“In Medias Res” Writing Exercise for Craft of Prose

In “In Medias Res,” students write and re-write a scene in the three different points of view from a YouTube video of a man texting and running into a wild bear. They likewise create a character profile for their point of view character to navigate Anne Lamott’s suggestion of an “emotional acre.” In doing so, they negotiate the scope, immediacy, and language of each point of view, and consider how “in the middle of things” each point of view feels.

Reading Exercise “Begin Again” for Craft of Prose

In this reading exercise, students are responding to and annotating different literary devices and features—including dialogue, active voice, unique diction, etcetera—in the opening pages of five chapters (13–18) of the class’s icebreaker text, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Writing Exercise “Step 1” for Craft of Prose

In “Step 1,” I’m asking students to develop their skills in the imperative and descriptive moods so that a character and/or narrator can demonstrate or walk through an concept or action. They will base their preliminary discussion on “The Unforgivable Curses” chapter of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the semester’s icebreaker text, as well as read the opening pages of Lorrie Moore’s “How To Be an Other Woman.” In doing so, they will likewise refer to some of the terminology we’ve gone over in previous classes—diction, syntax, dialogue, concrete details, point of view—and demonstrate their understanding of that terminology by relying on those literary concepts to make an effective piece.

Guess Who Reading Discussion Prompt for Craft of Prose

In this reading discussion prompt, students are asked to consider what elements contribute to our understanding of character in this “Guess Who” game in which students draw a character who appears in chapters 3–12 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and then describe them by answering a series of questions. They will use their descriptions to come up with three clues about the character: one is a concrete detail about the character’s appearance, the second is to identify a scene in which they appear, and the third is a literary craft element that helps reveal their character.

Poetry Reading Calibration and a Writing Exercise for the First Day of Poetry Workshop

Note: In an effort to keep this blog updated regularly, I’m going to be storing my writing exercises and handouts in my Google Drive. I will post these exercises as a link here.

This single document includes three different components:

  1. An introduction questionnaire, allowing students to tell me a little about them, their needs, and their preferences.
  2. A Poetry Reading Calibration Exercise, featuring Ari Banias’s poem “A Sunset.”
  3. A Writing Exercise titled “Home” after the Safiya Sinclair poem by the same name.

I’m giving these exercises on the first day of class in order to get a better sense of where the students are in terms of their poetry knowledge and reading ability. Additionally, I wanted to introduce them to some terminology (e.g. line breakstoneconcrete details, etc.) that will make it easier for them to talk about poetry throughout the course.

 

“Babylon: A Place You’ve Only Heard Of” Exercise

"Abbildung der Stadt Babylon" ("Picture of the City of Babylon"),  Erasmus Francisci, copper engraving on paper, 1680
“Abbildung der Stadt Babylon” (“Picture of the City of Babylon”), Erasmus Francisci, copper engraving on paper, 1680

Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
Genre: Nonfiction
Purpose: To examine how place becomes setting and to cultivate an “outsider’s” point of view
Readings: “Goodbye to All That,” “Babylon,” and “No Man’s Land” from Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land and “Goodbye to All That” by Joan Didion

 

  1. Think about a city or country that you’ve never heard of but have never been to. This can be a real (Saigon), mythic (Troy), or imagined place. Describe what you know or imagine to know about this place. Write for 5 minutes.
  2. Now think about your hometown. Describe it as you remember it, including the homes, the landscape, the stores, the values, etc. Write for 5 minutes.
  3. Write a paragraph that considers similarities between the place you’ve never been and your hometown. Write for 3 minutes.
  4. Is there something notable or notorious about your hometown? Write for 3 minutes about how outsiders might view your hometown. Is there something unique to your hometown and therefore strange to outsiders? Would an outsider have prejudices against your hometown? Write for 3 minutes.
  5. How might you be like the outsider with the place you’ve never been? Write a meditation on these similarities for 5 minutes.

Setting and Voice

Victoria Embankment, London (circa 1930)
Victoria Embankment, London (circa 1930)

Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
Genre: Fiction and Nonfiction
Purpose: To examine how setting is influenced by voice
Readings: Chapters 3 (“Voice”), with “Guns for Teachers” by Warren J. Bowe and “What I Learned” by David Sedaris, and Chapter 5 (“Setting”), with “At the Dam” by Joan Didion, in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing

Read the following two passages—the first from the second page of a novel, the second from the third and fourth paragraphs of an essay—by the same author about a woman going out to run an errand. Consider the author’s use of voice and setting. How does the voice change between the novel and the essay? What might point of view have to do with voice? What impression do you get of the characters from these excerpts? How much do we know about the setting? Why does the author describe the setting early on in the work?

For having lived in Westminster—how many years now? over twenty, —one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribably pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reasons: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.*

~

How beautiful a street is in winter! It is at once revealed and obscured. Here vaguely one can trace symmetrical straight avenues of doors and windows; here under the lamps are floating islands of pale light through which pass quickly bright men and women, who, for all their poverty and shabbiness, wear a certain look of unreality, an air of triumph, as if they had given life the slip, so that life, deceived of her prey, blunders on without them. But, after all, we are only gliding smoothly on the surface. The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks.

How beautiful a London street is then, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all round them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley. But this is London, we are reminded; high among the bare trees are hung oblong frames of reddish yellow light — windows; there are points of brilliance burning steadily like low stars — lamps; this empty ground, which holds the country in it and its peace, is only a London square, set about by offices and houses where at this hour fierce lights burn over maps, over documents, over desks where clerks sit turning with wetted forefinger the files of endless correspondences; or more suffusedly the firelight wavers and the lamplight falls upon the privacy of some drawing-room, its easy chairs, its papers, its china, its inlaid table, and the figure of a woman, accurately measuring out the precise number of spoons of tea which —— She looks at the door as if she heard a ring downstairs and somebody asking, is she in?*

*The first excerpt is from Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway. The second excerpt is from Virginia Woolf’s 1930 essay “Street Haunting: A London Adventure.” I didn’t, however, reveal this to my students immediately. As an aside, I asked them if they recognized the author before revealing the source.

“Joe had some water”: Intro to Creative Writing Discussion about Image, Specificity, Significance, and Precision

After talking about Janet Burroway’s Image chapter in Imaginative Writing, my class took our discussion to the white board to consider problems with translating experience and ideas in language, the fundamentals of significant detail, and the precision of language.

I asked them to consider all of the possible meanings for each of these sentences:

“Joe had some water.”
—He drank some water; he has water to drink; he had water for watering his plants, etc.

“Joe had a glass of water.”
—He drank the glass of water; he had a glass of water to drink, etc.

“Joe had a glass of water on the table.”
—He had water to drink on the table and he hadn’t finished drinking it.

We explored the slippery nature of the word “had” in all of these cases, and then we thought about how context could change the sentences. We considered the difference between “a glass of water” versus a “water glass,” how the second doesn’t necessarily mean that the glass contains water, rather it could designated as a glass for water. Additionally, having the read come to “glass” before “water” would help form the image for the reader as it provides the container before what’s contained inside it.

IMG_3326.JPG

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

*

“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.)

*

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.)

Archaeology Exercise

Woman putting a letter in a post box, United States of America.
Caption: “FOR YOU, MY DARLING. COPYRIGHT BY A.L. SIMPSON 1909.”

Class: Writing Out of the Ordinary
Genre: Poetry/Nonfiction
Readings: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely
Time: 40 minutes

I place many objects in the table or assign them at random to students. All of the objects are old: postcards, advertisements, mugshots, taxidermy instructions, a dried beaver face, etc.

1. Select a piece of ephemera from the center of the table.
2. Describe the object. What does it look like? What is/was it used for? How old is it? (5 min.)
3. Who owned this article? Who encountered it? Speculate on their perception/reaction would have been to the object. Would the object have some special importance to them? Would they have ignored the object? Describe a situation in which the object was previously encountered. Is it similar or different to your initial reaction? (10 min.)
4. Have you ever encountered something like this before? Make parallels to your experience with similar objects. Ex. If it’s an advertisement, talk about an experience or reaction to another advertisement. (10 min.)
5. Is there a public and/or private issue that this object and your memory causes you to consider? Does it make you think about identity? The ephemeral nature of life? A shift in culture or fashion? Cruelty? Art? Talk us through your thought process. (10 min.)
6. After thinking about this object in the context of speculation, memory, and meditation, has the object changed in meaning for you? Do you appreciate it more or less? (5 min.)

***Bonus step: Now switch objects with the person on your right. Describe this object. How does this new object compare or contrast to your old object? Does it raise similar issues?