Posts Tagged ‘Exercise’

Much like aspiring painters, who study and sometimes copy the work of painters in order to learn artistic technique, writers who study the work of well-known authors will learn about the craft of writing. With that in mind, let’s examine Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers.”

Hope Is the Thing with Feathers
by Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet—never—in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of me.

Dickinson starts with an abstract word—hope. Abstract nouns identify ideas and feelings. They are things that cannot be touched. To give hope an image, Dickinson uses a metaphor—the thing with feathers. A metaphor is a figure of speech where something is said to be something else. In this case, hope is a bird. A poem can be an extended metaphor, meaning the writer uses the metaphor through several stanzas in a poem, and Dickinson does that in this poem.

In the next three lines of Stanza 1, Dickinson uses verbs that are characteristic of birds:  perches and sings. Then she identifies places where hope can be found: in the soul and without words.

A shift occurs in Stanza 2. The question could be asked: When do you most need your abstract word? Answer: When things are going well? No. Rather when things are going bad, right? Hope is most tested when there is a storm. Notice even though Dickinson is writing about hope, in Stanza 2 she continues to use images related to the bird.

Another shift occurs in Stanza 3. Dickinson lists two places she has heard the abstract word: in the chilliest land and strangest Sea. Then she defines where she has not seen it: Extrimity. Extrimity? What’s that? At the end, limit, farthest point. Hope is not there.

Finally, the last line. What did the abstract word never ask for: a crumb—of me.  Notice the word crumb is appropriate to what the bird needs for nourishment as well as the persona of the poem.

Now that we understand this poem, let’s try to master the craft of writing a poem just like it—only different—one that is your own. Follow these steps:

  • Select a positive abstract word.
  • Brainstorm a list of possible metaphors that could be used with your abstract word. Select the one that is the strongest metaphor to create an image.
  • Make a list of verbs that can be used with your metaphor.
  • Make a list of places your abstract word can be found.
  • Combine the verb list with the place list to finish Stanza 1.
  • Make a list of things that can test your abstract word. Determine which thing causes the reader to need the abstract word most. Using that image, write Stanza 2. Remember that you need to extend the metaphor image in that situation as well as keeping the language connected to the abstract word.
  • Return to the list of places where your abstract word can be found. Write the first two lines of Stanza 3. Start it with the word “I.”
  • Make a list of places where your abstract word cannot be found. Select the place that is the most remote. Add the third line of Stanza 3. Start the line with “Yet” or another conjunction like it.
  • Make a list of nourishment words for the metaphor. Select one of the nourishment words and write the last line.

Sounds simple, right? No, it’s not. However, struggling to follow the form of another writer’s poem, especially an established poet like Emily Dickinson, will teach a writer about poetic elements: imagery, line breaks, word choice, etc.

In the comment section below, identify a poet and poem title that would work well for this exercise.

Work Cited

Dickinson, Emily. “Hope Is the Thing With Feathers.” Poetry Foundation.  2013. Web 14 March 2013.


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All forms of art—paintings, music, sculptures, literature—explore the nuances of life. Because all forms of art do this, it’s not surprising that the art forms cross over and draw inspiration from each other. Ekphrastic writing is a piece of literature that is about a piece of art, for example, a poem about a painting.

Vincent van Gogh’s painting “The Starry Night” has inspired two works. Don McLean, an American singer and songwriter, wrote “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night).” The song starts with the color in the painting in the opening stanza:

Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and grey
Look out on a summer’s day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul

Anne Sexton, an American poet, wrote the poem “The Starry Night.”  Her poem starts with the tree in Van Gogh’s painting:

The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.

Not only do writers write about art; painters have also painted as a result of inspiration from a piece of writing. When I was a high school, I was introduced to William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Great Figure.”

The Great Figure

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
fire truck
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city

“The Great Figure” prompted Charles Demuth, an American painter, to create his work The Figure 5 in Gold.

Have you ever thought about writing about art? Next time you visit a museum or an art gallery, bring your notebook or journal. Or next time you’re at the library or a bookstore, get a book with photographs of works of art.  Try Ekphrastic writing by giving someone or something in the artwork a voice.

Works Cited

McLean, Don. “Starry, Starry Night Lyrics.” Van Gogh Gallery. 2012-2013. Web. 30 Jan. 2013.

Sexton, Anne. “The Starry Night.” Poetry Foundation.  2013. Web. 30 Jan. 2013.

Williams, William Carlos. “The Great Figure.” Sour Grapes: A Book of Poems. Boston: Four Seas Company, 1921.

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Word choice is the heart of writing. A single word can create an image or conjure up emotions for readers. Let’s look at how strong, specific nouns can do just that.

As you know, a noun is a person, place, thing, or idea, and there are two kinds:  common and proper nouns. However, I’d like us to think of nouns in three different groups when it comes to writing:  ordinary/blah nouns (which writers should avoid), strong common nouns and specific proper nouns. Let me show you what I mean. Read the following chart:

Ordinary/Blah Nouns Strong Common Nouns  Specific Proper Nouns
house shack, mansion, hut, homestead, cabin White House, Windsor Castle
toys board game, blocks, model plane, dinosaur, doll Twister, Legos, Revel B-17 Bomber, T-Rex, Barbie
shoes sneakers, high heels, platforms, boots Nikes, Keens, Uggs
vehicle car, bus, semi-truck, pick-up Toyota Camry, Greyhound, Camaro, Dodge Ram
candy chocolates, caramel, candy corn, jelly beans, gum Snickers, M & M’s, Hersheys, Werther’s Originals,  Skittles, Bazooka Bubble Gum

Did the words listed in second and third columns evoke images and an emotional response from you? No doubt, some did. For example, the word shack caused me to think ofthose who are destitute. When I typed Werther’s Originals, it immediately transported me to my grandmother’s kitchen where the bowl of caramels sat on her oak table. And Twister reminded me of laughter-filled sleepovers when I was a teenager.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in his book “The Crack-Up” used noun lists to describe a junk yard. He wrote:

Seen in a Junk Yard. Dogs, chickens with few claws, brass fittings, T’s elbow, rust everywhere, bales of metal 1800 lbs., plumbing fixtures, bathtubs, sinks, water pumps, wheels, Fordson tractor, acetylene lamps for tractors, sewing machine, bell on dinghy, box of bolts (No. 1), van, stove, auto stuff (No. 2), army trucks, cast iron body, hot dog stand, dinky engines, sprockets like watch parts, hinge all taken apart on building side, motorcycle radiators, George on the high army truck. (107)

The images are prolific in this scene, and notice how Fitzgerald did it with strong common nouns sprinkled with a few specific proper nouns.

Below is a list of places. Choose one and write a paragraph modeled after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s junk yard paragraph.

garage sale
craft show
movie theater
ocean beach

Then share your noun paragraphs with us and/or any other comments you have about writing using strong, specific nouns.

Work Cited

 Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Crack-Up. New York: New Directions, 1945. Print.

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The Found Poem

I hate the words, “I have writer’s block!” Often it’s an excuse writers use to not write. Don’t misunderstand; I’ve said those words many times as well. It is true, we do get stuck and seem immobilized to move to the next level in our writing; however, it’s not an excuse not to write because writing exercises can break writer’s block.

One of the writing exercises I like to do is a found poem. A found poem is a poem found in the context of a prose piece.

Writing a found poem teaches writers—whether they are prose writers or poets—the following things about composing and revising:

  1. To read and study another writer’s work carefully.
  2. To select words which are necessary for good writing.
  3. To recognize or hear the musicality of words or phrases.
  4. To search for images, which are usually found in strong nouns and action verbs.

Here are the steps to writing a found poem:

  1. Find 50 to 100 words that you like in a prose piece.
  2. Photocopy or copy the language in the exact sequence that you found it.
  3. Study the words you found. Cross out everything that’s unnecessary.  Try to cut the original prose piece in half.
  4. With the remaining words, write a poem, using the words in the order in which they appear. You can change punctuation if you need to, but you cannot add your own words. You don’t have to use all the remaining words, and you can add words back in that you crossed out.
  5. Read aloud as you arrange the words into a poem. Test possible line breaks by pausing at different places, or if you don’t want to do line breaks, write it as a prose poem.
  6. Title your poem.
  7. At the end of the poem or under the title, in parenthesis write A Found Poem from ____”Title of the Prose”___.”

Look at the following text from the short story “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck.  Notice the words I crossed out and the words I kept.

 The high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the reat valley a closed pot. On the broad, level land floor the gang plows bit deep and left the black earth shining like metal where the shares had cut. On the foothill ranches across the Salinas River, the yellow stubble fields seemed to be bathed in pale cold sunshine, but there was no sunshine in the valley now in December. The thick willow scrub along the river flamed with sharp and positive yellow leaves.

It was a time of quiet and of waiting. The air was cold and tender. A light wind blew up from the southwest so that the farmers were mildly hopeful of a good rain before long; but fog and rain do not go together.

Here’s my found poem from Steinbeck’s short story:

 An Unlikely Marriage of Fog and Rain
(A Found Poem from ““The Chrysanthemums”)

Grey-flannel fog
closed off the sky
like a lid on the mountains,
a closed pot.

Black earth like metal
the yellow stubble fields
bathed in pale cold.

A time of quiet,
of waiting,
the farmers
mildly hopeful
of a good rain

but fog and rain
do not go together.

Is there a found poem in what you are currently reading? Write it and share it with us in the comment section below.

 Work Cited

Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums.” Fifty Great Short Stories. Ed. Milton Crane. New York: Bantam Books, 2005, 1952. Print.

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Writer’s groups meet regularly to discuss drafts that are in various stages of the writing process. The feedback on a draft is valuable to writers particularly in the revising and editing stages.

However, another option for a writer’s group or a writing class is to write together—to do a writing exercise and discuss the results of the writing activity they did together.

For the past month, I’ve written about how to start a prose piece with an effective lead. A writer’s group or a writing class can complete the following steps, and at the end of one to two hours, each member of the group will have a choice between four effective leads, and each writer will have feedback on which of the four leads works the best.

Step 1 – Select a Story Idea: For beginning writers, it works best to choose a life experience, something that is memorable and life changing.

Step 2 – Write an Action Lead for the Selected Story Idea:  In three to five minutes, each writer writes an action lead, where the main character in the story is doing something.

Step 3 – Using the Same Story Idea, Write a Dialogue Lead:  In three to five minutes, each writer writes a dialogue lead, where two or more characters are talking to one another.

Step 4 – Using the Same Story Idea, Write a Reaction Lead: In three to five minutes, each writer writes a reaction lead, a lead that is written in first-person point of view and reveals the internal thoughts of the main character.

Step 5 – Using the Same Story Idea, Write a Place Lead: In three to five minutes, each writer writes a place lead, a lead that describes the setting and then moves into the main character’s situation.

Step 6 – Read Aloud the Leads: One member of the writer’s group or class volunteers to read his/her four leads aloud. If a group has more than fifteen people in it, break into small groups of four or five people.

Step 7 – Provide Feedback: After a writer has read all four leads, other group members provide the reader with feedback, explaining which lead(s) are effective by explaining what works in it (them).

Step 8 – Repeat Until Complete: Continue to repeat Step 6 and 7 until all members of the group have read their leads and received feedback.

If you are not part of a writer’s group, you can follow Steps 1-5. Then post your leads in the comment section below. Maybe other writers who are following this blog will give you feedback on your four leads.

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