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.

Teachers Guide Category: 

Discussion Topics

Ideas and opinions to spur reflection and debate.

In “The Grim Reader” (Poets & Writers Magazine, page 10), Kevin Nance discusses a recent report from the National Endowment for the Arts documenting the decline of reading in America. The article contains a quote from Donna Seaman, associate editor of Booklist, who shrewdly observes that while interest in reading is diminishing, interest in writing seems to be on the rise. According to Seaman, “Everyone wants to write, no one wants to read.” How can this apparent contradiction be explained? If the traditional view of the writer is one who loves literature, has been inspired by literature to take up the craft of writing, then why do we have a burgeoning population of writers that seems to have little interest in reading?

Later in “The Grim Reader,” Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, argues that while reading, overall, may be declining in popularity, interest in reading poetry is surviving, even growing. In the words of Swenson, “Yes, the larger trends are disheartening, but [regarding] poetry, I can find my thread of optimism.” Do you agree that poetry may be one genre for which the audience is expanding? If so, how would you explain this surge?

Dan Barden, author of “Workshop: A Rant Against Creative Writing Classes” (page 83), takes up the much-argued question of whether or not creative writing can really be taught. His response? There is “no way to teach creative writing,” at least not through the current methodology of writing workshops. Do you agree with Barden that workshops “don’t work,” and that there is “something rotten at the core of most of them”? In your view, what are the potential benefits and pitfalls of writing workshops, and what examples can you offer in terms of good and bad experiences in the workshop environment?

If one considers both Barden’s essay and Nance’s piece together—the “Rant” against workshops and the report on declining reading—is there some connection to be made, some conclusion to be drawn, about how we educate young writers? How do the strategies and practices of the writing-workshop approach impact not only the students’ writing but also their reading? Should we, and could we, change the way we teach writing in order to foster more interest in reading?

In the “Q & A” with Quang Bao (page 19), Jean Hartig describes Bao’s contributions to the Asian American Writers’ Workshop as well as his commitment to Asian American literature. In the “Writers Retreat” section (page 64), Kathryn Trueblood reports on “western” festivals and retreats that are particularly supportive to western-based writers. Additionally, Kevin Larimer mentions in “Small Press Points” (page 16) that A Midsummer’s Night Press is devoting two books in coming months for anthologizing, specifically, gay and lesbian writing. What are the potential advantages for writers in belonging to, or connecting with, groups such as these?—groups dedicated to supporting writers of particular backgrounds or interests? Are there, conversely, any potential disadvantages? What has been your experience in connecting with like-writers in various writing communities?

In “The Rilke Trail” (page 21), Paul Graham writes of his admiration for Rainer Maria Rilke and chronicles his journey to a place where Rilke once lived and worked. Imagine planning a pilgrimage to see the birthplace or writing locale of one of your favorite authors. Which writer would you choose? Where would you go? And what would you hope to see and experience once there?

In “DailyLit Sends E-mail Worth Reading” (page 15), Kevin Canfield reports on the new Web site DailyLit, created by Susan Danziger and Albert Wenger, which offers readers “free delivery of over four hundred books” from the public domain as well as newer works for a small fee—all through serialized e-mail installments. The article also mentions other Web-based and digitally-based publication mechanisms. As the distribution and publication of contemporary writing changes, how do you think the writing itself may change? Will writers alter and adjust their work to fit a particular distribution? Will they write one way or one thing for traditional print publishing, but another way, another thing, for digital release?

Mark Doty writes in “Bride in Beige: A Poet’s Approach to Memoir” (page 33) that a poet’s memoir is essentially “after truth” but does not depend on an exact reporting of facts and details. Do you think that when writers are crafting a memoir, they are obligated to be as accurate as possible in their work? In your own nonfiction writing, have you ever chosen to alter or blur a few facts? If so, what was your reason for doing so?

In “Spring Essence” (page 47), new works from several established writers are featured. Some of these works are grounded in imagery from the natural world: “This” by Jorie Graham, “Small Bodies” by Mary Oliver, and “The Bather” by Charles Simic. What do these three poems share in terms of imagery and theme? And how do they differ in their use, their extrapolation, of the natural world?

Fiction writer Tobias Wolff is interviewed by Joe Woodward in “The Gun on the Table” (page 38). Woodward describes Wolff as writing with “the exacting precision of a bombmaker” and of “detonating his characters’ lives in the time it takes to read a paragraph.” Consider those comments while reading the excerpt from “That Room” (page 41), one of Wolff’s new stories. What aspects of “That Room” echo with the threat of “detonation” Woodward describes?

Teachers Guide Category: 


An updated list of recently released titles of special relevance to teachers and student writers.

This list, arranged alphabetically by title, features recently published anthologies, essay collections, guides, and resources for writers and teachers. If you have a book you'd like us to consider including, please send a copy to Editor, Poets & Writers Magazine, 90 Broad Street, Suite 2100, New York, NY 10004.

Creating Character: How to Build Story People (University of Oklahoma Press, February 2008) by Dwight V. Swain. A guide to developing and improving characters in fiction by Swain who taught for twenty years in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Oklahoma.

How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them---A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide (Collins, April, 2008) by Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman. A quick-fix guide to improving your fiction that features sections such as Plot, Character, Style, and The World of the Bad Novel.

The New Writer's Handbook: A Practical Anthology of Best Advice for Your Craft & Career (Scarletta Press, August, 2008) edited by Philip Martin. A collection of over fifty articles for writers of fiction and nonfiction on writing as a vocation and career. This anthology features sections on a variety of topics including creativity and motivation, the craft of writing, pitching work, and being business savvy.

Ron Carlson Writes a Story (Graywolf Press, September, 2007) by Ron Carlson. The award-winning short story writer takes readers through the process of crafting one of his own stories as an example of how to approach the form.

The Virginia Woolf Writer's Workshop: Seven Lessons to Inspire Great Writing (Bantam, October, 2007) by Danell Jones. Drawn from the essays, letters, diaries, and novels of Virginia Woolf, a collection of advice and exercises to guide writers in their practice.

The Writing Workshop Note Book: Notes on Creating and Workshopping (Soft Skull Press, January 2008) by Alan Ziegler. Written for teachers and students of workshops, a book about the processes of creative writing and critiquing by the chair of the School of Arts Writing Division at Columbia University in New York City.

Previously Mentioned

99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style (Chamberlain Bros., October, 2005) by Matt Madden.
A compilation of comics that follow the common thread of one story, this book examines the different ways of telling a tale.

100 Essential Modern Poems ( Ivan R. Dee, October, 2005) by Joseph Parisi.
Joseph Parisi, former editor of Poetry Magazine, has compiled a book of poems written over the past century. A brief biography of each poet and their body of work is included as well as several poems from each author. William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Sylvia Plath, and Billy Collins are among the authors featured in the collection.

About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters & Five Interviews (Wesleyan University Press, January, 2006) by Samuel R. Delany.
A book written for creative writers, About Writing includes essays by novelist Samuel R. Delany on the mechanics of fiction writing. It also features a discussion of contemporary creative writing through letters of correspondence with authors and interviews with Delany himself.

Accent on Meter: A Handbook for Readers of Poetry (National Council of Teachers of English, May, 2004) by Joseph Powell and Mark Halperin.
Designed for use in the classroom, this text offers instruction on how to better understand the meaning of poetry by analyzing the relationship between meaning, meter, and rhythm. It includes glossaries of poetry terms and forms.

After Every War (Princeton University Press, October 2004) translated by Eavan Boland.
In this anthology, Irish poet Eavan Boland translates the poems of nine German-speaking women who lived in Europe in the years before and after World War II. Each poet is introduced by Boland with some biographical information.

Against Workshopping Manuscripts: A Plea for Justice to Student Writers (Bly and Loveland Press, April, 2006) by Carol Bly and Cynthia Loveland.
An argument for serious change in the teaching of creative writing, this book offers alternatives to the workshop model followed in most creative writing programs.

An Invitation to Poetry: A New Favorite Poem Project Anthology (Norton, August, 2004) edited by Robert Pinksy and Maggie Dietz.
Two hundred poems chosen by everyday Americans of various ages and from all over the country make up this anthology. Each selection is accompanied by a brief statement about the poem by the person who chose it. The book includes a DVD with readings of the collected work.

The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories (Anchor Books, 2004) edited by Ben Marcus.
This anthology of short stories contains twenty-nine selections chosen by the novelist and former fiction editor of Fence that showcase the stylistic variety of storytelling in America today. Writers include David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Gary Lutz, and Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri.

Ariel: The Restored Edition (HarperCollins, November 2004) by Sylvia Plath.
Restored to its original state before her death, this edition of Sylvia Plath’s last volume of poetry gives readers new insight into Plath’s state of mind during the time before her suicide. This edition, introduced by Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, includes a reproduction of Plath’s original manuscript and drafts of the poem “Ariel.”

Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life (Ballantine Books, January 2005) by Bret Lott.
Best-selling author Bret Lott meditates on his writing life in these ten essays. Lott discusses topics like rejection, publication, and humility, employing thoughtful and often humorous anecdotes from his life as well as advice from writers like James Baldwin, Henry James, and John Gardner.

Between the Lines (Writer's Digest Books, 2006) by Jessica Page Morrell.
A guide to the craft of mastering the subtle elements of fiction writing.

Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life (Henry Holt, May, 2006) by Michael Dirda.
Pulitzer Prize winner and Washington Post staff writer Michael Dirda offers his reflections on reading not only for pleasure but also as a way to learn how to live.

Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry (Graywolf Press, 2004) by Carl Phillips.
This collection of essays contains sixteen sophisticated selections by Phillips on a variety of poetic topics. It includes discussions of individual poets such as George Herbert and T.S. Eliot as well as essays on more general subjects such as “Myth and Fable: Their Place in Poetry” and “Association in Poetry.”

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 187 (Gale, 2004) edited by Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter.
Volume 187 of this scholarly journal contains literary criticism of works by Russell Banks, Maria Irene Fornes, and Kenzaburō Ōe as well as biographical information and recent interviews with each author. Also included in this volume is a section examining post-apartheid literature in South Africa.

The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier (Writers Digest Books, 2006) by Bonnie Trenga.
A resource for the beginning writer on how to avoid the grammar mistakes that result in weak writing.

Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture (Graywolf Press, October 2004) by Dana Gioia.
Poet Dana Gioia’s collection of essays and book reviews muses on the changing role of poets and poetry in modern society. His title essay examines the re-emergence of poetry as an oral medium in popular culture.

Dreaming by the Book (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999) by Elaine Scarry.
The twelve chapters of this writers' guide allow Scarry to explore the process of imaginative creation through an elegant combination of literary criticism, psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy. She emphasizes the visual power of writing by defining five “mental practices” by which authors bring their words to life: radiant ignition, rarity, dyadic addition and subtraction, stretching, and floral supposition.

The Elements of Autobiography and Life Narratives (Longman, October 2004) by Catherine L. Hobbs.
Geared toward helping students translate their lives into a “life narrative,” this textbook includes examples from other authors as well as numerous exercises to get the reader writing. This textbook also includes a focus on electronic media and its relationship to autobiographical writing.

The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers (Riverhead Books, 2000) by Betsy Lerner.
This guide, written by the former executive editor of Doubleday, contains six amusing chapters about different types of writers (such as the swashbuckling drunkard) intended to correct problems in would-be authors who fall into these categories and six more on practical publication matters.

From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (Grove Press, April, 2005) by Robert Olen Butler and edited by Janet Burroway.
This guide to writing fiction features the lectures of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Robert Olen Butler on general topics, such as getting into the mind set of writing and the cinema of the mind, to more specific subjects, such as writing exercises and the analysis of short stories.

Getting Unstuck Without Coming Unglued: A Women's Guide to Outsmarting Procrastination, Writer's Block, and Other Obstacles to Living a Creative Life (Seal Press, July 2007) by Susan O'Doherty. Psychotherapist Susan O'Doherty offers advice about how to avoid major psychological roadblocks to the creative process that many women face. Chapters include "What We Learned at Home," The Impossible Position: Managing Motherhood and Creativity," and "Damned if We Do: 'Fear of Success.'"

Grammar and Style at Your Fingertips (Alpha Books, July 2007) by Lara M. Robbins. A straightforward and easy-to-use reference guide to the proper application of grammar, style, and punctuation.

The Grammar Bible (Holt, 2004) by Michael Strumpf and Auriel Douglas.
Strumpf, the founder of the National Grammar Hotline, and Douglas provide a comprehensive resource for all your grammar needs. As the title suggests, nearly every grammatical question—from the most practical to the most nit-picky—can be answered by this easily searchable Bible.

Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies (Penguin, March, 2006) by June Casagrande.
Grammar columnist for the Los Angeles Times community newspapers and ninth-grade drop-out June Casagrande offers a practical approach to understanding grammar usage.

The Gremlins of Grammar: A Guide to Conquering the Mischievous Myths that Plague American English (McGraw-Hill, October, 2005) by Toni Boyle and K.D. Sullivan.
A comprehensive guide to grammar and its usage.

Inspired Creative Writing: Pokes and Prods for Scribblers of All Stripes (Perigree, July 2007) by Alexander Gordon Smith. A workbook of tactics and exercises to get the writer's imagination flowing.

Interview with a Ghost (Graywolf, April, 2006) by Tom Sleigh.
A collection of essays by poet Tom Sleigh about subjects that range from the limits to subjectivity in contemporary poetry to the work of poets Frank Bidart, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney.

Kafka: The Decisive Years (Harcourt, November, 2005) by Reiner Stach, translated by Shelley Frisch.
The first of a three-volume biography on Franz Kafka, this book begins with the end of the writer’s adolescence in 1910 and documents his life through 1915, during which Kafka produced some of his most famous works.

Keywords in Creative Writing (Utah State University Press, February, 2006) by Wendy Bishop and David Starkey.
A handbook for teachers and students that is a guide to the creative writing field. It is composed of the sections (or "clusters," as the book puts it) Academia, Publishing, Literary Genres and Terms, Writing, and The Writing Life.

Lofty Dogmas: Poets on Poetics (University of Arkansas Press, October, 2005) edited by Deborah Brown, Annie Finch, and Maxine Kumin.
A compilation of poets’ remarks on poetry spanning from the Greeks and Romans to contemporary poets. It includes essays on inspiration and craft as well as on poetry's cultural role.

The Making of a Writer: Journals, 1961-1963 (Random House, January, 2006) by Gail Godwin, edited by Rob Neufeld.
A collection of journal entries from novelist Gail Goldwin’s years as a young writer traveling in Europe.

The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) by Alice W. Flaherty.
Penned by a practicing neurologist, this guide investigates the neurological processes that cause and accompany writing. It includes chapters on topics such as creativity, hypergraphia (the overwhelming desire to write), and writers’ block. Flaherty discusses famous writers (including Dostoevsky and Hemingway) who may have been afflicted by brain disorders alongside modern-day patients and studies.

New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2004 (Algonquin Books, 2004) edited by Shannon Ravenel.
This annual short story anthology, now in its 20th edition, contains eighteen short stories related to the South that were published in 2003. Each selection is followed by a brief statement about the story by the author and an even briefer author bio. Writers include Rick Bass, Edward P. Jones, and Jill McCorkle.

The Pen Commandments: A Guide for the Beginning Writer (Anchor Books, September 2004) by Steven Frank.
This humorous guide offers ten tips to help students improve their writing in the classroom. Author and English teacher Steve Frank illustrates his points with amusing anecdotes as well as clear examples that can help students make their writing more concise and more engaging.

Poetry 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day (Random House, April, 2005) edited by Billy Collins.
This anthology of 180 poems follows former U.S. poet laureate Collins's first anthology Poetry 180. Both books were inspired by Collins's poem-a-day program with the Library of Congress.

The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets (University of Nebraska, February, 2005) by Ted Kooser.
While some formal poetic concerns are addressed, this guide, written by U.S. poet laureate Kooser, offers a common sense approach to the basics of poetry.

The Poet's Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke (Modern Library, March, 2005) edited and translated by Ulrich Baer.
A guide about the writing life and the drive to create drawn from a collection of Rilke's never-before-translated correspondence.

Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project (Multilingual Matters LTD, 2005) edited by Anna Leahy.
A compilation of essays written by creative writing teachers, this book discusses philosophies, concerns, and approaches to teaching in a workshop-style classroom.

The Practical Writer: From Inspiration to Publication (Penguin, March, 2004) edited by Therese Eiben and Mary Gannon.
From the editors of Poets & Writers Magazine, this resource helps writers on their journey from the writing studio to publication. The essays, written by writers and publishing professionals, offer advice on a range of topics---from submitting your work to literary journals to promoting your book, and everything in between.

The Practice of the Wild (Shoemaker & Hoard, 1990) by Gary Snyder. A collection of nine lengthy essays on the environment and nature writing by Snyder, a Zen Buddhist and Pulitzer Prize winner who is often associated with the Beats. It is a good source of inspiration for aspiring nature writers as well as anyone interested in appreciating poetry or prose that is not grounded entirely in city life.

Publicize Your Book!: An Insider’s Guide to Getting Your Book the Attention It Deserves (Perigee, 2003) by Jacqueline Deval.
Although this guide is not written for complete beginners, it contains lots of practical advice for getting your book published and sold, describes a number of specific publicity situations in detail, and provides a useful list of resources and sample letters.

The Ode Less Traveled: Unlocking the Poet Within (Gotham Book, August, 2006) by Stephen Fry. A humorous guide for anyone interested in learning how to write poetry.

Randall Jarrell on W.H. Auden (Columbia University Press, June, 2005) edited by Stephen Burt with Hannah Brooks-Motl.
A new collection of essays based on a series of lectures given at Princeton University in 1952 by poet and critic Randall Jarrell on W.H. Auden's poetry.

The Resilient Writer: Tales of Rejection and Triumph from 23 Top Authors (Persea Books, May, 2005) edited by Catherine Wald.
In this collection of interviews, authors such as Frederick Busch, Joy Harjo, Amy Tan, and Edmund White share their stories of the failure and frustration they endured before reaching fame.

Right, Wrong, and Risky (W. W. Norton, December, 2005) by Mark Davidson.
Journalist and communications professor Mark Davidson provides a reference guide for American English usage.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (HarperCollins, 2004) by Renni Browne and Dave King. This guide consists of twelve chapters on the craft of writing, with special emphasis on revising stories and novels. Includes excellent advice on topics such as avoiding too much narrative summary, helpful exercises, and a list of resources.

Shakespeare After All (Pantheon Books, December 2004) by Marjorie Garber.
This lengthy work is a collection of essays about Shakespeare's plays based on the lectures of Harvard University professor Marjorie Garber. The book includes an introduction to Shakespeare's life and an extensive bibliography.

Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America (Harvard University Press, April 2007) by Joan Shelley Rubin. A portrait of how the practice of poetry recitation has affected Americans' lives and understanding of the genre.

The Story Behind the Story (Norton, 2004) co-edited by Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett.
An anthology of short stories that presents 26 stories from contemporary writers—including Robert Boswell, Margot Livesay, and David Shields— each followed by a brief essay from the story’s author on the process of composing it. The essays provide insights on a variety of topics including sources of inspiration, making formal choices, and editing.

Teaching Stories: An Anthology on the Power of Learning and Literature (Modern Library, August 2004) selected by Robert Coles.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Coles brings together twenty-two works of renowned fiction writers, poets, and essayists to examine the relationship between learning and literature. Contributors include Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Anton Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, and Toni Morrison.

Themes for English B: A Professor's Education In and Out of Class (University of Georgia Press, September, 2006) by J. D. Scrimgeour. Winner of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Award in Creative Nonfiction, this collection of essays explores the nature of meaningful learning.

Unstuck: A Supportive and Practical Guide to Working Through Writer’s Block (St. Martin’s Press, 2003) by Jane Anne Staw, Ph.D In this guide, Staw approaches writer’s block from a less scientific angle than Flaherty (see The Midnight Disease above). Her very basic advice for starting to write and overcoming writer’s block is grounded in the author’s experience as a professor and a workshop leader.

The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (Shambala, 2004) by Ursula K. Le Guin.
This book collects 30 of Le Guin’s works on the arts of writing and reading that range from the autobiographical to the scholarly. The selections are divided into four categories: Personal Matters, Readings, Discussions and Opinions, and On Writing. The final section, which includes “Prides: An Essay on Writing Workshops,” is especially useful for beginning writers.

Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer (Schocken Books, May, 2005) edited by Derek Rubin.
An anthology of essays by 29 major Jewish-American writers that examine the question of identity and how it relates to their work.

Wordsworth: A Life (Ecco Press, December, 2005) by Juliet Barker.
This book chronicles the life and work of William Wordsworth.

Word Wizard: Super Bloopers, Rich Reflections, and Other Acts of Word Magic (St. Martin's Press, April, 2006) by Richard Lederer.
A collection of previously published essays about language and usage by the author of more than thirty books on the English language.

Writing Brave & Free: Encouraging Words for People Who Want to Start Writing (The University of Nebraska Press, March, 2006) by Ted Kooser and Steve Cox.
In this book Ted Kooser, the U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner, and Steve Cox, writer, editor and publisher, share their experiences and give advice on how to start writing by addressing many of the concerns that fledgling writers face.

Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular (Houghton Mifflin, 1987) by Rust Hills.
The revised edition of this guide or “Informal Textbook” by the long-time fiction editor of Esquire describes the essential techniques for crafting fiction and serves as a useful reference. It includes short chapters on specific topics like foreshadowing and irony.

Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (LIttle, Brown, September, 2006) by Roy Peter Clark. A practical guide for improving one's writing from a senior scholar at the journalism school the Poytner Institute.

A Writer’s Guide to Fiction (Perigee, 2004) by Elizabeth Lyon.
A part of the Writer’s Compass series, this thorough guide is divided into four sections: North (Getting Your Bearings), South (Troubleshooting and Problem-Solving), East (Your Rising Star), and West (Refining Your Vision). With a focus on getting started and crafting intriguing, round characters, the first section is especially suited for beginning writers.

The Writer’s Mentor: Secrets of Success from the World’s Great Writers (Random House Reference, 2004) edited by Ian Jackman.
In this resource, Jackman has grouped a wealth of remarks from famous writers—Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Tennessee Williams, and many others— about writing into chapters, and his explanations turn the collage into coherent advice. The book is divided into a section on general writing topics and a section on specific types of writing and practical advice about publication.

Writing to Change the World (Riverhead Books, April, 2006) by Mary Pipher.
Written for a general audience, Mary Pipher offers a guide to writing as a way to effect social change.

Writing With Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose 1983-2005 (Carroll & Graf, April, 2005) by Margaret Atwood.
Arranged chronologically into three sections, this collection of 58 works includes book reviews, personal essays, cultural commentary, introductions to great works of literature, and more.

Teachers Guide Category: 

Teachers Lounge

Aaron Hamburger
Read what your colleagues have to say about the craft and theory of writing and teaching.

Bridging the Gap: How to Teach Creative Writing Across the Generational Divide
by Aaron Hamburger

A couple of years ago, I taught my first college-level writing workshop. Like many writers hired to teach these kinds of classes, I had little formal training in educational theory or methods of teaching creative writing. Mostly I went by my own experience of what had worked best for me as a student: a few general guidelines and then plenty of room to be creative within that basic framework.

On the first day, I handed out a syllabus outlining the class requirements and reviewed it with the students in a firm but respectful tone. The course I’d been hired to teach, an introduction to creative writing, mandated that students create work in three genres: poetry, drama, and fiction. The students were also expected to meet with me individually during office hours three times during the semester, as well as write a brief literary essay, which I assigned as a free-form response to any book of their choice. I ended the first class by explaining to my students that they didn’t need to address me as “Professor,” which felt arch and overly formal. Instead, I asked them to refer to me by my first name.

There. I’d set the rules of the game. Now all I had to do was sit back and wait for them to play.

Right from the start, I encountered a host of unexpected misunderstandings. The first question I got was, “But how long should my poems be?” This question was repeated throughout the semester when we turned to the genres of drama and fiction, and I never found a satisfactory answer. How long should any poem, play, or story be? I responded with a quip I’d once heard an English teacher of mine use to answer a similar question. “Don’t worry about word count. Just make it long enough to cover the subject matter and short enough to keep it interesting.” Judging from the confused looks on their faces, I could tell it wasn’t a popular answer.

Another question was, “How do I write a poem?” I summoned my best Socrates-Confucius smile and replied, “That’s what every artist has to learn for him or herself by trying to write one. Sit down, think of the poems you’ve read, and try to come up with one yourself. Be creative. Don’t worry about rules. Just let yourself go.” In response, my students glared as if they wanted to string me up from the nearest lamppost.

When the students began turning in their work, I thought about how to respond to it critically. Again, I went back to my own experience and remembered that what I’d appreciated most as a writer was specific suggestions for further revision. With that in mind, I returned each student’s piece with a one-page, single-spaced letter divided into two sections. The first, titled “What Works,” was followed by a list of at least three bullet points detailing successful choices they’d made. The second, “Where To Go Next,” was followed by a much longer list of specific suggestions of issues for them to consider in their revisions, ranging from the micro-level of word choice to the macro-level of plot, character, and theme.
Meanwhile, in office hours, I sat for weeks in a state of boredom, without a single student visit. Toward the middle of the term, I e-mailed the class and reminded them of the three-office-visits rule. Shortly thereafter, a slow trickle of confused students began appearing. They’d sit across from me looking embarrassed, not sure what we were supposed to be talking about. Though I tried to steer the topic of conversation toward the students’ progress in the class, somehow our talks would almost always veer toward one of two subjects: “What grade do you think I’ll get?” and “Do you like me, do you really like me?” (Eventually I learned that, for students, these were two forms of the same question.)

One student came every week with revisions of his poems and asked, “Are they good now? Would you like them better if I rewrote them this way?” Another young woman would flop down across from me and ask if I thought she should be a writer even though she really wasn’t the creative one in her family, her sister was, though her mother was creative too, but her father didn’t approve of writing as a career…. My least favorite moments were when they’d look at me with their shy smiles and say, “I know I shouldn’t be asking this, but I was just wondering, do you think I could get an A?”

A big locus of worry was the literary essay. When I’d told the students they could pick any book they wanted to read, I’d meant the assignment as a gift, a chance to curl up with a book of their choice for homework. But my students couldn’t decide which book they were supposed to choose or how they were supposed to respond to it. Were they supposed to like the book? Could they really say anything they wanted to about it? And, of course, how long was their response supposed to be?

As we reached the end of the semester, I received a flurry of e-mails asking basic questions that students could have found the answers to on their own from the syllabus, my group e-mails to the class, or by doing a little digging at the library. How many visits to office hours were they supposed to make? Did I remember how many visits they’d made so far? How long did their short stories have to be? What was a sonnet? What was the difference between a metaphor and a simile?

Confused by my “just call me by my first name” policy, the students addressed their e-mails to “Mr. Hamburger,” “Professor Aaron,” or often to no one at all.

When the class was over, my student evaluations were quite positive, and I felt pretty good about the way things had gone until I posted the grades. Immediately, I received the inevitable, “Can you explain why you gave me a B+?” e-mail complaint, as well as several nasty anonymous posts on a student Web site for rating professors. I was called arrogant, pompous. I was accused of not caring about the students. I was vilified for not making myself available for meeting with students during office hours. My greatest sin, however, was the way in which I’d responded to their work. I thought I’d been doing the students a favor by being specific and thorough, but several students said they felt crushed by the extensive criticism. “He’ll ruin your writing forever,” wrote one student. “You’ll never be able to get his voice out of your head questioning everything you do. You’ll never want to write again.”

How had this happened to me? I’d come to class with the best of intentions, hoping to provoke and inspire, to give students basic guidelines while allowing them the freedom to invent. Instead I’d ended up dickering with students over page lengths and grades and deadlines at best, and alienating them at worst.

As I described my experiences to my partner, who was then finishing his master’s degree in higher education, he nodded in recognition and said, “Welcome to the Millennial Generation.”

The Millennial Generation (also known as Generation Y or the Echo Boomers) is how sociologists have dubbed the generation born around the year 1980 and afterward who’ve come of age in the era of the Internet, grade inflation, and competitions in which every child gets a gold medal simply for showing up. According to various contributors to the higher education report Serving the Millennial Generation: New Directions for Student Services (2004), edited by Michael D. Coomes and Robert DeBard, Millennials have been nurtured by anxious, overachieving parents who schedule their children’s every waking hour with play dates, activities, sports, lessons, and other social obligations. Any time not spent doing homework or in the company of others gets filled with surfing the Web, instant messaging friends, or flipping between hundreds of channels on satellite TV. The ironic chorus of my generation’s anthem, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” by Nirvana—“Here we are now, entertain us!”—isn’t ironic to Millennials at all. These kids have been entertained and looked after by others all their lives.

In school, overburdened teachers with swelling class sizes don’t have time to give thoughtful, comprehensive evaluations of individually written work. Instead, they increasingly rely on multiple-choice tests with Scantron sheets that have definitive right and wrong answers. Instead of writing essays, Millennial students complete group projects, often multi-media presentations that play to their strengths: their familiarity with technology. When they’re not working with their peers, Millennials work with their anxious, grade-obsessed parents, who e-mail teachers for guidance about completing the assignment, and then e-mail teachers again once the assignment has been graded to demand why the work (which was largely directed if not completed by the parent) didn’t receive an A. That sense of A-entitlement has increased in direct proportion to the ever more astronomical cost of higher education in the United States. Several of my university colleagues have reported receiving irate phone calls from parents to the tune of, “I’m not spending thirty-thousand bucks a year just so my kid can get a measly B+!”

No generalization about any social group is without its exceptions. And yet, after speaking with colleagues at various universities, reading articles in educational journals, and teaching several more classes myself, I’ve become convinced that the way Millennials have been raised presents a number of unique benefits and challenges for the educational community, particularly those working in the humanities. (I’m not alone in this opinion, judging from the increasing number of articles, books, and university conferences about the challenges of communicating with Millennials.)

On the plus side, Millennials are good at following rules. They’re respectful, serious, and often hardworking; they like order and authority and they aim to please. They’re also very good at working as a team, as I discovered during my first workshop, when the class seemed to run itself.

But here comes the tough part. Because they’ve been taught that putting in their best effort is the same as achieving the best result, Millennials can have trouble taking criticism, even once they’re out of school. In her article on Millennials entering the workforce, “Scenes from the Culture Clash,” which was published in the January/February 2006 issue of Fast Company, reporter Danielle Sacks writes about a young law associate who broke down crying because he was told that the structure of a memo he’d written was “a little too loose.” Parents of Millennials have gone from hectoring teachers and professors for As to calling bosses and complaining that their children received a poor review at work. One distraught mother described in the article called her son’s Human Resources department seventeen times in one day because her son didn’t get a promotion and scheduled a meeting with his boss to demand that he reconsider the decision.

According to Serving the Millennial Generation, Millennials also tend to be conservative and risk-averse in comparison with their cynical, color-outside-the-lines predecessors from Generation X. They don’t enjoy self-directed creative work that requires them to analyze or devise new solutions to unresolved problems. Rather, they’d prefer to find out how to arrive at the “right” answer that someone else has already discovered. (I had one student demand that I bring in one good poem and one bad poem, and then explain the rules as to why one was good and the other bad so that he could follow those rules and not make mistakes. The class nodded in approval at the suggestion.) The worst thing you can tell a Millennial is, “Be creative, figure it out yourself.”

So how do you teach a generation that’s resistant to critical feedback and fundamentally suspicious of self-directed creative activity to write poetry and fiction?

Certainly it doesn’t seem desirable to turn the practice of teaching creative writing into a fill-in-the-blank activity, or to ask students to write a short story as a group project, have them convert it into a PowerPoint presentation, and then give them all As for their effort. However, there’s no point in sticking to a Socratic model of education, in which the professor gives the assignment and expects the students to scramble for ways to complete it. These students simply don’t have the tools to understand such directions. We might as well ask them to build a spaceship with a hammer and nails and a few sheets of steel.

As creative writing teachers, we have to be creative ourselves in coming up with ways to reach out to the Millennial Generation. We need to develop methods that guide students step-by-step into being autonomous, self-directed artists instead of assuming that students are able do this themselves the minute they walk into our classrooms. That doesn’t mean we have to dumb down our material. I still believe in the value of having students figure out things on their own, and I refuse to assign page lengths for stories or bring in models of “good” poems for students to ape. Instead, I want to create a structure to teach students how and where they can solve questions independently as long as they’re willing to put in some effort.

Recently I redesigned my course in an attempt to bridge the generational gap between me and my Millennial students. My guiding principles have been to set specific rather than open-ended goals, and to provide advice without giving away answers.

I began by revamping the required visits to office hours. In hindsight, I saw that telling the students to meet me three times during the semester was too open-ended an invitation. Now I’ve set up a schedule of specific times to meet at the beginning, middle, and end of the semester for what I’ve dubbed an “Entrance Interview,” a “Midterm Conference,” and an “Exit Interview.” The purpose of naming each meeting is to focus each visit on a specific goal so that students come prepared for a serious discussion rather than a free-for-all therapy session. The Entrance Interview gives me a chance to reinforce the requirements of the syllabus one-on-one, because students with short attention spans don’t always focus on what’s being said to the class as a whole. This meeting also gives me an idea of each student’s individual needs. For the Midterm Conference, I ask students to bring me two evaluations: one of the class and the other of their own performance. This way, I can get a sense of how they see their own effort and correct any misperceptions, inflated or deflated, of how they’re doing. In turn, students have a chance to give me feedback so they can tell me what’s working for them and what’s not. Finally, during the Exit Interview, I can lay out exactly how final grades are determined and what students can do to get closer to the grade they want. Of course in a graded creative writing class, not every student is capable of getting an A; some students are simply more natural writers than others. But if students have been prepared for the grade they’ll probably get all semester long via our one-on-one conferences (in addition to class responses to their work and my evaluations), the shock of a B+, or even, heaven forbid, a B, may be lessened.

For the literary essay assignment, I’ve dispensed with freedom of choice, which not only proved overwhelming, but also resulted in several students writing about books they’d already read for other classes. Instead, I’ve created a list of recently published books for students to choose from. And rather than ask for a free-form response, I’m requiring students to write a short book review. I’m also having them sign a dummy contract modeled after the ones I receive when I write book reviews so they can see how the process of evaluation works in the real world (and so they can have their beloved word count). I do not hand out copies of one model book review for them to emulate, but I will recommend a list of magazines with book reviews for them to consult if they want to do a little digging.

I’m still not sure there’s a way to tell people how to write a poem, play, or short story, but I can help them get started. Instead of leaving the students to fight the blank page on their own, I’m leading several exercises during the first few class sessions to get students used to the process of generating material to use in their creative work. One such exercise is to hand out first sentences of famous literary works on little strips of paper, and then ask the students to continue the story, poem, or play from that first line. Another exercise that’s worked well is to divide the students in pairs and ask them to tell each other the best piece of gossip they’ve heard, decide which is the juicier bit of gossip and why, and then report it to the class in the most tantalizing way possible. I’ve also had students go to grocery stores and write down lists of all the food various customers bought and then have the class guess what each customer’s life was like based on his or her purchases. Finally, a great way to get students to examine their own lives for fodder for creative work is to have them complete a self-help questionnaire. (There’s a useful one in chapter 3 of Carol Lloyd’s Creating a Life Worth Living [HarperPerennial, 1997], a self-help guide for artists).

Once students have raw material to draw from, I give them a set of redactions from introductions to anthologies of drama, poetry, and fiction, which I’m calling “The Cheater’s Guide to Creative Writing.” These cheater’s guides lay out the basic rules of the genre and definitions of terms like metaphor that students may or may not remember from their high school English courses. The “Cheater’s Guide” also includes lists of recommended works in each genre that the students can hunt down on their own if they’re seeking out models.

In my written critiques of student work, I choose a few major points for commentary rather than every detail I notice. And instead of dividing my comments under the loose categories of what works and what doesn’t, I’m subdividing them into categories like “characterization,” “plot,” and “word choice,” so that students have targeted directives to focus on when they revise. After the first round of workshopping, I’ll also consult with students during our office-hour sessions to see if they want to be critiqued in a different way, with more or less detail, or from a different angle. I will also try to prepare students for the inevitable heartbreak of hearing that their work isn’t perfect by conducting a brief discussion of how to handle criticism (I’ve always found fried chicken and several pounds of chocolate helpful) as well as how to decide when to follow someone else’s advice and when to stick to your own ideas.

Despite these changes, there are a few areas where I won’t compromise; I go by my first name and not “Professor.” Also, I have to bear in mind that even the most enlightened teachers with the snazziest, most up-to-date methods still have problem students who sit at the back of the classroom with a snarl and indulge in vengeful fantasies after receiving their B+ at term’s end. But the point of education isn’t to turn students into a cheering gallery for their teachers. It’s to transmit knowledge, and hopefully a bit of inspiration. As I try to meet my students halfway, I may not turn out to be everyone’s favorite teacher in the short term, but I may manage to teach them a lesson or two worth remembering in the years to come.

Aaron Hamburger was awarded the Rome Prize by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy in Rome for his short story collection, The View From Stalin’s Head, published by Random House in March 2004. His novel, Faith For Beginners (Random House, 2005), was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award and has just come out in paperback. Currently he teaches creative writing at Columbia University in New York City. His Web site is

Teachers Guide Category: 

Discussion Topics

Ideas and opinions to spur reflection and debate.

In the article Way, Way Too Much Information (Poets & Writers Magazine, page 13), contributor Frank Bures discusses the deluge of information being produced and trafficked in our culture. He refers to a study from the University of California, Berkeley, that reported in 2002, “human beings created five exabytes of data—or thirty-seven thousand times the amount of information stored in the Library of Congress.” With all of these bits and bytes zooming around, some writers, such as Pico Iyer and Tom Bissell, have sought refuge in remote areas in order to produce work in an atmosphere of fewer distractions. Think about your own creative process. Do you typically seek solitude when sitting down to write? Or do you feel that you work best with more external stimulation?

In “Chinese Characters” (page 21), Stephen Morison Jr. explores the burgeoning literary scene in China. He describes the work of new writers such as Chun Sue and Qing Li Wen, noting that within the youth-driven movement of “Ba Ling Huo,” influences from Western pop culture abound. If young Chinese writers are making use of Western (and particularly, American) culture, is the same dynamic happening from the other side of the Pacific Ocean? Do you see American writers mining from Chinese and Asian cultures as the literary landscape becomes broader, more global?

The article by Daniel Nester “Memoir? What Memoir? Frey’s Novel” (page 18) discusses the upcoming publication of James Frey’s new novel, Bright Shiny Morning. Frey’s previous book from 2003, A Million Little Pieces, became infamous in the publishing and literary communities when it was discovered that this supposed memoir was in fact a fictionalized account of his life. According to Nester, James Frey and his publisher are hoping for a comeback, though some people might argue that Frey has permanently damaged his credibility as a writer. Do you believe that James Frey deserves a second chance with readers? Would you buy, read, and potentially embrace his new work with the knowledge that he has previously betrayed

In the column First (page 67), Melissa J. Delbridge is profiled by Amy Rosenberg. Delbridge, who grew up in Alabama and is categorized by some as a “Southern” writer, speaks of her impatience with negative Southern stereotypes: “I get real tired of the dumb-Southerner shit.” Consider the label under which you may be categorized—as a “woman” writer, an “African American” writer, a “gay” writer, etc.—and the stereotypes, expectations, that may accompany that label. In what ways do you think you fit or transcend that label? And do you feel limited or affirmed by such a designation?

In “You Cannot Tell This to Anybody,” the profile of Valzhyna Mort (page 29), Mort talks with interviewer Kevin Nance her use of the Belarusian language. She says that in the last century, “Belarusian was the language of poor, rural people,” and that even now it carries such a stigma of provincialism that many contemporary Belarusians refuse to speak it. Consider the language that you use in your own writing. It may very well be English, but what kind of English? Is yours the language of the young, the immigrant, the urban, the affluent? Do you use dialects, accents, regional idioms in your work? How does your use of language, your particular version of English, inform your creative work?

The special section “Project Lit Mag” (page 49) covers several key aspects of literary publishing—how to get published, where to get published, and what editors of literary magazines are seeking. Most of the editors who offer their perspectives agree that more and more submissions are coming into their magazines. However, one editor, Stephen Corey of the Georgia Review, says that “the competitive pool” is still “very small.” How would you explain this phenomenon? Is it possible that even though there is more writing being produced, it is actually weak writing of an unpublishable sort?

In “Where the Real World Lies” (page 35), fiction writer Lee Martin is interviewed by Amos Magliocco. Martin speaks of the importance of “vulnerability” in a writer, and of the resourcefulness of a writer to make good use of bad fortune. “Life will test you,” Martin says. In what ways have you been personally tested in life? And how have you used these events, these difficulties or disappointments, in forging your own creative voice?

Nat Sobel, a veteran agent in the publishing industry, is interviewed by Jofie Ferrari-Adler in this issue's installment of “Agents & Editors” (page 41). Sobel is asked by Ferrari-Adler about the submissions he receives from MFA writers, and this is part of Sobel’s response: “In much of the material I’ve seen from MFA writers, they’re writing about the standard stories of family trauma, divorce, the death of a parent. They’re very capably written. But we’ve seen too much of that.” Do you think your own work is of the type that Sobel decries? Why or why not? And if you are or have been a student of a creative writing program, do you think that these programs produce homogenized work?

Teachers Guide Category: 


Exercises to help your students find inspiration for their work.

In the profile of Lee Martin by Amos Magliocco, “Where the Real World Lies” (Poets & Writers Magazine, page 35), Martin speaks of looking at old family photos, specifically those that feature his father, who lost both of his hands in a tractor accident. Martin says, “I want to tell my father about that moment in the cornfield. ‘Shut off the tractor,’ I want to tell him, but, of course, I can’t.” Look at family photos of your own, choosing one that captures a person to whom you would like to speak. Try drafting a poem or story in which you talk across time, distance, and memory, to communicate with this person.

The profile of Valzhyna Mort (page 29) “You Cannot Tell This to Anybody” by Kevin Nance, discusses Mort’s use of the first-person plural pronoun—the “we”—in her work. She explains to Nance that her use of “we” might be explained by her lack of “courage” to use “I,” or a reflection of her desire to maintain “distance” from her work. She adds, “Maybe [it’s] because I feel that some poems are sort of ‘generational’ poems and things I’m saying in them could have been said by many people of my age.” As an experiment, take one of your own poems written in a first-person-singular voice—the “I”—and rewrite it in the plural “we.” How does this seemingly small maneuver transform the work? Does the meaning of the poem change, and does the work gain or lose impact?

In “Putting Your Poetry In Order,” (page 61), Katrina Vandenberg writes of the difficulty, but importance, of ordering a group of poems for a book. She describes a strategy that she learned from one of her mentors, Pattiann Rogers: “Pattiann had me go through my poems and write a list of the images and themes I noticed in the lower right-hand corner of each manuscript page.” Vandenberg then used these notations in organizing her work. Try this strategy for yourself, marking a set of poems as Vandenberg did and then looking for the connections, repetitions, and echoes that emerge.

Both Katrina Vandenberg (“Putting Your Poetry in Order,” page 61), and Valzhyna Mort (“You Cannot Tell This to Anybody,” page 29), speak of the influence of music on their work. Vandenberg even organizes her essay for the magazine with a series of section headings that are song titles. Take one of your longer works—an essay or story, or a group of poems—and experiment with dividing the piece(s) using musical references. You might use song titles, as Vandenberg did, or musical terms such as these: forte, adagio, staccato, rap, tango, chorus, etc.

In “Saving the Short Story” (page 49) Katherine Hill talks with Maribeth Batcha and Hannah Tinti about their literary magazine, One Story. In the interview, Hill quotes from Tinti’s blog, in which Tinti explains that the creation of the magazine was driven, in part, by the tragedy of 9/11: “It seems kind of silly, and insignificant, and very obviously nerdy, but [starting the magazine], I think, was a hopeful act. A tiny step towards living.” Consider a tragedy you have experienced in your own life, and how it moved you, inspired you, to embark on a new path “towards living.” Record your thoughts in a journal entry or essay, explaining both the event and its impact.

Professional Practice

In “Agents & Editors” (page 41), Jofie Ferrari-Adler interviews Nat Sobel, an agent who has worked in the publishing business for almost fifty years. Sobel says that he has found many of the fiction writers he now represents ithrough literary journals. Moreover, when interviewer Jofie Ferrari-Adler asks him which publications he subscribes to, Sobel says, “over a hundred.” Make a list of the five journals or magazines to which you would like to submit work. Need some help in identifying potential publications?—check out “Project Lit Mag” on page 49, which includes profiles on publications and suggestions for submissions.

Project Lit Mag” is this issue’s special section on literary journals. Within that section, on page 50, appears “Five Tips for Submitting Your Work,” a set of guidelines and suggestions for getting your work published. One of the suggestions is to read—and read carefully—a recent issue of a publication to which you’d like to submit and to “look for any particular qualities the stories, essays, or poems share that might also be present in your work.” Pursue that suggestion, getting a hard copy of a publication and reading it cover-to-cover. Write a journal entry or short paper in which you identify at least three connections between the work you observe in the magazine and the work you plan to submit.

In the profile of Valzhyna Mort “You Cannot Tell This to Anybody” (page 29), interviewer Kevin Nance reports on a recent literary event in which Mort and other authors read from one another’s works. The result, according to Nance and the attendees at the event, was that new meanings and understandings emerged from the exchange. Trade your latest work with a writing partner, or a member of your writing class, and ask that the chosen person read your work aloud. Listen closely to how the person interprets your work, and how the nature, theme, or voice of the work is transformed.

Check out the “Grants & Awards” section (page 75). Target three listings for submission and commit them to your calendar, noting deadlines, requirements, and other necessary information.

Teachers Guide Category: 


Exercises to help your students find inspiration for their work.

In “The Art of Reading Andre Dubus” (Poets & Writers Magazine, page 21), Joshua Bodwell describes Dubus’s talent for creating female characters. According to Bodwell, Dubus had an “uncanny ability to create female characters that seem as though they were written by a woman.” As an experiment in writing across gender lines, draft a poem or a scene for a short story in the first-person voice of the opposite gender. Consider, as you’re developing the piece, how writing as the opposite gender brings new challenges, surprises, possibilities to your work.

Bodwell also writes about the joy of discovering new writers—among them, Andre Dubus—in “serendipitous” ways. In a journal entry, record your own discovery of a particular writer, identifying when and where you came across the person’s work and how the circumstances of the discovery may have impacted your response to the writing.

In “That Which You Manifest Is Before You” (page 49), a profile of the novelist Garth Stein, contributor Scott Driscoll recounts several of Stein’s journeys, including a 900-mile bicycle trip through Canada that Driscoll credits as empowering Stein with “the disregard for adversity that has helped [Stein] follow his writerly instincts.” Chronicle one of your own adventures, describing not only the challenges of the trip but how the trip may have impacted your larger journey as a writer.

In the profile of Stein, Driscoll also discusses Stein’s use of a dog as the narrator of his latest book. Similarly, in “Moving as Brightness Into Brightness” (page 42), a profile of Sarah Manguso, Mary Gannon notes that Manguso penned a book of poems “from the perspective of someone who had already died.” These are unusual and risky choices, and Stein acknowledges that his canine narrator was initially a problem for some agents and publishing houses. Try your own hand at creating an unconventional narrator and telling a brief story from that entity’s point of view. You might experiment with the voice of a dead person or animal, or that of a historical figure or computer-generated identity.

In “The Permanent Prince” (page 10), Sarah Weinman discusses the enduring influence of Shakespeare’s work on contemporary writers, noting that two recently published novels—The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski and Undiscovered Country by Lin Enger—use Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a “narrative template.” Take one of Shakespeare’s plots, or even one of his famous characters, and reimagine the original story in a more contemporary setting. Try creating a story or poem around Macbeth, for example, or Juliet Capulet of Romeo and Juliet.

Ethan Canin, as profiled by Kevin Nance in “From Vladivostok to Gibralter” (page 36), and Robert Boswell, in his essay “The Practice of Remaining in the Dark” (page 63), seem to differ in their approach to developing fictional characters. Canin describes his strategy in this way: “I try to teach my students, ‘Don’t write about a character. That never works. Be that character, and then write your own story.’” Boswell, on the other hand, suggests that writers who attempt to craft everything, know everything, about a character in the beginning may “find it difficult to let the character break out of the imaginative restraints imposed by his constructed biography.” In a journal entry, consider your own approach to character. Do you, as Canin advises, fully immerse yourself in the alter identity and attempt to establish everything about a character early on? Or are you more likely, as Boswell suggests, to leave certain aspects of the character undefined? What are your tricks and strategies for character development?

Professional Practice

In “The Art of Reading Andre Dubus” Bodwell describes Dubus’ practice of recording the drafts of his stories in order to better hear and refine them. Record one of your own poems or stories, listening carefully to the rhythms and language. Describe in writing the results of this experiment, making note of the surprises or discoveries along the way.

In “Agents & Editors” (page 27), Jofie Ferrari-Adler interviews veteran editor Janet Silver. When asked by Ferrari-Alder about “one thing” writers should know about dealing with agents, Silver responds with this advice: “[Writers] should ask a lot of questions.” Read over Silver’s mention of suggested questions, and make your own list of ten to twelve questions you would pose to a new agent.

Check out this issue’s “Deadlines” (page, 67) section. Target three listings for submissions, prepare your entries according to the guidelines for each, and send your entries.

Teachers Guide Category: 

Discussion Topics

Ideas and opinions to spur reflection and debate.
In “The Art of Reading Andre Dubus” (Poets & Writers Magazine, page 21), Joshua Bodwell includes this quote from the famed fiction writer Dubus: “If there were no sin, there wouldn’t be art.” Do you agree with Dubus’s claim? Is literature driven by actions and ideas of good and evil?

Also in “The Art of Reading Andre Dubus,” Bodwell discusses Dubus’s talent for creating female characters. Bodwell quotes the fiction writer Tobias Wolff on this topic; Wolff says that Dubus “wrote better about women than any man of his generation, both from their point of view and from without.” If Dubus, as a male writer, was especially adept at writing women, then which female writers, in your opinion, are equally adept with men?

In “The Practice of Remaining in the Dark” by Robert Boswell (page 63), Boswell challenges the conventional wisdom on the writing of fiction. He says that while many writers believe that “you must know your characters and their worlds quite thoroughly to write about them, “ this is simply “not true.” Instead, Boswell says, a writer must be willing to work “in the dark.” Consider what Boswell means in this statement, and if you agree with his theory of “remaining in the dark.”

In “The Permanent Prince” (page 10), Sarah Weinman discusses the use of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a “narrative template” for two recently published novels: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski and Undiscovered Country by Lin Enger. Weinman also notes in the article that “Jane Smiley could not have written her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres without several close reads of King Lear.” Do you think these contemporary writers should be commended for making fresh use of classic material?—or is borrowing a “narrative template” a dubious shortcut?

In the profile of Ethan Canin, “From Vladivostok to Gibraltar on His Knees” (page 36), writer Kevin Nance quotes Canin on the recent changes in American literature. “In the last decade, two things happened that are bringing about a real shift,” says Canin. “One is the Internet, which makes research so much easier . . . . The other thing that happened is September 11. It’s made people realize that there are larger forces out there to think about.” What else, in your opinion, is currently impacting American literature? What other events, innovations, policies, ideas, are changing the literary landscape?

In the “Agents & Editors” feature (page 27), Jofie Ferrari-Adler interviews veteran editor Janet Silver. In the interview, Silver says, “I find that the best writers, the most ambitious writers, are the greatest readers, and not just of contemporary fiction, but of classic fiction.” Do you agree with Silver’s suggestion that contemporary writers should be reading classic fiction? Do you read classic fiction yourself?—and if so, does it impact or enhance your writing style?

Also in the interview with Janet Silver by Jofie Ferrari-Adler (page 27), Silver describes what she is not looking for in a piece of new writing: “There are a couple of things I see in first fiction that always tell me something is not for me.” The first, according to Silver, is “a young female protagonist with a vaguely artistic temperament” who within the first ten pages “looks in the mirror and describes herself.” The second is a dream motif, which Silver labels as “too easy.” Have you seen these elements in fiction, either in published work or your own? And would you agree that these elements verge on the clichéd?

“Anthologies Offer Poetic Diplomacy” (page 15) highlights the publishing of several new anthologies of international poetry. The reporter, Travis Nichols, notes that these editions contain the work of writers “from over a hundred countries and territories,” many of whom “have never before had work translated into English.” What is the benefit to American readers and writers in being exposed to poets from outside the United States? And what does Tina Chang, editor of one of these international anthologies, mean when she says to Nichols that “poetry is the ambassador of the spirit”?

In “The New Creative Nonfiction Writers” (page 12), Kelly Nuxoll discusses the rise of “citizen journalism,” the blogging and informal reportage done by nonprofessional journalists. Nuxoll applauds the “plurality of voices” that this phenomenon has produced, but she is concerned about the growing pressure to “get one’s ideas out when the news cycle is still fresh.” Which aspects of writing are more important to the reporting process: the speed and immediacy of a writer’s report, or its quality and craft?
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In “Invasion of the Genre Snatchers” (Poets & Writers Magazine, page 12) Kevin Nance discusses how some literary authors have incorporated elements of genre writing into their works. How do you define literary writing versus genre writing? Is one more inherently valuable as a form than the other? Why or why not?

In “Family War Stories” (page 21), Terese Svoboda describes the challenges of writing Black Glasses Like Clark Kent: A GI’s Secret From Postwar Japan, the story of her uncle’s experience serving as a military policeman in occupied Japan. “In order to tell my uncle’s story—to make it ‘more significant than a story a family tells itself,’ as [fellow nonfiction writer Tom] Bissell says—I had to read the smoke of history, piece together missing or mutilated documents, listen hard to silent veterans, and ultimately try to understand his suicide.”

In “Dear Reader” (page 26), Elizabeth Kelley Gillogy’s profile of poet Billy Collins, Collins says, “ The initial graciousness in [a] poem really amounts to reader entrapment. The poem might seem welcoming, but the reason I am welcoming the reader is to lure the reader inside the poem so that other things can happen besides just good manners.” Read Collins’s poem “Adage” (page 29). How does Collins establish a welcoming tone? How does this work to convey the poem’s theme?

In “After the Flood” (page 34), Kevin Larimer’s profile of novelist David Rhodes, Rhodes says, “Experience comes to us as a whole, and to understand it intellectually we pull it apart and we separate one from the other in that process of abstraction. But the experience is always bigger than the understanding of that experience.” What does Rhodes mean by this? How does this relate to the writer’s task of creating art?
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In “These United States” (Poets & Writers Magazine, page 10), contributor Joe Woodward reports on the recent publication of two literary anthologies about America. Brian Turner, a contributor to the politically inspired poetry anthology State of the Union, is quoted as saying: “Artists must raise their voices when there is wrong in the world. If writers remain silent to the questions of their time, they leave the framing and the investigations of the moment to journalists and politicians.” Do you agree that writers, as artists, have this responsibility? If so, what is the nature of that responsibility? What perspective do writers offer that journalists and politicians don’t?

In “These United States” Turner also says, “Poetry, when shared, often creates opportunities for the person experiencing the poem to be moved or changed by the experience. I believe one would be hard-pressed to discover a poem that doesn’t have a political aspect to it.” Similarly, in “The Spirit and the Strength” (page 46), a profile of novelist Toni Morrison by Kevin Nance, Morrison says, “All good art is political! There is none that isn’t.” Do you agree that art is inherently political in some way? Why or why not? Can you think of a poem or novel that’s not political?

Read “Page One: Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin” (page 12). What are your favorite and least favorite first lines? Explain your choices.

In “The Art of Reading Aharon Appelfeld” (page 31), William Giraldi writes about the life and books of Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld. He describes Appelfeld as an author “for whom language is dangerous, a man who measures every word because every word is sacred.” Similarly, in “The Guest List” (page 56), a profile of poet and memoirist Paul Guest by Amy Pence, Guest says that all writing, despite its genre, is a lie. He says, “With every word you’ve chosen, you’ve made a decision to say one word and not the other.” Think about this as it pertains to your own writing, especially in this age of e-mailing and instant messaging. Do you think carefully about which words you use when? How important is this when communicating in speech? How important is this in writing? Is there a difference?

In his essay, Giraldi goes on to describe how, early in Appelfeld’s career, editors encouraged him to flesh out his writing with more words, but he refused. “Silence is central to [Appelfeld’s] fiction,” writes Giraldi. How can silence be central to any writer’s work considering his or her medium is language?

Giraldi also describes how Appelfeld believes that a novelist’s most worthy subject is his childhood. ‘Childhood,’ [Appelfeld] said, ‘gives us the first.’” What do you think Appelfeld means by “the first” and why would it be so worthy of the writer’s attention? Think of your favorite novels. Are any of them informed by the author’s childhood experience?

In “The Spirit and the Strength,” Kevin Nance describes how Toni Morrison has been criticized for a failure to engage with contemporary African American life by continuing to write about slavery in her novels. Should writers be obligated to write about or, conversely, to avoid certain subject matter? Should they be entitled to write about any subject matter they choose? Are there any particular subjects they shouldn’t be allowed to write about? Why or why not?

Morrison argues in “The Spirit and the Strength” that writing cannot be taught. She says, “you can take something and make it a little bit better by editing it—or you can throw it in the trash, or whatever—but you cannot teach vision. Talent you can hone, but the essential thing, the compulsion to create—where you know that if you don’t do it, something dies in you—that’s there or it’s not.” Do you agree with this?

In Pence’s profile of Paul Guest, Guest discusses the impulse we have to read poems biographically. Why do you think this is so? What is it about poetry that causes readers to assume that it’s true or drawn from the author’s experience? Do we make the same assumptions about fiction?

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