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Monday July 22, 2013
By Dave Hood
The lyrical essay is a subgenre of the personal essay. It is based on images and ideas of a particular theme. For instance, Eula Biss crafts a lyrical essay about pain called “The Pain Scale,” which has appeared in Harper’s magazine. The writer of the literary essay constructs images with sensory details. The writer also uses poetic language, such as alliteration and assonance. The lyrical essay combines both prose and poetry, sometimes found objects of writing to create the lyrical essay. The essay is created with fragments of details, and each fragmented is separated with white space, asterisk, or number. The writer presents questions and relies on the reader to provide the answers. The lyrical essay encourages the reader to ponder and meditate while reading the essay.
In this article, I will discuss the lyrical essay. The following will be covered:
• Definition and features of the lyrical essay
• Categories of lyrical essays-prose poem, braided essay, collage, and “hermit crab” essay
• Techniques for writing the lyrical essay
• Creative Writing Style
• Additional reading
Definition of a Lyrical Essay
The lyrical essay is a type of personal essay that combines both prose and poetry. It is often crafted like a prose poem. The writer uses a series of image or ideas, not narrative or argument, to craft the essay. The image can be of a person, place, thing, or object. The idea can be anything. The writer attempts to recreate the experience and evoke emotion in the reader by using sensory details, description that expresses what the writer sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches, and feels. The lyrical essay is not organized as a narrative, with one event unfolding after the next. Nor is it organized in chronological order. Instead the writer creates a series of fragmented images using poetic language, such as alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, and rhythm.
In 1997, The Seneca Review created the lyrical essay. This literary journal, publishing twice a year, defines the literary essay as follows:
• Combines prose and poetry
• Constructed from a distillation of ideas
• Mentions but doesn’t expound
• Suggestive but not exhaustive
• Relies on associations, imagery, and connotation
• Makes reference to other genres, such as film, music, literature
• Arranged in fragments as a mosaic
• Based on stories that are metaphors
• Based on intimate voice
• Crafted with lyrical language
The lyrical essay is usually fragmented. The writer creates a series of images using sensory details. Each image represents a fragment of detail, which are separated by double spaces, asterisk, or numbers. It is also suggestive. The writer implicitly suggests meaning. It is meditative. The reader ponders the words and emotion expressed in those words. It is often inconclusive. The writer provides no final point for the reader to take away. If you are interested in reading examples of a lyrical essay, visit The Seneca Review.
Categories of the Lyrical Essay
Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, in “Tell IT Slant,” identify four categories of lyrical essay:
• The prose poem or flash nonfiction essay
• The collage essay
• The braided essay
• The “Hermit Crab” essay
The Prose Poem. It is crafted like prose but reads like a poem. It is written in sentences, not verse. The writer uses poetic devices, such as imagery, symbolism, simile, metaphor to create a prose poem of one or more paragraphs. The writer also uses literary prose by using alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme.
The Collage Essay. Like the art collage, the collage of a lyrical essay is based on a collection of fragments from different sources. For instance, prose, poetry, quotation might be combined. The use of juxtaposition is used. The writer separates each section with white space, an asterisk, subtitles, epigraph.
The Braided Essay. It relies on the lyrical examination of a particular topic. The writer uses fragments of detail from different sources . According to Brenda Miller in “Tell IT Slant”, the writer fragments the essay into separate pieces that repeat throughout the essay. There is a weaving of different ideas, such as quotations, descriptions, facts, lists, poet language, imagery. This essay also allows for an outside voice to provide details, along with the writer’s voice and experiences. The purpose of the outside voice is to shadow the writers voice, according to Brenda Miller in “Tell IT Slant.”
The “Hermit Crab” Essay. This type of lyrical essay is created from the shell of another, like the hermit crab that lives the life within the shell of another mollusk or snail. It borrows from fiction, poetry, description, personal narrative, instructions, questions and answers, diary, itinerary, table of contents, songs, recipes, collection of favorite CDs, that are used as a shell to construct something new.
For additional information about the lyrical essay, you can read “Tell It Slant”, a short text on writing creative nonfiction, focusing on the personal essay, and its various subgenres. To read examples of the lyrical essay, visit the Seneca Review.
The lyrical essay has these features:
1. The writer crafts sentences that have rhythm, like a prose poem. Paces and stressed syllables determine rhythm. Iambic pentameter is the most common type of rhythm. It is based on a pattern of five iambic feet. Yet, writers often just count the number of stressed syllables in a line to determine the rhythmic structure of their prose. A short sentence speeds up the pace. A long sentence slows down the pace.
2. The writer creates lyrical prose that sound musical by using alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme.
3. The writer constructs the essay with fragments of detail. Each fragment is separated by white space, asterisk, title, or number.
4. The essay is often inclusive. Instead the writer focuses on evoking emotion in the reader, and the reader must draw his or her own conclusion.
Writers who have popularized the lyrical essay are:
• Eula Biss, author of “No Man’s Land” and many lyrical essays, including “The Pain Scale” which can be read online. (Conduct a Google Search)
• David Shields, author of the book “Reality Hunger.”
• John D’Agata, author of the book “The Lifespan of Fact”
• The Seneca Review, a literary journal that publishes lyrical essays.
Techniques for Crafting the Lyrical Essay
The lyrical essay is a subgenre of the personal essay. The writer creates the essay in prose using lyrical language. As well the writer uses an intimate voice, often by using the first person POV (I). Writers can use the following techniques to create a lyrical essay:
• Poetic language. The writer relies on alliteration and assonance and internal rhyme. Sometimes the writer will create fragments of prose poetry.
• Figurative language. The writer make comparisons with metaphor and simile.
• Imagery. The writer creates images of people, places, things, objects, ideas with sensory details, prose that appeal to the writer’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing.
• Connotation. The writer expresses meaning through connotation, not explicit expression of the details.
• Questions. The writer poses questions to the reader who must answer them.
• Juxtaposition. The writer often juxtaposes different fragments of detail, which have implied meaning.
• Association. The writer expresses meaning through association of different things by using simile and metaphor.
• Prose and poetry. The writer crafts sentences in prose using poetic language and rhythm.
• Reference. The lyrical essay often mentions something without elaborating.
• Rhythm. The writer creates emotion by using rhythmic prose.
• Fragmented. White space or an asterisk or subtitles or epigraph are used by the writer to separate each sections of the essay.
• Intimate POV. The writer often write in the first person POV (I) and shares intimate details, such as emotional truth. It answers the question: Who does it feel?
• Inconclusive ending. The lyrical essay often ends without answering the questions posed in the essay.
The writer creates a lyrical essay based on some theme. For instance, Eula Biss crafts an essay on “The Pain Scale.” The themes are pain and how to measure pain. She crafts this lyrical essay by using poetic language and rhythmic sentences. She writers in the first person POV (I) and feelings of emotion. She writes fragments of detail, and each fragmented is separated by white space or asterisk or number. The meaning is constructed by the accumulation of detail.
Creative Writing Style
To write the lyrical essay, use the following writing style:
1. Tone. A friendly and conversational tone.
2. Word choice. Fresh and original, short rather than long, familiar instead of unfamiliar words.
3. Lyrical language. Use of alliteration and assonance and rhythm.
4. Sentence variety. Use of a variety of sentence patterns, such as the balanced sentence, the cumulative sentence, and the periodic sentence.
5. Intimate POV. Use of first person POV (I) and sharing of personal thoughts and feelings and reflections.
To learn more about writing the lyrical essay, read the following:
• Hall of Fame by John D’Agata
• Plain Water by Anne Carson
• The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Philip Lopate
• Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine
• Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
• Words Overflown by Stars, Edited by David Jauss
• The Seneca Review (http://www.hws.edu/academics/senecareview/lyricessay.aspx )
• “Essaying the Thing: An Imagist Approach to the Lyrical Essay” by Joey Franklin. (The Writer’s Chronicle magazine, September 2012)
• Reality Hunger by David Shields
• No Man’s Land by Eula Biss
• The Life Span of Fact by John D’Agasta
“When you write well, revision becomes not a chore, but the essence of the writing act itself.”(Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller)
Revision is part of the writing process. You revise your work after you have selected an idea to write about, completed necessary research, organized your information, decided on what to write about, and then written a first draft. The purpose of the first draft is not to write something complete–but to get your ideas on paper. Whether you write poetry, fiction, personal essays, you should revise your work.
Revision can transform an ordinary piece of poetry, short fiction, personal essay, or any form of writing into something memorable. Revision allows you to improve on an initial attempt. It gives you the opportunity to write the best possible poem, fiction, personal essay, and so forth.
Revision is often the most creative aspect of writing, providing you take a break after writing the first draft. The first draft is just a blueprint. Taking a break and then returning to revise your work gives your mind time to see and hear the writing from a fresh perspective. Brenda Miller, author of “Tell It Slant,” suggests that your first draft is just a “discovery draft.” You should write anything you desire. A first draft is never your best work.
The goal of revision is not to make your writing perfect, because you can always revise your work. (Many writers believe that writing is never finished.) The goal is to create something that is your best work. If you write sparse prose, you might have to add content. If you overwrite, you’ll have to delete the excess. Both the sparse writer and verbose writer will have to trim, alter, rearrange their content. They will also have to change language, phrases, sentence structure, paragraphs, and sections. The writer’s goal is always to improve on previous iteration.
When revising a piece of writing, don’t think of making it perfect, revise with the purpose of making it your best work.
In this article, I’ll discuss how to revise your creative writing. The following will be covered:
- Why you should revise your work
- Distancing yourself
- Reading your work aloud and making notes
- Revising your work by doing a macro-edit and micro-edit
The first draft is always a “shitty first draft.” This is what Anne Lamott tells us in the splendid book on the craft of writing called “Bird By Bird.” No writer gets it best the first time. Revision allows you the opportunity to improve. By revising your work after writing the initial draft, you can improve your writing, such as grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, and usage. Revising your work also gives you the opportunity to improve the structure, plot, characterization, point of view, conflict, climax, resolution, theme and so forth of your story.
Some writers don’t include sufficient detail for a first draft; others include too much detail. Revising your work allows you to add, cut, rearrange, and expand the details of your poem, story, articles, essay.
Revising also enables you to see your writing from a fresh perspective–especially if you take a break from writing A break gives you a chance to add simile, metaphor, fresh language, new details, to tap into your imagination. Writer/instructor Jack Hodgins, author of A Passion for Narrative: A Guide for Writing Fiction, writes that: “The goal in revising is to achieve a more powerful whole.”
Distancing Yourself from Your Writing
What approach should you take to revising your work? Some writers write and edit as they go. But this approach blocks your imagination. It stifles creativity. It prevents the free flow of ideas from your mind to the page. Instead of writing what you are hearing in your mind, you are writing and then correcting.
Some writers reread as they go. But this approach slows down the flow of ideas from your mind to the page. It also interrupts the creative process and prevents the imagination from inventing.
Some writers craft their first draft with pen and a notebook, and then type the draft out on the computer. They write a first draft without revising or editing or rereading. It is a complete first draft. When they type out the draft on their computer, they reread and revise. I use this approach, and find it useful.
Author Susan Bell, in ” The Artful Edit,” suggests you distance yourself before revising. Here are a few recommendations she provides in her book:
- Don’t reread as you write. It slows down the writing process and creative thinking.
- Don’t revise as you write your first draft. It slows down the writing process and creative thinking.
- Write your complete first draft of a poem, chapter, section. And then take a break. The break of time allows you to approach your work from a new perspective. How long should you take? It all depends–at least one night. But many writers take a few days off, even a week, or longer, before starting the revision process.
- After the break, reread your work aloud to hear how it sounds.
- Once you have taken a break and reread your work, begin revising your work.
Many beginner writers believe that after writing their first draft they are finished. Furthermore, they believe the myth that the first draft must be perfect, and so they take forever to finish. Many writers become discouraged and abandon their writing. They find that the act of writing is like walking through the woods in the dark without a flashlight.
Writing is a process. It begins with an idea, followed by research or personal reflection. Next, the writer jots down a few points or makes a more formal plan of what he/she intends to write about. Then the writer crafts the initial draft. Once the draft is complete, the writer takes a break. The break allows the writer time to see his/her work from a fresh perspective. When the writer returns from the sojourn or hiatus, he/she begins revising the draft. The purpose of revision is to improve on the initial attempt, to make it better, to make it the best the writer can, to polish, to convert chaos to order, to make the piece of writing shine.
In “You Can’t Make this Stuff Up,” writer Lee Gutkind, states the following: “Writing is Revision. Almost every sentence, every paragraph, every page we write we will revise and rewrite a number of times.”
All great writers revise their work over and over before publishing. Raymond Carver rewrote his short stories many times before publishing. D. H. Lawrence rewrote the novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover three times before it was published. Ernest Hemingway wrote the ending to Farewell to Arms 39 times.
All writers can learn how to revise their work. The first thing to remember is that the first draft is just an blue print. It is not your finished piece of work. By revising your work, you improve your first attempt. Often you’ll need to complete several revisions before you submit it for publishing.
How to Revise
Many writers revise as they write. They’ll write a sentence or paragraph or section, then reread it, then revise. But this is a slow and tedious process. And it prevents you from getting to the finishing line quickly. Moreover, it interrupts the free flow of ideas from the mind to the page. A better way to revise is to write the entire draft, take a break of a day or longer. Why take a break? It allows you to see your work from a fresh perspective or point of view. It’s like looking taking a photograph of a building from different perspectives. From each viewpoint, you’ll see something different. The goal of writing, like taking photographs, is to capture the best image. When you return to your writing, you’ll read it aloud and make notes of things you don’t like. Then you’ll conduct a macro-edit and micro-edit of the entire draft. Often you’ll need to revise your narrative several times before submitting it for publication. Your approach to writing and revising should be to get it down, and then work on getting your poem or story or essay or article right—making it the best you can.
Revision is about rereading your entire piece of writing, find errors, omissions, things that requirement improvement or deletion. Revision is about rewriting. You’ll approach the process of revising from a high level, which involves the entire document, poem, story, article. Editors call this a “macro-edit.” Once you have completed a macro edit of your piece of creative writing, then you’ll complete a line-by-line edit or copy edit. Editors and instructors call this a “micro-edit.”
What to Revise
After writing your complete draft, take a break for a day or more. The break from writing will enable you to see your work from a new perspective. Once you have taken the break, reread your work aloud, and make notes for improvement as you go. After reading your work aloud to yourself, you’ll complete a macro edit. All types of creative writing requires a macro edit, whether you write a short story, novel, personal essay, or literary journalistic article. Once you’ve finished the macro-edit, you’ll also complete a micro-edit, which is a line-by-line edit or copy edit. Not all of the items on this list will apply to every genre.
Macro-Editing. What does a macro-edit involve? For a macro-edit of a personal narrative essay or fictional story, you’ll do the following:
- Ensure that the beginning tells the reader what the story is about and why they should reader it. And also ensure that the beginning grabs the reader’s attention.
- Ensure that your story has a setting. It is shows the time and place of the story. It can be a backdrop, antagonist, or the mood of a story. Does your story, at the minimum, have take place at a particular time and place?
- Revise to enhance the central character. Does the central character have a motive? Character flaws? Have you develop the character with dialogue, behaviour, appearance?
- Revise to improve the structure. Is there a beginning, middle, and ending? Is there an inciting incident? Problem? Setbacks or obstacles? Climax or turning point? Resolution to the story?
- Revise for dialogue. Does the dialogue reveal character? Move the story forward? Sound like real people talking? Does each character speak differently? Is dialogue included in important events or scenes?
- Revise for style. Do you use a consistent voice? tone? diction? Sentence variety?
- Ensure that the story has a correct and consistent point of view. First person (I)?, Second person (you)? Third person (He/she)?
- Ensure that you have included concrete and specific and significant details and descriptions.
- Ensure that you have used imagery, language that appeals to the reader’s sense of sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch.
- Ensure that you have used figurative language, such as simile, metaphor, personification, symbolism.
- Ensure that you show the reader what happened with dialogue, action, setting, imagery when writing about important events, such as the inciting incident, crisis, climax, resolution.
- Ensue that the story has a theme. What is the implicit meaning of your work?
- Ensure that your story has an ending. And is the ending correct? Open? Closed?
If you are writing a piece of creative nonfiction, you’ll want to also ensure that you have written into a structure. For instance, if you are writing a theme-based personal essay, you’ll want to make sure that you have a variety of sections, which supports central idea.
If you are writing a collage essay, you’ll want to ensure that your “found objects,” such as a quotation, anecdote, vignette, poem, and so forth, support the central idea.
If you are writing a braided essay, you’ll want to be sure that your structure adequately reveals a comparison between two ideas or people or things. For more information, read “The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life” by Priscilla Long.
If you are writing a poem, your macro-edit will consider the following:
- Form–narrative, meditative, surreal, image, prose….
- Line break–for emphasis, enjambment, rhyme
- Diction or word choice
- Figurative or poetic language such as simile or metaphor or imagery
- Concrete and significant details
- Grammar and syntax and punctuation
- Right voice and style
- Sound, such as alliteration or assonance or rhyme
- Rhythm and meter
- Point of view-first, second, third person, invented persona
- Theme–meaning of the poem
Micro-editing. After completing a macro-edit, you’ll complete a micro-edit. Whether you write poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, you must complete a micro-edit. It is a line-by-line edit of the following:
- Grammar. Ensure that you are using correct grammar, such as Correct usage, such as subject verb agreement
- Spelling. Ensure that you are using correct spelling.
- Punctuation. Ensure that you are using correct punctuation-period, comma, dash, exclamation point, question mark, quotations
- Scenes. Ensure that you have shown and told your readers. You must write in scenes for all important events. Do you show your readers what happened? For things that are less important, do you tell your readers?
- Diction/word choice. Ensure that you have chosen the best language. What is the connotation and denotation of each word?
- Sentence variety. Ensure that you have used sentence variety, such as long and short sentence, fragments and climactic sentences, simple, compound, and complex sentences.
- Melody. Ensure that your prose have melody. Have you used alliteration? Assonance? Rhyme? Repetition?
- Rhythm. Ensure that your prose have rhythm? It refers to the patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. It also refers to the use of repetition? And it refers to the use of parallel structure of your prose?
- Lyricism. Ensure that you your prose are lyrical? Have you used imagery? Metaphor? Simile?
- Usage. Ensure that you have used the active voice, concrete nouns, action verbs. Ensure that you have used adjectives and adverbs sparingly.
A few Suggestions about Revision
If you intend to revise and to publish, you must have a good understanding of grammar, punctuation, spelling, usage, and writing style. If you are not sure about any of these topics, I strongly recommend you read and learn the suggestions, guidelines, and recommendations presented in the following:
- The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English by Patricia T. O’Connor
- The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magical and Mystery of Practical English by Roy Peter Clark
- Sin And Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale
Revision is part of writing. All great writers revise to improve their work. The best writers conduct a macro-edit and micro-edit (a line-by-line edit) of their work. Revising your work enables you to correct mistakes and oversights, to add, to delete, to alter, to move, to improve and polish a first attempt. Revising your work gives you the chance to create your best work, which improves your odds of publishing it.
Resources. For a more detailed explanation on revising a poem, short story, personal essay, and more, read the following:
- The Artful Edit: On the Practise of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell
- The Story Within: New Insights and Inspirations for Writers by Laura Oliver
- Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
- Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School
- Writing Your Way: Creating A Writing Process that Works for You by Don Fry
- The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long.
November 26, 2012
by Dave Hood
How do you end a poem, short story, novel, personal essay—or any other type of creative writing? Writing a good ending is as important as writing a compelling opening…You should give as much thought to your ending as your opening.” This is the advice William Zinsser shares in “On Writing Well.
There are many ways to end a piece of creative writing, such as with a relevant quotation, with a recommendation, with a call to action, by referring back to the beginning. Often the genre you are writing and the idea you are writing about will dictate how to end.
The ending should provide a sense of closure to your writing. To write an ending, you should know when to end and how to end a piece of writing. Different genres, such as a short story, personal essay, or poetry, have different suggestions for writing an ending.
In this article, I’ll explain what an ending must accomplish and provide some general suggestions on how to end a narrative or poem.
What Must Your Ending Accomplish
In the “Handbook of Magazine Article Writing,” it is suggested that the ending of an article should do one of the following:
- Leave readers with the idea that they have learned something.
- Leave readers with the idea that they have gained some insight.
- Show reader how the information in the article impacts or relates to their lives
- Encourage readers to conduct research or additional investigation.
In “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser makes a few suggestions about ending a piece of creative nonfiction:
- “When you are ready to stop, stop. In other words, don’t write too much.”
- “The positive reason for ending well is that a good last sentence–or last paragraph, is a joy in itself. It gives the reader a lift, and it lingers when the article is over.”
- “What usually works best is a quotation.”
Zinsser also tells readers not to end by summarizing. For instance: “In summary…or “To conclude…”
Why? A summary is repeating yourself by compressing details that were already shared with the reader. Instead, you ought to make one final point that resonates in the mind of the reader.
When you end, you must have answered all questions posed in the story or article or personal essay. Otherwise, the reader is left wondering, and feels your writing is incomplete. As well, the essay or narrative should be brought to a close. In other words, the reader knows that the narrative is complete. For instance, if you are writing about a journey, the end might be when the character reaches his/her destination. If you are writing a meditative essay, you might leave the reader with some final point to ponder. If you are writing an opinion essay, you might end with a final point. Writer Elizabeth Anderson, in her essay “IF God is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?” (The Portable Atheist, selected and introduced by the late Christopher Hitchens), ends her essay with the following judgement: “The moralist argument, far from threatening atheism, is a critical wedge that should open morally sensitive theists to the evidence against the existence of God.”
A great ending, in my view, leaves the reader with something to ponder or meditate about after he puts down the piece of writing. Sometimes the writer shares an epiphany or a lesson learned or words of wisdom.
There are no rules on how to end a piece of creative writing, only suggestions. It is up to the writer to decide how to begin and how best to end a piece of writing. Your end should make some important final point. A good final point is like a knockout punch.
How to Write An Ending
There are several ways to end. It all depends on the genre. A personal-narrative essay usually ends when the story ends, often with some epiphany. In a poem, the last line often makes some emphatic final point, some idea the writer can take away and ponder. In a short story or novel, the ending can be closed or open. In a closed ending, the story ends, and nothing else happens. In an open ending, the reader is left to imagine what might happen in the future. Trilogies end with an open ending. A popular technique for ending a story is to use a “cliff hanger.” Sometimes the writer ends a short story or novel ends with dialogue from the protagonist. Some writer’s end articles or personal essays or meditative essays by referring back to the beginning. Other writers begin with a question, explore the question, then you can end with one final answer. Many writer’s end with a final quotation.
Check out most literary journalism essays in the New Yorker, and you’ll discover that most writers end their writing with a final quotation from someone they’ve interviewed. In the essay, “Slackers” (July 30th, 2012), writer, Malcolm Gladwell, ends with the following quote: “None of the doctors who treated me, and none of the experts I’ve consulted since the day I collapsed, have ever heard of anybody being gone for than long and coming back to full health,” he writes.” He was back on the track nine days later.” Clearly, there are many methods you can use to end a piece of creative writing. The decision is yours to make. It is a creative choice of the writer.
David Remnick, author of “We Are Alive”, ends with the following quote: Springsteen glanced at the step and stepped into the spotlight. “Hola, Barcelona!” he cried out to a sea of forty-five thousand people. “Hola, Catalunya!”
You often read true and fictional stories about a calamity or disaster. The writer opens the story by describing a setting of normalcy. And then, the bomb is dropped, or the hurricane destroys the quiet life of the living, or the earthquake obliterates a town. The writer describes the cause and effects, and the struggles to survive and cleanup. In this sort of narrative, writers often end by “returning to the state of normalcy.”
Some writers end with a telling anecdote, or by pointing to what will happen next in the story, or tell readers where to find additional information. Other writers end with an epilogue, which tells what happens to the characters later and how their stories continue.
Other ways to end a piece of creative writing include:
- With a judgement
- With recommendation
- With a prediction
- With an insight
- With a hope or wish
There are no rules for ending a piece of writing, only suggestions. And every form of writing–whether a personal essay, poem, short story, article—has its own suggestions for ending. The final decision about how to end a piece of writing is the writer’s. It is one of the creative decisions of writing. Often the writer relies on a “gut feeling” or “intuition” or “sixth sense.” The worst thing a writer can do is overwrite or write a double ending. The best way to end is to leave your reader satisfied while giving the reader a sense of closure. William Zinsser writes, “The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and seem exactly right.”
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- The Story Within: New Insights and Inspirations for Writers by Laura Oliver
- The Elements of Story: Field Notes on Nonfiction by Francis Flaherty
- Handbook of Magazine Article Writing, edited by Michelle Ruberg and Ben Yagoda
- The New Yorker, “Slackers: Alberto Salazar and the Art of Exhaustion” by Malcolm Gladwell (July 30, 2012)
By Dave Hood
The beginning of a poem, short story, personal essay, article must arouse readers curiosity and inspire them to read your work. Otherwise, readers will quickly become bored and stop reading.
In the splendid book “On Writing Well,” a text on how to write creative nonfiction, William Zinsser, suggests that when writing creative nonfiction “the most important sentence is the first one. According to Zinsser, a good lead or beginning does the following: It grabs the reader’s attention and inspires the reader to read further. This is called a hook. And it tells the reader what the writing is about. It also tells the reader why the piece is important to read.
In this article, I’ll explain what a beginning must accomplish and how to write it. This will apply to poetry, short stories, personal essays, and articles. Keep in mind that for each genre, there are countless ways to begin. And so, I will identify some, but not all, of the most common techniques.
What Must the Beginning Accomplish
Many writers get stuck when they begin writing. Essentially, they don’t know how to write a good opening. I often find it the most difficult part of writing. Frequently, I am unsure about the method to use. Should I begin with a question? Fascinating fact? In the middle of the action? Usually, the type of writing determines how to begin. For instance, to write a meditative essay, I usually begin with a question, and then answer this question in the body of the essay or article.
If you desire to find a way to write an opening, following these suggestions: First, it must introduce the topic you are writing about, whether a poem, short story, personal essay, article. In other words, it must tell the reader what you are writing about–life, death, winter, summer, a person, place, thing, event, experience. Secondly, the beginning must tell the reader why the topic is important. (This does not apply to poetry.) Otherwise, the read might believe that the story or article or essay is not worth reading—It won’t satisfy their informational needs. Thirdly, you must capture the reader’s attention–inspire them to read your piece of writing.
There are many ways to begin a poem, short story, personal essay, and article. Each of these genres has its own methods. For instance, a narrative poem might begin at the beginning of the story, a short story might begin in the middle of the action, a meditative essay might begin with a question.
Sol Stein who wrote the splendid book, “Stein On writing,” suggests that the first sentence and paragraph must do the following:
- Excite the reader’s curiosity
- Introduce the setting
- Lend resonance to the story
To achieve these purposes, a short story or novel must often begin by shocking, such as someone getting murdered; surprising, such a character doing something strange or bizarre; or sharing something unusual, such as the character making an odd comment. The writer can also share surprise, something unusual, something shocking by beginning the story in the middle of the action, with a scene, with dialogue, and much more.
Here`s how fiction writer, Ray Bradbury, begins his short story, The Veldt:
“George, I wish you`d look at the nursery.”
“What`s wrong with it.”
” I don`t know.”
Here`s how, fiction writer, Raymond Carver begins Cathedral: This blind man, an old friend of my wife, he was on his way to spend the night.
Here`s how writer Adriana Barton begins the article, “The Habits of Resilient People,” in the November 19th edition of the Toronto Globe and mail: Among the thousands of people whose houses were destroyed, some are already bouncing back.
In each of these examples, the writer arouses the curiosity of the reader.
There are no rules about what type of beginning to use. Nor are there any rules how long the beginning should be. Some beginnings are short, only a few sentences. Other beginnings are only a sentence in length. Still, others are longer, taking several paragraphs. The length of your beginning and the method you use to begin will depend on whether you are writing a poem, short story, novel, personal essay, or article.
How to Write the Beginning
In journalism, many writers use the inverted pyramid. In the opening, they write the lead, followed by important points, and then less important points. The lead includes the conclusion and omits background information and context. This is often confusing for readers.
In creative writing, you don’t use the inverted pyramid to begin a poem, short story, personal essay, and so on. Instead you can use other methods or techniques.
A beginning should tell the reader what the piece of writing is about, why your piece of writing is important to the reader, and inspire the reader to continue reading. Essential, a beginning introduces your writing and gives it focus.
How to Write an Opening for Creative Nonfiction: There are many ways to begin writing a meditative essay, personal essay, or opinion essay. William Zinsser, in “On Writing Well,” identifies a few of them:
- Ask an intriguing question. Begin with a question that answers `What is the article about. `Example: How can the federal government reduce unemployment? Basically, you are asking a rhetorical question–because you already know the answers.
- Make a thought-provoking statement. Example: The owners have locked the players out because of “greed.”
- State a compelling or fascinating Fact. This type of beginning shares a provocative fact or figure. Example: The unemployment rate is 10%, the highest since the Great Depression.
- Write an anecdote. Write a vignette or story that is related to your topic in the first paragraph. In the second, tie the story or vignette to your topic.
- Use a provocative quotation. Write an interesting quotation from an interview or one that you discovered when you conducted research. Where to find a quotation? The Internet is one place. I like to use “The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.”
- Write a summary lead. It compresses the article or essay into a few sentences. Tell the reader what your article is about, summarizing the main points.
- Use a combination lead. This method requires you to use a couple of methods. For instance, you might begin with a question, and then add a quotation from a well-known person.
There are other ways write an opening for a piece of creative nonfiction, such as an essay. Often a personal-narrative essay, for instance, begins with an angle, or controlling idea that tells the writer how to focus and tells the reader what the personal essay is about. This angle is an approach or perspective. It is a way for the writer to approach the subject, to find a path in. There are many types of angles, such as a contrast of points of view, an unlikely comparison, a dream versus reality, contrast of people or categories.
How to Begin Writing an Opening for a Fictional or True Story: Writer/Instructor Laura Oliver, in her splendid book, “The Story Within,” provides several other suggestions to begin a fictional or true story. Here is what she suggests. You can begin:
- With a list. Example: Here are the reasons why President Obama won the election.
- With a personal reflection. Example: As I recall….
- With a reminiscence. Example: I have fond memories of my childhood.
- With something you didn’t know. Example: Prior to reading the article, I didn’t know how use the comma. This learning experience taught me…………
- With a portrait in words. Example: When I image dad, I see a man who is smiling and laughing…
- With an assertion. Example: I don’t believe that God exists.
- With a mystery. Example: I don’t know how I crashed the car…
Asking Journalistic Questions: You can also begin by asking journalistic questions. You can also use these questions to explore an idea or topic, and to organize your work. Before I write a beginning for a piece of writing, I like to pose and answer these journalistic questions:
Answering these questions often provides me with the answer for how to begin. These answers also tell me how to organize and explore what I will be writing about.
How to Write an Opening for a Poem: There are many ways to begin a free-verse poem. It all depends on the language of poetry you intend to use. If, for instance, you are writing a blank verse poem, your first sentence would require iambic pentameter–five feet of unstressed/stressed units. If you are writing a meditative poem, you might begin with a scene. If you are writing a narrative poem, you might begin with an observation, event, image. Or a provocative comment by the speaker. Here`s how poet, Charles Bukowski begins `The Way it Is Not as follows: “I tell you, I`ve lived with some gorgeous women..” There are countless ways to begin a poem, such as a description of a setting, person, event.
The Epigram: Many writers begin by an epigram. It is a statement or brief saying in prose or poetry, in which there is an apparent contradiction. It might be a very short, satirical, witty poem. It can also be a compelling, provocative, short quotation by some famous person. Example: “What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole, its body brevity, and wit its soul.”(Samuel Coleridge) I have read where writers have used the epigram as an opening for poetry, fiction, personal essay, and articles. The epigram gives a piece of writing some context and helps to introduce the topic.
Final Words: I’ve learned that there are many ways to begin a poem, short story, personal essay, or article. Most often, the genre you are writing and the nature of the piece of writing determines how to begin. Whether you write poetry, short stories, personal essays, or articles, the beginning must grab the reader`s attention and introduce the idea you are writing about. It should also tell the reader why your piece of writing is important to read. The first sentence and first paragraph must surprise, show, or arouse curiosity in the reader, or you risk having have your piece tossed away like an old newspaper.
For more information on how to write a beginning, read the following:
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- The Story Within by Laura Oliver
- Writing Your Way: Creating A Writing Process that Works for You by Don Fry
Friday, November 16, 2012
Writing is a process, and yet many beginning writers ignore the process of writing, preferring to dive into the art and craft of writing without much preparation. And when they finish their first draft, they believe that it is the final version. I have done this–and it is a waste of time and results in chaos.
The best way to write is to follow the process of writing. Whether you write poetry, short stories, personal essays, articles, you first begin with an idea. Next, complete your research by gathering relevant material, information that allows you to understand your idea. (Different forms of writing require different types of research.)This might involve an interview, taking a trip to the library, doing research on the Internet, checking your writing journal, and so forth.
Next, organize your material and read through it. Your purpose is to understand the research you ‘ve collected. You’ll also answer two questions: 1) What are you going to write about? In other words, what is your topic. 2) What points do you want to make about your topic? You can use this approach to write a poem, short story, personal essay, article, and more. You can list them or create an outline or make a mental note.
After organizing your work, begin writing the first draft. The first draft is just a blue print, the scaffolding, the foundation for the finished piece of writing. The first draft is never your best work. It is an initial attempt.
Once you write the draft, set it aside for a day or more, then take a break from the work of writing. When you return, begin to revise your draft. You are revising to improve on your first attempt at writing something memorable and superb. All great writers write and revise their work many times—to make it the best they can.
In this article, I discuss how to write a first draft. The final decision on how to write a draft is yours. Some writers follow the process; other writers just begin–without much planning or organization or research.
Organizing Your Material
Let’s assume you have selected your idea to write about and completed your research. What’s next? Many writers start writing. But this results in unfocused writing, and so you’re wasting time. Unfocused writing at the draft stage can lead to mental confusion, which can stress you out.
A better way to write a first draft is to organize your material, determine what you want to say, and then write the draft. Organizing your material enables you to create a structure. How do you do this?
At the organization stage, do the following:
- Learn your research material by reviewing your notes
- Decide what you want to write about
- Decide what points you want to make
- Decide on a possible beginning and ending
The best way to organize your work is to have a map of how to proceed or to begin the journey of writing the draft. Essential your map is a plan for writing the draft.
Types of Writing Plans
I have learned that there are four types of plans to write the draft. In school, you are were taught to write a formal outline. It included various sections and points to make. Each section was identified with a roman numeral or number. Each roman numeral identified a first paragraph or section. Under each section heading, you identified the important points. I don’t know anyone who uses this formal outline. I never did. It is like wearing a straight jacket and trying to write. It stifles creativity and the discovery through writing.
Some writers begin with a list of important points to make, and then start writing. I’d call this a impromptu or scratch outline. It is informal. You can use this approach to compose a poem, short story, personal essay. I have used this approach many times. (It also works for writing letters, emails, poetry, personal essays.) The scratch outline allows you to put your thoughts on paper and allow you to remember important points to make.
Some writers use an organic approach to organizing material. The structure is unknown. It will be discovered by writing. You can use this method of organizing for writing a poem, short story, essay, novel. Essential, writers who use this approach rely on trial and error, because they don’t know how the story, the poem, the essay begins, develops, and ends until they start to write. Writing is an act of discovery. The details are revealed to the writer by writing.
Many writers, especially those who write poetry and fiction begin a story without knowing how it will begin or end. They write a section, and then another, and another. They might begin in the middle, with a character, conflict, setting, and so forth. Or, they freewrite or write to discover. Afterwards they cut and paste the various sections or parts together. Many writers use this organic approach. It is essentially writing to discover. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with this approach. However, it is time consuming.
Many writers prefer to create an informal plan. It provides a structure. It includes the following:
- Beginning-Introduces what you are writing about and why it is important
- Section–related points
- Section–related points
- Section-related points
- Ending-Give the reader a sense of closure.
If you are going to write an article, opinion essay, segmented essay, lyrical essay, I should consider using this approach.
Another approach is to create a narrative arc. If you are writing a personal-narrative essay or short story, you’d use the narrative arc as your plan. It includes:
- Inciting incident
- Rising action-Setbacks and obstacles
- Crisis–conflict intensifies
A simpler way is to identify the conflict, climax, and resolution.
If you are writing a personal essay or short story, I find that an informal plan or outline is a good way to create structure for your writing. It provides a map on how to begin the journey of writing the first draft. It is a way to evoke the creative muse–and find other material in your mind to write about. You won’t become lost or forget to write about an important point.
Required Tools for Writing the Draft
What do you require to write a draft? Ideally, you need a computer to type the draft. It should include word-processing software, such as MS Word. You’ll be able to add, delete, copy, cut and paste, do spell-check, and so forth. Having access to a computer also enables you to link to the Internet, where you can conduct research, send e-mail, post to a blog or online website.
You’ll also require a notebook and one or more pens. Use the notebook to make notes on your draft. Perhaps an idea pops into your head as you write the draft. Perhaps, while writing the draft you discover that you’ll need to do more research, and make note of it in your notebook.
You should also own a dictionary and thesaurus. Refer to your dictionary to check the spelling of words and look up their meaning. Use a thesaurus to find a word with the right shade of meaning. I suggest you also have a book of quotations. A quote can add depth and a new perspective to a piece of writing, especially when it is a quote from a sage, philosopher, great writer.
Once you have a notebook, pen, dictionary, thesaurus, and computer, you are ready to write the draft.
Writing the Draft
For years, I’d write a first draft by writing and revising as I wrote. I’d write a sentence, or a paragraph or a section, then reread what I wrote. Then I’d edit and revise before moving on. But I have learned that this approach slows down the writing process and blocks creative thinking.
A better approach is to write the entire draft without editing or revising. For instance, write the complete poem, short story, essay–without revising. Why? You are creating flow and tapping into your memories and inventing by using your imagination–writing what you hear in your head. As you write, refer to your plan. This plan guides your writing process. You might begin in the middle, at the end, or at the start. It doesn’t matter. The important point is to get the draft down on paper.
Here are a few things to consider as you write the draft:
Beginning the Draft. Your beginning should tell the reader what you are writing about and why your piece of writing is important to read. The beginning should also grab the reader’s attention, compelling them to read on. A few ways you can begin: with a quote, with a question, with a fascinating fact, with an anecdote, with a list, in the middle of the action.
Writing the content. Your content will depend on the form and genre you are writing. For instance, if you are writing an opinion essay, the middle should identify your argument, share important points. In a more formal literary journalistic essay, the middle might include several sections and points for each section.
If you are writing a collage essay or lyrical essay, you’ll create subsections with asterisks or roman numerals. For each section, you’ll might write a quote, anecdote, description, and so forth.
If you are writing a meditative essay, you’ll write about your main points, those that investigate your question you are pondering.
If you are writing an opinion essay, you’ll share your argument with the reader.
If you are writing a short story or personal essay, you’d tell the story by using a narrative arc. The middle will include conflict, setbacks and obstacles, climax, and falling action. You might end with an open ending, closed ending, lesson learned, epiphany.
Writing Creatively. When writing the first draft, you want to make an attempt at writing creatively. You’ll make a first attempt at:
- Showing and telling your reader
- Writing vivid descriptions
- Writing significant details or telling details
- Writing imagery that evoke the senses.
- Use literary devices of simile and metaphor
As well, write in scenes. You write in scenes when writing a poem, fiction, and creative nonfiction. A scene includes:
- Setting details
- Action. Something happens
- Vivid Descriptions
Writing the ending. You end by creating a sense of closure. Before ending, you make sure you’ve answered all questions raised in the writing. The best ending is memorable. The writer makes one final point that the reader can take away and ponder. For instance, many writers of creative nonfiction end with a final quote from someone they’ve interviewed.
Revising Your Draft
Once you have written the draft, what happens? You’ll put the piece of writing away for a night, a day, few days, or longer. Essentially, you’re take a break from writing. Taking a break enables you to see your work from a fresh perspective. It is like relaxing after a long day at work. Taking a break will refresh your creative spirit. When you return from your sojourn, you’ll begin revising your draft. The purpose is to make it better–to transform your draft into a splendid piece of writing.
Revision is about doing a macro-edit and micro-edit. A macro-edit involves revising “the big picture.” You’ll focus on setting, characterization, plot, theme, point of view, and so forth. You might add, delete, change the form and content of your work. If you are writing a personal essay, you might add a scene or details or imagery. If you are writing a short story, a macro-revision involves looking at setting, plot, character, POV, theme, and so forth.
Revision also involves a micro-editing or copyediting. It is a line-to-line edit, and involves checking grammar, spelling, and punctuation, active or passive voice, sentence variety, word choice. To learn more about editing, read “The Artful Edit: On the Practise of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell.
A good writer writes and revises. Read the biography of any great writing, and you’ll discover that they created a memorable poem, short story, personal essay by relying on writing as a process. Writing the first draft is part of the process. Good writers know that the initial draft is never their best work. It is just a blueprint. Ernest Hemingway revised the ending to “Farewell to Arms” 39 times. You’ll need to revise your work to make it the best you can. Drafting and revising creates order from chaos. It improves on a first attempt. It polishes your work until it shines.
To learn more about the writing process and drafting, read the following:
- Writing Your Way: Creating a Writing Process that Works for You by Don Fry
- Where Do You Get Your Ideas: A Writer’s Guide to Transforming Notions Into Narratives by Fred White
- The Artful Edit: On the Practise of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell
- Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose, edited by Constance Hale
- Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway
- Stein On Writing by Sol Stein
- The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio
Perhaps, you’ve purchased a writing journal and some pens, and have decided to embrace the art and craft of creative writing. Or, you’ve decided to write a poem, short story, personal essay, but you don’t know what to write about. Perhaps, you want to write your life story, but don’t know what to write. There are countless ideas that you can dig up, dust off, and write about. You just have to know where to search.
And once you have an idea to write about, you require a few techniques on how to explore and expand the idea into a poem, short story, personal essay.
You’ll also require a few essential creative-writing techniques to transform the idea into a piece of imaginative or creative writing, something original and authentic, that others will be motivated to read and praise you for. If you are fortunate, you might even be able to publish your work.
In this article, I’ll explain how to find inspiring ideas to write about and how to write about them. The following will be covered:
- Techniques for finding inspiration
- Asking journalistic questions
- Using creative-thinking techniques
- Writing imaginatively or creatively
How to Dig Up Ideas to Write About
As a creative writing, there are countless ideas you can write about. No idea or topic is off limits. You can transform any idea into a poem, short story, personal essay, literary journalistic essay. However, before you can write the draft, you must first find some worthy idea that inspires you to write about. Here are 12 ways to find ideas to write about:
Dreams. A dream can be a source of inspiration. You must be able to recall the content of the dream. So, keep a notebook on your beside table. If you wake up, remembering a dream, write down as much as you recall. I have never written about a dream.
Memories. Many writers write about their memories of abuse, childhood, adversity, and so forth. In “Tell It Slant,” Brenda Miller write about the five senses of memory. What are the memories associated with sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. When you recall a memory, ask yourself: Why do I remember it? What is the significance? Another way to look at memory is to ask yourself: What are my saddest and happiest childhood memories? There are many ways to explore memory. I have often written about memories of my childhood, illness, unemployment, people that have crossed my path, and more.
Imagination. Imaginative writing involves inventing a poem, short story, novel by using the imagination to invent. An easy way to invent is to ask the question,” What if?” What if you were robbed walking home? What if you were diagnosed with a serious disease? What if your son or daughter died?
Observations. Observing the world around you is an is a useful way to write about setting, people, places, objects, things. Make note of significant details, telling details. Make not of what you see, hear, feel. Make not of the sensory images—sights, sounds, taste, smell, touch, hearing. Afterwards, write about your observations.
Overheard Conversations, Snippets of dialogue, Inspiring quotations From Famous People. Some instructors suggest you can write about an overheard conversation. I guess this is possible. I have never used it as inspiration for writing. I prefer to use dialogue in relation to its context. For instance, I`ll write about what I heard at the bar, or in the mall, or at the funeral. The dialogue will only be important because of where I heard it. Another important aspect of dialogue is who said it. Was it someone unknown or someone famous or in the public eye? Often inspirational quotes by philosophers, writers, musicians, political leaders can be a great source of inspiration.
Reading. We write for pleasure, to be transported to another place, to escape the banality of daily life. As well, a writer reads to learn the art and craft of writing. You can find inspiration by reading published creative writing by recognized journalists, poets, fiction writers, essayists. By reading, you learn what others have written about and are writing about. This knowledge can provide you with your own ideas to write about. Read stories in newspapers, magazines, journals, periodicals, and then make note of any interesting ideas, concepts, inventions, stories you uncover.
Your dark side. Each of us has a hidden self and public persona. Some call it your shadow or “dark side.” The shadow remains asleep until we are stressed, or wronged, or humiliated, or embarrassed, or dishonoured, or face a life and death situation, or are threatened by an event or another person. The shadow is often something we don’t like about ourselves. Perhaps we get angry, or procrastinate, or abuse alcohol, or are racist, or prejudice, or intolerant, or like kinky sex. Perhaps we have cheated on a loving partner, or broken the law, or done something that is taboo. How do you write about these topics? You ignore the “inner voice” that tells you not to write about the topic, and then you write the words that you hear in your mind. You must give yourself permission to write about anything.
First experiences. Write about your first job, first kiss, first sex, first love, first car, first home, first experience with death or grief, and so forth. Write about anything that is a first.
Celebrations. Write about holidays, vacations, milestones, birthdays, anniversaries, happy occasions, anything that makes you happy.
Adversity. Write about setbacks, obstacles, challenges, such as illness, disease, obesity, handicap, unemployment, discrimination, abuse, failure. Write about any hurdle or obstacle you have faced and had to overcome.
Artist’s Date. Julia Cameron, in” The Artist’s Way,” suggests that you should schedule some artistic or creative date with yourself once or twice a month. Perhaps, you’ll visit the bookstore, see a movie, attend poetry reading, visit the art gallery, take a trip to see a theatre production. The purpose of the “artist’s date” is to refill your mind with inspiration to write about.
Ideas from your personal journal. Keep a personal journal. Include stories from newspapers, interesting quotations, inspiring lyrics, poetry, photos. Write in it each day. Write about what you’ve read, heard, observed. Write about fleeting moments that were important. Write about events, experiences, people that have passed through your life, touching you in some way. Write about small moments. We you require an idea, turn to your writing journal.
There are many other techniques you can use to write about, such as death, grief, anxiety, depression, addiction, mental illness. Writer Lois Daniel, the author of “How to Write Your own Life Story,” has written a book of ideas on how to write your life story. She explains how to write about inventions, courtship, turning points, animals, family traditions, achievements, accomplishments, and more.
Asking the Right Questions
After you have an idea to write about, you can explore the idea by asking questions. Journalists often ask these questions. These are:
- Where ?
The question “who?” refers to the person or group of people who the story is about. The question “what?” refers to what happened. The question how refers to “how it happened?” The question “when” refers to when it happened. And the question “why?” refers to why it happened.
You can use these journalistic questions to explore an idea or topic. Furthermore, by answering these questions, you can grow the seed of idea into something larger, like a story about the maple tree. You can also use these questions to organize your work. For instance, you could write a beginning, then have one section for each of who, what, when, where, why, how, and then an ending. Often by answering these questions, you have sufficient material to write a story
Using Creative Thinking Techniques
Once you have an idea to write about, you can explore the idea by using creative thinking techniques. There are many. I’ll identify some of the popular techniques. Most people use brainstorming–but not enough. Often when there’s a setback or problem or obstacle, many people react with emotion–without personal reflection, without first brainstorming ways to react or respond. How do you brainstorm? Simply by making a list of all possibilities. For instance, suppose you wanted to change jobs, but need to write a new resume. You desire to identify all of your skills. You’d brainstorm by creating a list of all of your skills, both minor and major skills you have. Then you’d select the ones that are most advantageous or beneficial. Once you have a few ideas, write about them.
Another technique is to ask why? Then why not? This is a good way to develop answers to a question or problem. It can be used to develop both positive and negative answers to an outcome. For instance, why did your marriage end? Why did you not graduate from university? Why did you graduate? Why did you criticize your friend? Why did you not criticize your friend? Once you have ideas, write about them.
You can change your perspective. See the experience, or event, or person from another point of view. Most of the time, we see the world from our own eyes. For instance, we walk down the street, pass a panhandler who asks for money. We think “He is lazy.” And so, we refuse to provide charity. What if this man was homeless and hungry and down on his luck? To feel some compassion, we’d have to see the world from his point of view. How? You’d have to walk in the shoes of the homeless guy, by imaging you were homeless, without food, and out of work. What is it like to be a beggar on the street? What is it like to be homeless? What is it like to be poverty stricken, to go hungry? Write from a different perspective.
Or, you can challenge assumptions. For instance, most people believe in God. What if God is just an illusion, a human construct? Write about your assumptions–and alternative possibilities.
Some writers begin freewriting. Start by posing a question to yourself, and then answering it. Write down whatever pops into your mind. Afterwards, read what you wrote. Did you find anything interesting? Inspirational? And idea to expand into a poem, essay, some project to accomplish.
Do some mind-mapping or clustering. It is like brainstorming but more controlled. It is a good way to explore possibilities or generate ideas. How to cluster? Begin with a white piece of paper and coloured pens or pencils. In the center of the paper, draw a circle. Inside the circle, write a word or phrase that represents the idea your desire to explore. For instance, suppose you wanted to take photographs, but didn’t know what to capture. You could use the word “photograph.” Then, think of those possibilities or things associated with the idea.
When you something comes to mind, draw a line from the circle, then create another smaller circle, and jot down the idea. If you had a new idea, you’d create another line and circle from the main idea. For instance, you could have lines and circles for travel, sports, landscape, fashion, close-up, portrait. If you had a related idea to your first answer, you draw a line from the second circle, and write down another idea. For instance, suppose you wanted to capture still life, you could write a line and circle for each of beer and glass, journal, books, food to the circle with “close-ups.”
An easy way to think creatively is to ask “what if.” It is a great technique for fueling the imagination. For instance, what if a meteor crashed into the earth? What if you died? What if you won the lottery? What if you were fired from your job? What if you become rich and famous?
Another way to be more creative is to look for ambiguity in the world. Yet, most people don’t like ambiguous situations. They cause communication problems and are confusing. And so, most people have learned to “avoid ambiguity.” However, there are times when ambiguity can light the flame of imagination. Next time, you are immersed in a confusing situation, instead of just reacting, ask yourself: What is going on here? What else could this mean? How else can this be interpreted? For instance, suppose your friend splits up with her husband–and you’d don’t know why. You’re immediate reaction might be to blame the husband who always flirts. This is when you could ask “What else is going on here?” Perhaps the wife has found a new lover. Perhaps she believes that she can meet someone who is more interesting or romantic. When you discover something ambiguous, explore it and write about it.
We are socialized to think in terms of “right” and “wrong” answers. This can limit possibilities or options. Clearly, there are times when right and wrong answers are your only option, such as following the speed limit or answering a multiple-choice exam. However, during the creative process, “to error is not wrong.” Instead, if you make a mistake or error, use it as a stepping stone to another idea you might not have discovered. For instance, suppose you take a photograph, and the light turns out to be incorrect, you could shift the angle of light, or add additional lights, or take the photograph in a different place. What’s the point here?
The mistake or error is an opportunity for you to attempt something else, to think of something else. Another approach to errors or mistakes: Suppose you want to do something new. First, you consider all the positive outcomes, the rewards, the benefits. But this is limiting. You should also consider how you’d respond if something bad happened, if a setback occurred, if there was some obstacle. By thinking in this way–you expand the ideas, the possibilities, the solutions. Write about the outcome of an err or mistake, and the alternative path or journey you took.
Writing Imaginatively or Creatively
What does it involve? You will use the techniques of creative writing to write a poem, personal essay, short story. You might also use them in other types of writing, such as journal writing, letter writing, commentaries, emails.
The purpose of writing creatively is to create word pictures in the mind of the reader–by showing the reader a person, place, event, experience.
Once you have selected an idea, you should use the essential techniques of creative writing to craft your piece of writing. You can use these techniques to write in your journal, a poem, a short story, a novel, a personal essay—or any other writing.
Here are a few important techniques of creative writing that you can use for any writing:
Show your reader the person, the event, the experience, the place, the thing. You can show you reader with vivid descriptions, with concrete and significant details, and with imagery–language that evokes the senses.
Scenes and Summary. When you use a scene, “you are showing the reader what happened. Write in scenes for all important events. A scene include setting details, action (something happens), dialogue (conversation between characters in the story), imagery, concrete and significant details.
When you write in summary, you are telling the reader what happened. Use summary to write about unimportant events or to compress time.
Use concrete, particular, and significant details. Whether you write prose or poetry, you must add meaningful details. Otherwise, your writing will be ordinary, non-descriptive. Concrete details are not abstract. They refer to specific things. Particular details refer to some attribute or attributes of the thing. Significant details means that you want to share only those “important details,” the details which enable the reader to imagine what you are seeing and describing. Writing concrete and significant details allows you to evoke emotion, stir the spirit, touch the soul of the reader. When you add detail, you are showing the reader what happened, what the person looks like, what you are seeing, feeling, tasting, and so forth. When you recall a memory or observe an object, person, place or thing, you don’t need to share all details with the reader, only those that enable the reader to visualize the person, thing, place, you are writing about.
Imagery. This is about writing in words that invoke the sense in the reader. You can write about what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch. Example: Coming to the ledge, I could see an old pair of shoes. I knocked on the door, faded from neglect. An old woman, with disheveled, grey hair and no teeth, opened it. When she talked, I could smell the stench of decaying teeth.
Figurative language. These include personification, symbolism, allusion, and so forth. Two of the most important are simile and metaphor. A simile compares one thing to another by using “like” or “as.” Example: Her home is like a garbage dump. A metaphor suggests that one thing is another. Example: Her home is a garbage dump.
Personal Reflection or Self-Reflection
It involves the discovery of self and acquiring self-knowledge. You find out how you felt about something. What do you value. What is important in your life? What is the meaning? What is the purpose? What makes you happy? Why is the memory important to you? Why do you want to write about it? How does something feel to you? How did you reacted? With fear? Anger? Did you like it? Why? Did you dislike it? Why?
Personal reflection involves self-discovery, self-knowledge, and then sharing your thoughts, feelings, opinions, views, perspective. You can ponder an idea, event, experience, topic, issue, and then write about it. What does it mean to you?
Personal reflection is about exploring the emotional truth. In other words, how does it feel to you.
For more information on finding ideas to write about and how to write about them from a creative writing perspective, read the following:
- Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway
- You Can’t Make this Stuff Up: The Complete Guide To Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between by Lee Gutkind
- How to Write Your Own Life Story by Louis Daniel
- Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola.
by Dave Hood
Most great writer’s have a routine. That is what I’ve learned by reading Margaret Atwood’s “Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing,” Steven King’s “On Writing: A Memoir on Craft,” and Elizabeth Berg’s “Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True.”
Writer Elizabeth Berg suggests that your writing routine should be “as personal and as varied” as your routines for anything else.
If your lifestyle changes, so will your writing routine. If you are a student at university, taking courses in creative writing, you’ll probably have lots of time to read and write. But, if you are working full-time, and attempting to write a novel, or short story, you’ll have to do it in your leisure time, perhaps at night or on the weekend.
Berg suggests that you begin your writing day by reading the writing you completed yesterday, and then edit it before writing something new. Why? The break from writing will provide you with fresh insight and a new perspective, perhaps even some new material.
Other writers suggest that you complete the first draft before beginning any sort of editing. Why? Editing can slow down the process of putting words from your mind on the page. Editing can also stifle the creative spirit. I always write the first draft before editing. And I always take a break for a few days before revising my work. The break allows me to discover new material and see my work from a fresh perspective.
Berg also suggests that when you are completing a writing project, continue to read unrelated material, such as other books, magazines, poetry, newspapers, to help you continually fill your creative spirit with new ideas.
How long should you write for? Berg writes for three or four hours in the morning, and then stops. Other writer’s do the same. Most writers don’t write for long stretches of time, such as 9,10,11 hours. Why? Their mind gets tired, they are unable to think clearly, they are unable to dust off authentic and original ideas from memory or their imagination. They are unable to write at their best with specific details, fresh similes, surprising metaphors.
As part of the routine, you should also write in a quiet and inspirational place, some location that allows you to think. Some writers set up a writing room. In their writing room, there is a desk, chair, bookcase of favorite books, a dictionary, thesaurus, perhaps some quiet music on the stereo, art on the walls, and photographs perched on the desk. Other writes craft a piece of writing in their bedroom, lying in bed. Many writers carve out something in a quiet cafe, where there’s the hustle and bustle of people, and soothing music.
Part of your routine also requires that you choose the “writing tools” that inspire you and allow you to quickly express your thoughts on the page, including a pen or coloured pens. A notebook. A writing Journal. A computer, such as tablet or laptop. Most creative writing instructors tell you to keep a writing journal, and write in it each day with a pen or a set of coloured pens. Most writers will also tell you to carry a notebook, so that when an interesting idea pops into your mind, you can capture it.
To write a poem, short story, novel, article, anything well, you require discipline. To be disciplined, you need a routine. Some writers like to write in the morning, other writers like to write at night when it’s dark. Many writers are only able to write in their leisure time, such as on the weekend, when they don’t have to work at their 9 to 5 day job.
If you truly want to become a good writer and publish, you must have discipline. Discipline requires that you make writing a high priority. And so, if you are a person who writes a “To-do-list” each day, you should make writing your number 1 priority, or very close to the top of your list of things to do. As well, instead of writing when you feel like it, you must establish a schedule and write at specific time of day. This helps to establish a routine. If you do not have time to write, you must find time. For instance, you could write for 15 minutes on your lunch, write for 15 minutes on your coffee break, writer while you ride the bus home from work… Discipline as a writer requires that you organize your life around your writing.
The act of writing makes you a writer. Writing requires that you do it regularly. Establishing a routine is the best way to write each day or on some schedule. Establishing a routine enables you to learn to write, to experiment with your writing, to become a writer, to write creatively like Hemingway, Alice Munro, Stephen King. Establishing a writing routine allows you to complete projects and to publish your writing dreams, rather than leave your writing aspirations to chance.
If you’d like to learn more about the writing life, I recommend that you read:
- Margaret Atwood’s “Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing”
- Steven King’s “On Writing: A Memoir on Craft”
- Elizabeth Berg’s “Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True.”
Each of these books is an entertaining read and provides insight into the writing life, as well as great advice on the art and craft of writing.
What are big ideas? They are topics or issues that are important to a country and the world. They are also in the public consciousness. As a creative nonfiction writer, not only can you write about personal experiences, such as a personal essay or memoir, you can also write about public experiences— events, issues, topics–that are important to humanity. Popular topics include terrorism, war, the economy, the environment, social justice, medicine, well-being.
Pick up a major newspaper or popular magazine, such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and you’ll be able to reader essays about big ideas. Each week, The New Yorker publishes one or more literary journalism essays that deal with “big ideas,” important topics or issues that the public is aware of. In this week’s edition of the New Yorker (October 1st, 2012), Jerome Groopman, writes an interesting piece called “Sex and The Superbug,” in which he illuminates the reader about gonorrhea, a sexually transmitted disease, and how it has become resistant to antibiotics.This week’s cover of Time magazine has a portrait of former President Bill Clinton and a title that reads: 5 ideas that are changing the world.
As well, check out the latest literary journal publications, such as Witness, Epiphany, Granta, you’ll read literary journalism essays about “big ideas.” For instance, Granta’s summer issue has a theme about “medicine.” It’s winter issue deals with “war.” The spring issue of Witness deals with “disaster.”
The goal is to educate, inform, and entertain by writing a compelling narrative. When writing about big ideas, the form is usually an article or literary journalism essay, structured as a narrative. In “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, author Lee Gutkind writes: “The ideal creative nonfiction piece is one where the pendulum stops somewhere in the middle—a public subject with an intimate and personal spin.”
How do you go about finding the big ideas to write about? Here are a few suggestions.
The Idea Notebook
The best way to find ideas to write about is to stay informed. You can do this by reading the newspaper, by reading popular magazines, such as Time and the New Yorker, by reading popular creative nonfiction books, by watching the news, conducting research on the Internet.
Once you find an interesting idea, make note of it in an idea notebook. If the article is in a newspaper, clip it out, and save it in the Idea Notebook. Always answer the question? Why is the article interesting. Also, write a summary or identify the significant points the writer makes in the article. If the essay is published in a magazine, save the edition of the magazine. GutKind, In You Can’t Make this Stuff Up, suggests that you also write down “what angle interests you” and “what the big idea is.” When you run out of topics to write about, refer to your Idea Book.
Finding Good Stories to Write About
Writing creative nonfiction is about telling true stories. In the text, Telling True Stories, Jan Wallin explains how a writer can identify good topics to write about.
- Define your focus. Is the place important? Is the person important? Or is the action important?
- Does your story have action? There must be action–a series of events—that make up the story.
- You must have access to the person who are important players in the narrative, so you can conduct an interview. Otherwise, you should find another story to write about.
- Define the time frame. Do you intend to write a narrative based on a short time, such as a day, or a long time, such as many weeks, or a year or more?
- What does the subject learn about himself or herself? Does the person experience some epiphany?
- When would it be worth going deeper? Where is the close-up on a story? Where does mystery remain?
- What truism is being presented in the news? Does going in the opposite direction give you a new story from a different perspective?
- What is the big idea? A bid idea always includes a “universal truth.”
- Research the context of the story. Social conditions. History. Economics climate.
- What are the enduring topics in the public consciousness? The recession? Unemployment? Poverty? Racism? Discrimination? War? Social Justice? Crime? Gun control? Sexual Abuse?
A few Tips
Before deciding to research and write about a big idea, answer these questions:
- Find out what has already been written on the subject. How? Do some research on the Internet.
- Before writing the essay about a “big topic”, ask yourself: Why is this important to readers?
- Can the big idea be crafted around an narrative? In other words, are there a series of events that make up the story?
- Next, ask yourself: What is the universal truth?
- Do you have access to eye witnesses, victims, and subject matter experts? If you don’t, avoid writing the story.
- Understand the “emotional truth” of the story. How do people feel about the big idea? Does he/she agree? Disagree? Have some other view than the prevailing wisdom of the day?
For more information on how to write about “big ideas”, read the following:
- Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’s Guide, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
- You Can’t Make this Stuff Up: The Complete Guide To Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, by Lee Gutkind.
Conducting research is the part of the “nonfiction” aspect of writing creative nonfiction. It is one of the Five R’s of creative nonfiction, one of the essential components of writing personal essays, memoirs, and literary journalism. The amount of required research for a writing project depends on the form of creative nonfiction. Research involves collecting facts to increase understanding of a person, place, event, idea, experience, thing.
In this article, I’ll explain the purpose of research, identify the methods of research, and how to research your own life.
Purpose of Research
You carry out research to increase your understanding of a person, topic, idea. You also do research to see what else has been written on the topic that you are going to write about. You don’t want to duplicate what is already written. You can also do research to become a subject matter expert.
Research also allows you to verify facts. You want to be sure that what you written is true and accurate.
And research has another purpose: To stimulate our memories. Often when we investigate an experience or event, memories associated with the event rise into our minds from depths of unconsciousness.
If you intend to write a memoir, you’ll be required to complete extensive research into your own life — to recall significant details of people, places, events from your own past.
Facts from research can also be used by the writer to create metaphors or similes. Brenda Miller suggests this in her book, “Tell It Slant.”
Some forms of creative nonfiction require more research than other forms. For example, a personal essay about a canoe trip to a lake that resulted in an epiphany requires less research than a memoir. The canoe trip might only require you to consult your writing journal and to speak with the friend who accompanied you on the canoe trip, whereas a memoir will involve interviewing friends and family, visiting the library and public records offices, revisiting the places you frequented during the period of the memoir, and obtaining details about the popular culture of the time by conducting research with a Google search.
There are two drawbacks to doing research. First, the tsunami of facts that you collect can overwhelm, preventing you from writing. Secondly, research can result in procrastination. In other words, the task of researching a project often prevent you from writing the narrative.
Methods of Research
Immersion. You acquire an understanding by “living the experience.” Suppose you intend to write a story about baseball, but you’d never played this game before. You could increase your understanding by playing a few games of baseball. You would then use what you learned from the experience to write your piece of creative nonfiction.
Interviewing. A popular approach is to interview a subject matter expert, or talk to people who participated in the event or experience, or interview those who were a witnesses to the event, or interview those who knew the person you are writing about. An interview always requires a list of question to ask. These questions should be open-ended, requiring the person being interviewed to respond with more than a “yes” or “no.”
The Reference Library. The reference library contains a sea of information, including:
- Publications on microfilm, such as old newspapers
- Online catalogues to help you find facts
Be sure to ask the librarian for assistance.
The Internet. Begin by conducting a Google search, the most popular search engine. There is also Google Scholar, which you can use for scholarly searches. Then read and collect useful facts at reputable websites. For instance, suppose you want to learn more about modern and contemporary art, you could visit “The Art Story website at www.artstory.org. To help you find information, you can use the Search tool on the website. Not only can you read content on websites, but you can read blog postings. Many subject matter experts have their own blogs in which they post articles, commentaries, and so forth. And YouTube offers you information via video and photographs.
Public Records. Sometimes you’ll be require to verify facts. The public records is the place to fact check marriage licences, dates of birth, and death certificates.
Researching Your Own Life
Writing a personal essay often requires that you research your own life before writing. This is mandatory when writing a memoir. Research allows you to check the accuracy memories. Research enables you to recall details of the popular culture, as well as the social and economic and historical conditions of the life you lived in the past.
Research also enables you to mine your own memory, enabling you to recall people, places, events, experiences that have long been forgotten. Why? Researching a timeline or time period stimulates your memory. You can start with a timeline. For instance, do a Google search to find out what happened in 1980. The Google search results of the events of that year will enable you to recall memories of things that happened to you during that year
Besides using a timeline, there are many other ways to research your own life, including:
- Challenges, setbacks, obstacles. For instance, what is the biggest challenge you have faced in life? What is the saddest moment in your life?
- Moves, leaving home, first home, place where you lived after the divorce.
- Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, marriages, deaths
- First experience, such as your first kiss, first new car, first speech, first job
- Achievements. What are your accomplishments?
- Legacy. What do you want to be remembered for?
- Revisit places of your childhood, adolescence, or adulthood
- Look over old photographs, read old diaries and journals and letters, leaf through old scrapbooks.
Author, Lois Daniel, has written a must-read text for anyone who desires to write personal narrative essays or a memoir. Her book is called, “How to Write Your Life Story.” She explains, provides tips, and suggestions on how you can tap into memory, and rediscover your favorite toys as a child, write about inventions that have significantly impacted you, accomplishments you are most proud of, happy and sad family events, favorite pets, friends and family who have passed through your life, and much more.
What sort of research will be required? The type of narrative determines what information/facts the writer provides the reader. (You Can’t Make this Stuff Up by Lee Gutkind)The key points to remember: creative nonfiction writers do research to increase their understanding of themselves and the world in which they live. And yet, too much research, a mountain of facts, can blow out the flame of creativity. And so, a writer ought to do only as much research as required to understand the topic, person, idea, he/she is write about.
Resources. For more information on how to increase your understanding by research, read the following:
- You Can’t Make this Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between by Lee Gutkind.
- To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
- Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, Second Edition, by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
- How to Write Your Own Life Story: The Classic Guide for the nonprofessional Writer by Lois Daniel