Hack Your Essay

July 25, 2017 § 13 Comments

Your problem’s in the third paragraph. And let’s tighten that closing while you’re here.

Sometimes writing is a glorious creative flow, images tumbling out in perfect sequence and in the exact right words to express them. Other times, it’s a slog.

I know this isn’t quite working but I don’t know why.

When it happened, the experience wasn’t this…blah.

Where the heck do I start the next draft?

One door in to a difficult draft is to focus on the technical. Word choices, parts of speech, sentence lengths, paragraph constructions. Our medium is words, and just as an oil painting is unlike a watercolor or a graphic design, the mechanics of language can shape our story, sometimes even leading the creative process rather than reflecting it.

Over at Poetry Foundation, Carmen Giménez Smith has Twenty-Two Poem Hacks for addressing a poem technically. Most of the twenty-two are also terrific tools for working on an essay or short story. Some choice bits:

1. Lose that first stanza: The first stanza is often the path to a poem, and it provides scaffolding for us, but our reader doesn’t need it as much as we do. Read the poem without the first stanza, and see how much is missing. Consider how quickly the first stanza situates the reader in the poem.

Replace stanza with “paragraph.” Sometimes even with “page.” A novelist I’m editing heard an agent say, “Many manuscripts, the story actually begins 50 pages in. Cut the first 50 and see where you are.” The novelist (bravely) did, and the book immediately leapt to life, starting the reader in the action. From those first pages, only a few pieces of information were still needed, and the writer wove them in later.

8. Assess your use of cognitive handles: Language like “I feel,” “I remember,” “I think,” etc. often points to the obvious work of cognition. We rarely need them, and more importantly, they offset the potential for a dynamic subject-predicate engagement. Remove them whenever possible, then move the subsequent language into the spotlight.

This language is also called “filtering,” and filtering reminds the reader, “You are not this narrator. The narrator is a separate person who did something that happened somewhere/somewhen else.”

I looked across the room at Bob vs. Bob stood across the room.

By removing the filters, the reader sees through the eyes of the character, steps into their shoes. The reader can be immersed in the story and feel their own reactions to events.

13. Clauses and fragments: Fragments can serve us well in a poem, but if we have a conventional clause (subject-predicate) divided by a period, we should ask why break up that engagement with energy and momentum.

In prose, this energy interruption is also seen in long sentences full of prepositional phrases. Prepositions often denote location in space or time, and every time a new phrase shows up, the reader’s sense of location jumps. A rough-draft sentence:

She went into the store on the corner and looked on the shelf for the familiar red packet she’d eaten from so long ago at her mother’s table in the blue house where she’d felt so alone, as alone as she felt this morning at her own table.

It’s not just that this sentence is overly long (long can be great when it’s a choice). It’s that it contains 10 prepositional phrases, each of which takes the reader to a different time, physical location, or state of being.

And beautifully, Giménez Smith points out the technical work of vulnerability:

21. Revise toward strangeness: The poem should make you uncomfortable and it should challenge you. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” –Robert Frost

It’s not an accident that our essays become raw and riveting and compelling. It’s the writer receiving that moment of You can’t tell that or But what if everyone finds out or Maybe I’m the only one who feels like this and writing into it instead of away from it.

Check out all Twenty-Two Poem Hacks here–and dive into that next draft, OK?

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster PA, teaching self-editing and meeting with authors about their work.

The Hybrid Writer’s Life (Post-MFA)

December 5, 2016 § 21 Comments

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Photo by Chris Marley

By Paige Sullivan

A newly-enrolled MFA student, my job as an assistant editor at my program’s top-tier, in-house literary journal was what you’d expect: reading the slush pile. The journal accepted both paper and online submissions, meaning each week I’d work through a stack of submission packets colorfully paper clipped together in addition to sifting through the online queue.

While the work was sometimes dull, it was crucial to sharpening my reading skills, and it afforded me an invaluable understanding of the spectrum of talent and skill that exists out there. Truly, we got it all: exceptional work, promising work, and strange poems that tried to compare love to meatball marinara.

My favorite part of reading the paper submissions were the more personal touches of the printed and hand-signed cover letters, which were sometimes accompanied by a business card. For me, these submissions became fascinating character studies. Yes, there were writers like me: MFA students or graduates who neatly listed 3-4 italicized publications, any accolades, and where they lived and worked. Others were less conventional and thus more interesting.

One woman included a business card that read, “Poet….Hairdresser.” There was more than one letter from an attorney who wrote poems when they weren’t practicing law. One writer mentioned that in addition to their day job and their writing, they were active in the competitive breeding and show rabbit circuit. Incredible.

As I soon came to the conclusion that the academic career path was not the career path for me, I became more and more fascinated with these kinds of writers: the ones who had other interests and obligations outside the typical gamut of writing/literature/ composition/teaching/adjuncting. The lawyers and hairdressers and rabbit enthusiasts who found room in their lives to make art, too.

While I was not discouraged from pursuing a non-academic career path, I can’t say there was a wealth of structured support within my department. I thus figured out a great deal on my own, cobbling together myriad experiences in freelance writing and editing, writing random articles on ethical travel habits and Best Vegetarian Restaurants in Atlanta between grading papers and preparing poems for workshop.

There are ways in which writers self-soothe:

Well, Robert Frost didn’t publish his first book until late in life, so I’m doing pretty ok.

Well, Wallace Stevens wasn’t an academic. He worked in insurance and turned out pretty ok.

Hey, William Carlos Williams was a doctor! Surely if I don’t become a professor I’m not dooming myself.

I’m sure I’m not the only poet who read O.T. Marod’s essay “Poet at Work” in a recent issue of The Point and felt both the rush and deflation of recognition. Writers are no strangers to the complex paradoxes of their identities–the delicious, almost flippant valor that comes with simply responding, “I’m a writer” when someone asks what you do, tethered to the falter in your confidence when the person lobs back an “Oh, huh.” or “Really?”

Then again, maybe more confident writers don’t feel the need to qualify their pronouncements. On good days, I don’t. Other days, it feels almost blase to flash my poet moniker without the self-conscious need to defend and protect it.

Perhaps we can agree with Marod’s essential points: that poets and writers commonly struggle with a profound crises of role and identity, and that many of us live a dashed or hyphenated identity, as his allegorical poet/tutor does, to make both art and a living.

But is that really so bad?

Yes, in a perfect world, poets would have a salary commensurate with experience and a nice benefits package. But our art isn’t (always) for hire, and I can’t say that that really bothers me.

On the contrary, I think the hybridity of identities and skills working writers claim can be mutually fruitful. I think good writers should likely be passionate about the world around them to remain passionate about art.

And while there’s comfort and prestige and familiar structures that come with academia, preaching the gospel of the tenure-track faculty position isn’t sustainable or realistic–but that doesn’t have to mean something dire.

I am hungry for an expanded conversation of hybrid writers, MFAs With Day Jobs–whatever you want to call them–beyond the perfunctory Well, Philip Larkin was a librarian, so…. exception to the rule anecdote. I want to talk more about people who have a life on the other side of the dash that is just as interesting and enriching and challenging as the life of a poet….and of a rabbit breeder.

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Paige Sullivan recently completed her MFA at Georgia State University, where she served as the poetry editor of New South. Her poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared or will soon appear in Bitter Southerner, Ninth Letter, Arts & Letters, Grist and other publications. In addition to freelancing, she works as a marketing professional in Atlanta’s nonprofit sector.

 

Moments Not Things

November 5, 2019 § 17 Comments

photo by Sara Tasker @me_and_orla

I’m taking an Instagram course. Which is the sort of ridiculous thing that exists these days—you paid real money to learn about Instagram? From who, some kind of Instagram guru? Wait, don’t you already teach about Instagram?

Yes, yes, and yes.

I’ve argued before that writers don’t need ten thousand followers for our literary community and/or platform; we need about a thousand engaged followers. People who actually want to have a conversation with us, and for whom Instagram is a free and convenient way to do that. My captions aspire to mini-essay status, and I do, in fact, have conversations with other writers. People I admire; people who (I hope) admire me right back. I’d like to have more conversations (please join me!), and I’m missing a key ingredient: better photos.

While I love and advocate for words on Instagram, there’s no escaping that it’s still primarily a visual medium. Many of the people I interact with I’ve already met in real life, at a writing conference or an event. If I want strangers to slow their scroll and interact, I need photos that pop, that say “there’s more to find out here.”

The course teacher’s photos are amazing. The visual impact is such that scrollers become readers, pausing to look at Sara Tasker’s posts and read her words, click over to her blog, maybe buy her book. One key concept she teaches is “Moments not things.” For example, a plate of beautiful cupcakes, arranged just so, pink frosting sculpted into dainty swirls. It’s a pretty picture, but it’s just a picture. Add a child’s hand reaching into the frame, one finger sneaking some icing, and now it’s a moment, the first sentence of a story, with the rest told in the caption.

This applies to people, too. What’s more precious: The photo of a kid posed stiffly in front of a photo backdrop? Or the hurried shot of “First day of school but she’s late for the bus so I’ve got her running and waving while I thrust the 7TH GRADE sign into the frame”? One is a moment. One is a thing.

As writers, this is the difference between telling and showing:

We were so poor we qualified for public assistance and had to buy the cheapest groceries. My mom was ashamed and tried to hide our broke and hungry state.

It’s not bad, but it’s still telling. An exercise I learned from Andre Dubus III was to take a series of abstract concepts and express them through a concrete situation or action.

Poverty:

We made dollar-store macaroni and cheese with water instead of milk.

We went through Justice, Fatherly Love, Motherly Love, Betrayal, Jealousy, Sexual Deception, Shame, Pride, Loyalty and a few more. I took the workshop two years in a row, and both times, every writer in the room had vivid, concrete experiences that could be turned into useful elements of their memoir or novel. Sometimes, pinpointing the moment led to an even larger theme:

My mom resewed her underwear for us…but we weren’t poor, it was that dad controlled the money and wouldn’t let her have it.

As I take the lessons of the course into both my writing and my photography, I’m looking at the world differently. The huge, shiny food court I see every day? Sure it’s part of my world, very “Dubai,” and different from many people’s experience, but it’s a thing. The janitor resting, head down on his arms on the plastic table before the mall opens, because he’s dropped off by a van that gets here too early? That’s a moment. If I do the research, maybe it’s also a story.

Whether you’re writing only in words, or including photos in your work, your Instagram, or your personal album, find what’s outside the frame that belongs in the story. Find the meaning in the thing. Find the moment.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She also leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats: coming up, Dubai (Feb26-Mar4) and Costa Rica (May11-18) with Dinty W. Moore.

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