“One Story, Three Genres” Exercise

Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
Genre: Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry
Purpose: To consider how writers of three genres go about approaching similar subject matter; to introduce distinctions between the genres; and to introduce key drafting and revision considerations based on reading from Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing
Readings: Chapters 1 (“Invitation to the Writer”) and 7 (“Development and Revision”) in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing


  1. Pick a favorite nursery rhyme, myth, or religious tale that you know by heart. Write a brief summary of the story in 2 to 5 sentences.
  2. If you were writing this narrative as a short story, how would you change it? What elements would you include? How would the style change?
  3. If you were writing this narrative as a poem, how would you change it? What would be your first steps to writing the poem? What would you leave out? What would you add in?
  4. If you were using this narrative as a basis for nonfiction, how would you frame it? How can you approach this subject matter in that way?
  5. Free write for ten minutes and begin to convert your summary into either a short story, a poem, or personal essay.

Staggering Assignments

Distillation by Alembic, 1910. (Published before 1923 and public domain in the US.)

Distillation by Alembic, 1910. (Published before 1923 and public domain in the US.)

In my poetry class, I decided to stagger revision assignments throughout the semester instead of assigning a final portfolio, because I wanted:

  1. to avoid end-of-the-semester-grading fatigue, in order to ensure that I was always fresh and never rushed in grading;
  2. to alleviate students’ end-of-the-semester stress, so that they would be able to concentrate on revising individual poems rather than meeting basic requirements of a portfolio (better— instead of more—work at a time);
  3. to give students a better, ongoing sense of how they are progressing in the course;
  4. and to situate revision as an integral and ongoing part of the writing process that goes hand-in-hand with writing new poems and reading.

Structuring the course in this way, I felt like I was able to give more feedback, and my students’ revisions improved. In previous courses, a revision unit at the end of the semester suggested that revision was an afterthought to the writing process. By having students revise throughout the semester, workshop directly correlated to students’ next steps and, in their self-assessments, they often referred to feedback they received from their peers. Workshop, therefore, was explicitly linked to revision; it wasn’t the end but the means of their creative work—not a junkyard, but an alchemical machine.

“Cadenza” Exercise

C. Reimers- Das Leipziger Gewandhausorchester im Lichte der Satire, 19 Karikaturen, lithographiert von Blau & Co., Leipzig um 1850 I haven’t had a chance yet to give this exercise to my Writing Poetry students, but I hope to give this to them by the end of the semester. A “cadenza” is a soloist’s improvisation that later gets written into a piece of music. It’s my hope that this exercise will produce in-class improvisation that later becomes a revised poem.

Class: Writing Poetry (Virginia Commonwealth University)
Genre: Poetry
Purpose: To consider how pace and sound relates to emotion, tone, and intensity.
Readings: One might provide the students with musical examples in lieu of readings.

  1. Provide students with a glossary of musical terms, such as http://www.classicalworks.com/html/glossary.html, or a selected list. (Italianate terms preferable.)
  2. Each student should select a term, study its definition, and then conceive of a poem that demonstrates the qualities of the term. The poem could embody these qualities with form, syntax, diction, sound, prosody, or any combination thereof. This term must serve as the title of the poem. For instance, “Sonata” might produce a poem in four parts that each differ in tone and pace. (30+ minutes)
  3. Students should share their results with the class for feedback on whether or not they embodied the musical terms in their poems. Open up a discussion about how line breaks, forms, and syntax/diction create a kind of music in poems and how these can be manipulated to produce certain tonal/emotional effects in addition to those implicit in dramatic situations. (10–15 minutes)
  4. The students will then take home the poem and revise it. Share again at a later date.

One Motivation, Five Poems Exercise

Minerva by Elihu Vedder (1897)

Minerva by Elihu Vedder (1897)

Class: Beginning Poetry (Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop)
Genre: Poetry
Readings: A tailored poetry packet
Time: 50+ minutes

Think about a poem that you’ve been wanting to write for a long time but haven’t been able to successfully accomplish. It works best if this is a personal memory or other narrative.

Discuss each of the following approaches and the read their respective suggested poems:

  1. Anecdotal: A simple story in one setting, usually in plain speech. See “Black” by Alan Shapiro.
  2. Imperative: A second person address with instructions, based on an extended metaphor or literal. See “How to Live in a Trap” by Eleanor Ross Taylor.
  3. Meta: A response to an event that takes into account writing’s inability to fully capture the event. See “Photograph of September 11th” by Wislawa Szymborska and “The streetlamp above me darkens” by Tarfia Faizullah.
  4. Figurative: A characterization of an event or action through metaphor. See “Boy Breaking Glass” by Gwendolyn Brooks.
  5. Collage: A poem that uses multiple of these approaches and usually isn’t afraid to associate away from and back again to the original motivation. See “My Story In a Late Style of Fire” by Larry Levis of “Across the Sea” by Dana Levin.

After discussing each approach, take ten minutes to write your narrative using only that approach. Move on to the next one and repeat.

At the end, ask yourself: How did the poem change? Did the poem become more or less imaginative? Which one do I like the most? Why? Share.