Summer Online Intro to CW Writing Exercise: “Nothing Amiss, Nothing Missed”

Writing Exercise: “Nothing Amiss, Nothing Missed”

Your first writing exercise asks you to draw upon the concepts of concrete language, significant details, and mood-inducing setting from Chapters 2: Image and 5: Setting. The exercise is multi-part, so make sure not to miss a step.

  1. Take a pen and paper (or laptop, if you’re more comfortable typing) into a space in which other people (preferably strangers) are interacting with one another or objects. Grocery store, coffee shop, doctor’s office, cemetery, public park—wherever you like. Feel free to do this exercise on a regular errand, if you can squeeze it in. Once you are in the space, I would like for you to set a timer on your phone or watch for a set time between 10–15 minutes. Without pausing to consider or edit, write down in a paragraph or list every detail from this space that you possibly can. This is called automatic writing, and it should allow you to efficiently take in your surroundings as quickly as possibly.
  2. Please select one mood from the a list and one genre from the b list in which you’d like to rewrite your setting:
    • overjoyed, despondent, apathetic, devious, hopeful, grief-stricken, afraid, or something else
    • fiction or nonfiction
  3. As we learned from Burroway, a concrete, significant detail means that the specific image appeals to at least one of the five senses and suggests an abstraction, generalization, or judgment. In other words, that detail reveals something more than just that object’s there-ness. It comments on something within the story or reveals something about the point-of-view character. We may also find that what a character selects to tell us about a setting is very revealing of their personality or mental state. Burroway writes: “Our relation to place, time, and weather, like our relation to clothes and other objects, is charged with emotion more or less subtle, more or less profound. It is filled with judgment, mellow or harsh. And it alters according to what happens to us.” As a very simplistic example, imagine that character A and character B walk into the seasonal section at the grocery store. A’s excited about the sale on the industrial-sized, Banana Boat suntan lotion that smells like pina colada, whereas B’s gravitate to the adult-sized arm floaties. These two things, although related and present in the same setting, reveal very different things about the needs, wants, and personalities of the two characters. We might concur that A’s interested in spending a lot of time in the sun and getting a tan, meaning that they are concerned about their looks, how they are seen. B, however, cannot swim (or swim well) and may even be afraid of the water. In this way, each of these objects are significant because they reveal something about the character. With all of this in mind, you will:
    • rewrite your description of the setting through the twin lenses of the character’s mood and the genre, being sure to only select those details that seem to reveal the character and the mood you want to cast over this place while leaving out incongruous information, but be sure not to tell us what mood you’re trying to portray
    • and then read your peers’ attempts at the exercise and guess what kind of mood they were trying to portray through the details they chose.
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Craft of Poetry Writing Exercise: “Thank You”

Stoats_and_R._C._Shepard_top_grafting_a_tree_(6258803370)

Writing Exercise: “Thank You”

  1. Select a single line or image from one of Jenny Johnson’s poems in In Full Velvet.
  2. Free write a poem that begins with this line or image co-opted from Johnson. This can be phrased exactly the same way that she phrases it, or you can change it up to best suit your own poem. Remember that this is a starting point, and you should feel free to move away from this inciting image.

Poetry Workshop Readings and Writing Exercise: “Befriend Me: Poems of Social Media & Technological Engagement”

When I am out of town on November 30th, my colleague will be discussing the poems from the “Befriend Me: Poems of Social Media & Technological Engagement” packet and then leading the Poetry Workshop in the “Befriend Me” writing exercise. I hope to do this again with my spring Craft of Poetry course, and go more in depth with the exercise and the class’s engagement. Thanks to all of those on social media who suggested additional poems for inclusion in this reading packet.

“Rivers Into Seas”: Line Into Meaning

Small outboard stranded on a sandbar in the Colorado River, ca.1900

Genre: Poetry
Purpose:
To push the boundaries of the line, sentence, and punctuation to add subtext and texture to poems
Readings:
Lynda Hull, Claudia Emerson, Ocean Vuong, Tarfia Faizullah, Jamaal May, Ross Gay

*This prompt was given to Mary Szybist’s workshop at the 2015 Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop

In this prompt, I’d like for you to explore the ways in which you can complicate your poems with subtext and refine them with dramatic, imagistic, and rhythmic textures through the relationship between the line/form and the sentence.

  1. Write a heavily enjambed poem about deceit, doublespeak, a fallible memory, or letting someone down easy. Each line of this poem must make its own kind of sense separate from the sentence(s) to which it belongs. Each line may support, nuance, or buck against its parent syntactical meaning(s). Take a look at Lynda Hull’s “Rivers Into Seas.” In order to examine this phenomenon, it might be helpful to read the poem for its sentences initially, and then reread it line-by-line with an exaggerated pause at each break. What lines assert themselves as a complete thought, sentence, or image? How does that relate to the syntax?
  2. Write a poem that takes the first prompt further by including little or no punctuation. Choose whether or not you’d like to introduce alternatives to traditional punctuation, through in-line white space (also called visual caesuras) as found in Claudia Emerson’s “Midwife”; line breaks, like those in Ocean Vuong’s “Ode to Masturbation”; capitalization at the start of sentences; or some combination. (Keep in mind that in-line white space also can be used as a means to emphasize certain images or phrases; to modulate the reader’s pace; or to imitate an action taking place in the poem.)
  3. Write a poem in two columns. The columns must make (a certain) sense if read together and apart. See “Aubade Ending with the Death of a Mosquito” by Tarfia Faizullah and “I Do Have a Seam” by Jamaal May.
  4. Write a poem in one sentence or run-on sentence that uses the line as a break for breath that befits the action of the poem or the way in which the speaker might tell the story. See Ross Gay’s “For Some Slight I Can’t Quite Recall.”

“Encounter” Exercise

"Stumps of trees cut by the Donner Party in Summit Valley, Placer County" Grayscaled albumen print, half stereograph. (1866) via the Library of Congress

“Stumps of trees cut by the Donner Party in Summit Valley, Placer County” Grayscaled albumen print, half stereograph. (1866) via the Library of Congress

Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
Genre: Fiction
Purpose: To explore Burroway’s concept of “Character as Image”; examine potential of non-verbal communication; and situate the reader to receive information along with a character
Readings: Chapters 4 (“Character”) and Gabriel García Márquez’s “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing

Two characters come upon one another in the middle of a forest. Something bad—but not melodramatic*—has happened to one character and that character needs help. When the first character tries to tell the second what’s wrong, it’s revealed that the two characters don’t speak the same language. (This could include sign language.)

Write a scene from the point of view of the second character (first person “I”) while the first character tries to communicate the problem using only gestures, drawing, or other non-verbal communication. Additionally:

  • the second character cannot know what the problem is before the first character reveals it in this scene;
  • the second character should notice details throughout the interaction that reveal more about the first character (i.e. clothing, appearance, possessions, etc.)
  • the second character may or may not—or even cannot—help.

*Challenge yourself to come up with a problem that doesn’t involve far-fetched plot lines, flat characters, and easy conclusions. This means it would be best to avoid killers, aliens, and monsters. Think about more ordinary but equally tension-filled situations like a farmer whose lost a bull, a teenager who has a flat tire but doesn’t know how to change it, a hunter who accidentally shot his buddy in the foot, etcetera.

“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.

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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.)