7. If you were going to write an imitation of one of these poets, who would you pick? How would you begin? Start drafting a few lines using the strategies you described above.

“Bluets” Exercise

“Dead City III (City on the Blue River III)” (1911) by Egon Schiele


Class: Writing Out of the Ordinary
Genre: Poetry/Nonfiction
Readings: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets
Time: 30 minutes

  • Identify one thing you have been obsessed with for quite some time.
  • Detail a direct encounter with that thing. Be as descriptive as possible.
  • Name the first person you can think of who is missing from your life.
  • Write down something you never told them. (A confession, an idea, a story, etcetera.)
  • Remind that person of something you did together. Tell the narrative.
  • Is there a connection between the thing and the person? Explain.
  • Write down the first thing and then write the next five words that come to your mind in an associative chain from one word to the next.
  • Now pick one of those things on the list and write about an encounter you had with that thing.
  • Repeat previous steps.
  • “Fame Makes a Man Take Things Over” Exercise

    Drawing of Stage Door Johnnies (1894)

    Drawing of Stage Door Johnnies (1894)

    Class: Writing Out of the Ordinary
    Genre: Creative nonfiction
    Readings: A packet of persona poems and dramatic monologues
    Time: 10 minutes

    1. Pick a celebrity, sports star, cartoon or comic book character, product mascot (ex. Count Chocula, the Geico gecko, etc.) or newsworthy individual (Octomom, Charles Manson, etc.).

    2. Create a mundane problem for that character or person. (Kobe Bryant can’t open a jelly jar. Elvis Presley can’t fit into his old slacks. Speedy Gonzalez gets stuck in a mouse trap.)

    3. Free write for ten minutes in the voice of that character as they’re attempting to resolve the problem. What concerns them? Are they worried about their public image? How does this problem relate to bigger problems for them? What sorts of language do they use? Are they thinking about the problem at hand or something else? Where are they at? More specific questions: What are they wearing? What kind of jelly is Kobe Bryant trying to get into? Strawberry or grape? Who set the trap for Speedy? Has Elvis tried dieting? (Hint: You don’t have to answer these specific questions, but be sure to take leaps like this with your own characters.)