Posts Tagged ‘Writing Lessons’

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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Haikus, which originated in the 9th Century in Japan, are three-line nature poems. They capture an image from the physical world. They are like a window into a scene.

When looking at the Japanese haiku, the first and last line consist of five moras, a sound unit much like a syllable but not identical to it. The middle line has seven moras. Since the moras do not translate well in English, syllables are used instead of moras. Thus, the traditional line format of an American haiku is this:  five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables.  At the end of the first or second line, is a kigo, a seasonal word to specify the time of year. It is not an overt word, but rather a subtle word that represents the season.

Basho Matsuo is considered a great poet of the Japanese haiku in the 1600s.  Here’s one of his poems translated by Harry Behn:

An old silent pond.
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.

Notice Matsuo’s poem focuses on the frog in his natural world, the pond. Notice the verb jump is present tense, so that readers feel as if they are watching the scene as it unfolds. Notice also there is a division in the poem at splash. The shift is from a silent pond to splash to silence again. Notice also that instead of saying how the scene makes Matsuo feel, he shows the details. It’s like placing the scene underneath a microscope and observing it minutely.

So how do writers actually write haiku poems? Although no two writers have the same process for drafting a poem, one or more of these steps may be of help to you:

  • Brainstorm a list of topics in the natural world.  Be microscopic in listing the possible images. You might even take a walk in the natural world to observe possible topics.
  • Choose one of the topics from your brainstorming list. Save the others on the list for another poem or other piece of writing.
  • Without consideration to the syllabic count, write two lines about the scene.
  •  Again, not being concerned about the syllabic count, write the third. Be sure to make a shift in the scene, a surprise that is completely different than the first two lines.
  • Next, read the three lines and ask yourself the following questions: Is the focus narrow enough on the topic—microscopic on one scene in nature? Do the lines work together? Does the third line create an element of surprise, enlightenment, or focus on the natural world?
  •  Next, begin the work of revision. Rewrite lines that didn’t work. Rework the lines to fit the 5-7-5 syllable count of the haiku. You may need to choose synonyms if the words you have do not work. Check to make sure your verbs are in present tense.
  •  Set it aside for a few days. Read it again. Make necessary revisions and continue the pattern of setting it aside and revising it until it works the way you want it to.
  •  Finally, submit it for possible publication. Many literary journals specialize in haiku or other short poems. For a list of possible journals and contests, consider The Haiku Society of America at http://www.hsa-haiku.org/.

 In the comment section below, list topics (images) that could be a haiku poem.

Work Cited

Matsuo, Basho. “An Old Silent Pond.” Famous Examples of Haiku Poetry. n.d. Web. 14 March 2013.

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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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I was thirteen when I defined myself as a writer. My eighth grade English teacher, Janice Eckman, wrote on my haiku—“This is an excellent poem, Linda; you should write more.” The power of her words made me a writer. It didn’t matter that my work wasn’t officially in print. Her affirmation propelled me to write, and I’ve been writing ever since.

Do you define yourself as a writer? Published poets, novelists, playwrights, biographers, historians, journalists, essayists, etc. are easily defined as writers. But what about people who write personal letters, keep a diary, post blogs, send emails and texts, record family stories in scrapbooks, etc.? Are they also writers? Yes, they are.  Dictionary.com defines a writer   as “a person who commits his or her thoughts, ideas, etc. to writing.” Every human being who puts pen to paper or fingers to keyboard is a writer. That includes you.

Today is the inaugural launch of this website “Writing Lessons.” It’s a place where you will find writing exercises, revision techniques, publishing opportunities, book reviews, and so much more. It’s designed to be an interactive site. I want you to ask questions, post comments, and write with me.

So, let’s start there. When did you define yourself as a writer? What questions or topics of discussion do you hope this blog will address about the art and craft of writing?

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