Exercises to help your students find inspiration for their work.

In “Bride in Beige: A Poet’s Approach to Memoir” (Poets & Writers Magazine, page 33), Mark Doty writes of his experience in building memoir out of memory. He notes that while “plenty of the past is unclear,” certain images remain “crystalline”—such as his sister’s beige suit in her wedding photograph. Draft a poem that begins with a similarly clear image of one object, keepsake, or photograph from your past. Try describing the one item in detail, and then see if the larger truth or importance of the item emerges as you further develop the poem.

In “Workshop: A Rant Against Creative Writing Classes” (page 83), author Dan Barden argues that most creative writing workshops simply “don’t work.” Assess your own experience in a workshop with this three-part experiment: 1) Before submitting a new piece of writing to your workshop, write a two-hundred-word analysis of the piece, describing what you believe are the strengths and weakness of the work and anticipating which aspects of it will draw comments from the group. 2) Immediately after the workshop, record the comments you received—not judging the comments for validity, but simply summarizing the responses into four or five statements. 3) A week or so later, after doing some revision, write another two-hundred words on the piece and the workshop process, identifying which comments that you ultimately deemed useful and if you received any suggestions or feedback from the group that helped you in the revision phase. Would you say, overall, that you benefited from the workshop? How was the piece changed, improved or not, during the process?

The article “I Google Myself, Therefore I Am” (page 14), is a candid first-person essay on Frank Bures’s preoccupation with using search engines such as Google to measure his presence on the Web. Google yourself—but only part of your name—and observe the hits that are not really about you (or any member of your family). Do you find a plumber with your name? A yoga teacher, a fellow writer? Maybe a retired Navy vet or a country-western singer? In a short prose piece or poem, assume the first-person identity of one of those “alter egos” and tell a story from that person’s perspective and life.

The articles “The Rilke Trail” by Paul Graham (page 21), “The Importance of Place” by Alexandra Enders (page 27), and “Bride in Beige” by Mark Doty (page 33) all point to the fact that writers come out of a specific place and time, and that most write from and about their personal worlds. Consider the world and life experience from which you have emerged, and begin contemplating a 400-word narrative on this topic. However—before you actually commit words to the page—draw a scene (or a set of scenes) from this landscape or experience. The quality or verisimilitude of the drawing is not important. Instead, try to capture important moments or details that you know will be essential to the telling of the story. Only after you’ve completed the drawing exercise, write the prose version of the piece with your visual image as the guide. Later, consider the work you did on the drawing, and how it helped you or influenced you in capturing place and time.

In “The Grim Reader” (page 10), Kevin Nance reports on the decline of reading in America, referencing a study from the National Endowment of the Arts that found Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 spend only seven minutes per day, on average, in reading for pleasure. Measure your own media habits over the course of a week, recording how much time you spend on these five activities: 1) watching television, 2) seeing movies (either on DVD or at a theater), 3) visiting Web sites and/or e-mailing and text-messaging friends, 4) doing the required reading for school or your job, and 5) reading for pleasure. Tabulate your results, and then compile your own results with those of other class members. Do you find that you and the class read more or less than the national average? Are there any surprises to be observed in the research?

In “Agents and Editors” (page 57), an interview by Jofie Ferrari-Adler with publishing veteran Pat Strachan, Strachan says that one of the most important aspects of her job is to “help writers” that she admires, and that editors “like to discover” new and existing talent. Think of a writer you have recently “discovered”—a writer whose work you fell in love with at first reading—and write a three-hundred-word piece describing the writer/work and why you would urge readers to seek out this author. (Haven’t read anything inspiring lately? Check out "Spring Essence” on page 47, which features the work of several contemporary writers.)

In the essay, “Bride in Beige,” Mark Doty writes, “Memory’s an active, dynamic force, not just a recording one; over the course of a life, as a perspective shifts, we keep moving into different relationships to the past, reconsidering, so that what happened turns out to be nothing stable, but a scribbled-over field of revisions, rife with questions, half its contents hidden.” Write a short piece about a memory from your distant past—maybe a school happening from third grade, a birthday party from years ago, or a family crisis that you experienced at a young age. Then, do what Doty chose not to do in his memoir: Contact another person who would be familiar with your memory, and ask the person to review your recounting of the events. In what ways did your memory of the past differ from the other person’s? How would you explain any discrepancies you encountered?

In “The Rilke Trail” (page 21), Paul Graham writes of his visit to see a place in which the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once lived and worked. Similarly, in “The Importance of Place” (page 27), Alexandra Enders explores how the work place of a writer, and the working strategies of a writer, can influence the work that is produced. Choose one of your favorite writers and research the places, rituals, and methods of the person’s work. Write an analysis of five hundred words in which you explore how the writer’s choice of work places seems to impact the writing. As a follow-up, consider your own writing habits and describe how they shape, impact, and inform your own work.

Professional Practice

Review the Resources section for grants and awards, fellowships, and opportunities for which you might want to apply. Target three listings and commit them to your calendar, recording deadlines, requirements, and other necessary information.

Read the interview with Pat Strachan, editor for Little, Brown, and make note of the literary agents she endorses as well as the publishing figures she mentions. Identify which people, agencies, and publishing houses might be particularly receptive to your work. Draft letters in anticipation of contacting these individuals.

In Writers Retreat Annual, several festivals, workshops, and conferences are highlighted. Identify two or three in which you have interest, and research the possibility of attending these events, including the availability of reduced fees, scholarships, etc.

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