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Essays on Craft and The Writing Life

Cleaver publishes craft essays on writerly topics. If you are a poet, fiction writer, essayist, or graphic narrative artist and would like to propose a craft essay, contact the editors with a query before submitting.

Guidelines: offer a reaction to or exploration of one’s personal experience as a prose writer/artist/creative; pieces that delve into something you’ve either found compelling, learned along the way, figured out, gotten obsessed with, found surprising, and want to share with other writers. Quirky is okay. Nothing too scholarly/academic/ teacher-y. Aim for between 800 and 2000 words. Please first take a look at what we’ve published before here:

Pitch prose craft essays to Lisa Romeo and poetry craft essays to Mark Danowsky.


THE USES OF ANAPHORA in Jason Schneiderman’s  Poems “Anger” and “Star Dust” by Adrie Rose
Adrie Rose THE USES OF ANAPHORA in Jason Schneiderman’s Poems “Anger” and “Star Dust” When I first heard Jason Schneiderman read his poems “Anger," and “Star Dust” in a 2021 episode of Rachel Zucker’s Commonplace podcast, I realized both make make extensive use of anaphora, the repetition of words or phrases. Hearing (and then reading) these poems coincided with my rising interest in long poems—what they can do that a short poem can’t, how they work, what their limitations are. I became especially interested in how Schneiderman uses anaphora to shape and steer these poems. “Anger” is the first poem in his collection Hold Me Tight, which is a bold placement for a nine-page poem. “Star Dust,” as it appears in the Spring 2023 Massachusetts Review, is only two pages long, relatively short in comparison. However, in a book format, such as the Hold Me Tight collection, "Start Dust" would be three or even four pages long.  “Star Dust” has lengthy lines, using much horizontal space on the page. And so, in my mind, the two poems take up a similar amount of breathing room. Compare the opening five lines of “Anger” with the opening five lines of “Star Dust”: ... Read the full craft essay
Craft Essays, Poetry Craft Essays /
Kelly DuMar MYSTERY, MISCARRIAGE & MENDING: How Epistolary Erasure Poetry Threads Old Letters with New Narratives We crave it, but we never get the whole story about our family of origin. How our parents came to create us––so much remains a mystery. Impossible for us to have been there at the beginning. Were we wanted? Were we planned? Did we come by accident or prayer, by passion, or by mistake? Always, there are secrets. We are given, as we grow, clues and hints. We track them, like detectives, piecing clarity together from a patchwork of what we intuit, what we overhear, what is told, or what is implied without telling, by silence. Sometimes, by accident or luck, silences are broken in unpredictable ways. As my mother’s was, after she was dead. It was a gift I had no expectation of receiving––this box of surprise that came into my hands a few years ago. Inside: All the letters, handwritten, that my mother had sent to my father during their courtship, from 1953-1954, starting with their first date, and ending soon after they married. She was working as a records librarian at a hospital and living with her parents in Athol, MA. My ... Read the full craft essay
Craft Essays, Poetry Craft Essays /
Navigating Back: Stargazing and the Threat of AI, a Craft Essay by Scott Hurd
Scott Hurd Navigating Back: Stargazing and the Threat of AI As I contemplate a changing creative landscape since the unleashing of generative AI, I can’t help but think back to grade school math. I had the coolest compass in class. All the other kids had those cheap dime store models with the crappy ball bearing that might, or might not, allow you to draw a neat circle. But mine was state-of-the art: masterfully crafted, precise in its measurements, fluid in its movements, and armed at one end with a wickedly sharp lance to plant it in the navigational charts for which it was designed. It was U.S. Navy issue, at one time my dad’s while he was a navigation officer on the USS Galveston from 1968-1969. With help from that compass and my dad’s skill, the Galveston circumnavigated the globe, sailing first to Vietnam, then through the Suez Canal, across the Mediterranean, and continuing on to Texas, where Glenn Campbell declined an invitation to perform his hit song Galveston, on the Galveston, while docked in Galveston. Finally, Dad guided the ship back to Mom and me, just shy of my second birthday. Dad accomplished all this with that compass, a ... Read the full craft essay
THE FICTION MULTIVERSE, or What Happens Next. Or next, or next… a craft essay by John Fried
THE FICTION MULTIVERSE, or What Happens Next. Or next, or next… A Craft Essay by John Fried In the brilliant British playwright Caryl Churchill’s one-act play “Heart’s Desire,” a mother and father sit in their kitchen, awaiting the arrival of their grown daughter from a trip to Australia. “She’s taking her time,” the father says, as he pulls on a red crewneck sweater. The mother, setting out silverware for a meal, replies, “Not really.” The actors then freeze and the play stops, everyone returning to their starting stage positions. The characters then start over, saying the same lines, repeating the same actions, except that this time the dad is putting on a tweed jacket. The scene moves forward for a few lines, past where it had gotten before, but then abruptly stops once more. The action begins again, this time with one subtle shift: the father is putting on a cardigan. Little by little, through a series of alterations small and large, the story progresses, characters moving through the scene slowly, through trial and error, like someone looking for a light switch in the dark and having to come back to their starting point over and over. Sometimes a character ... Read the full craft essay
ON AUTOBIOGRAPHIA: YOURS, MINE, AND OURS, a craft essay by Ian Clay Sewall
ON AUTOBIOGRAPHIA: YOURS, MINE, AND OURS by Ian Clay Sewall 1. Writing stories and essays about the people I remember and the people I know requires stretching out moments, staring through a square piece of stained glass that’s purple and blue and orange, soldered a long time ago against strips of silvery-looking zinc. The stained glass is a few feet from my stained desk, and looking at it helps me remember that what I am writing, the colors I use, the tools of creative nonfiction, are many. And they’re both new and old. At times, when I’ve wanted to explore further inside another person’s interiority, when I’ve wondered what those people wondered, I’ve written in a draft, “I imagine,” or “perhaps,” or “maybe.” When I write about my memories, I’m a first-person narrator limited to my own experience. But when I speculate in these narratives, “maybe” is a round trampoline of possibility. It allows an excavation of what, for example, my parents, born in 1949, think about everything from the snowy weather to horses on the prairie. When we, as writers of memoir or personal essay, look back at what someone might have been thinking, where their eyes moved, how ... Read the full craft essay
FROM DRAWER TO BOOKSTORE IN JUST TWENTY-FOUR YEARS: The Long and Worthy Journey to Publication by Ona Gritz The oldest version of my forthcoming middle-grade novel that I can access on my computer is dated 2010, though I know the drafts go back much farther. For one thing, these pages have equal signs where apostrophes should be, indicating that it was wonkily converted to Microsoft Word from WordPerfect. Anyone remember WordPerfect? I recall that the initial glimmer of the idea came to me soon after the release of my first book—and only other children’s novel—when my now twenty-six-year-old son was two. As is often the case with fiction, the idea was born out of an image from my own life: me, as a little girl, staring at a childhood photo of my much older half-sister and noting the similarities in our faces, along with something else I recognized, something beyond appearances yet somehow there, even in a black and white snapshot. This wasn’t a sister I was close to. In fact, I barely knew her. For most of my childhood, my parents had passed her off as a distant cousin. Still, our resemblance was unmistakable and that fascinated me. Meanwhile, ... Read the full craft essay
CENTER OF AN IMAGINARY WORLD: Place in Fiction, a craft essay by Mandira Pattnaik
CENTER OF AN IMAGINARY WORLD: Place in Fiction A Craft Essay by Mandira Pattnaik Recently, while compiling my short stories and flash fiction for a possible collection, I was surprised by how many of those stories were based in the culture and climate markers of the place I live. Some place markers appear by explicit mention geographically, while other stories wore badges of a common identifiable whereabouts. I realized these references represented the center of my imaginative world, much like Calcutta does for novelist Amitav Ghosh. The same way James Joyce records his short stories upon the scaffolding of the city of Dublin: In Westmoreland Street the footpaths were crowded with young men and women returning from business, and ragged urchins ran here and there yelling out the names of the evening editions... full of the noises of tram gongs and swishing trolleys and his nose already sniffed the curling fumes of punch. — “Counterparts”, from Dubliners Consider the accurate sketch of Dublin, the stage is the city’s pavements: urban working class on the throes of change are characters, drama in a state of flux. Compare the above with a similar passage from Ghosh’s novel “The Shadow Lines”: …he was a ... Read the full craft essay
THIRTEEN POTSHOTS AT THE PROSE POEM a Craft Essay by Mike James An alien lands at a city basketball court at night. He either lands inside a science fiction story or he lands inside a prose poem. ◊ Prose poems are the pulp fiction of poetry. They exist to be read with flashlights beneath wool blankets at night. ◊ Prose poems are kept in basements and attics. They are seldom invited to dinner parties and award shows. ◊ Howie Good, wrote, “The prose poem exists to challenge and provoke and to raise a defiant middle finger to all who would colonize consciousness.” Howie Good knows how to write a prose poem. ◊ Readers consider prose poems to be autobiographical at the same rate as they consider all other poems.  The introduction of aliens, mermaids, parrots, Bhutan, private detectives, or drag queens will not dissuade this tendency. ◊ A prose poem can start as a dream and end as a wish. The wish might contain quotes and letters, found objects and dreamscapes. ◊ Prose poems are not simply poetic prose, a la Thomas Wolfe. Prose poems are as far form purple prose as Mercury is from Pluto. ◊ Prose poems can ... Read the full craft essay
GROWING SEASONS: On Plants and Poetry, a craft essay by Luiza Flynn-Goodlett
GROWING SEASONS: On Plants and Poetry A Craft Essay by Luiza Flynn-Goodlett Like most things, it began with beauty: My first apartment after college overlooked the backyard of several Crown Heights buildings, which had become an unofficial dump with stained mattresses, twisted remnants of recliners, and an impressive pack of raccoons. I'd just escaped an abusive relationship with a woman who'd unraveled my self-esteem and told me I'd never be a writer, and was working at a pizza shop by Union Square. I'd climb onto the fire escape outside my bedroom window to smoke and look down on this compromised patch of wildness, snow-draped in winter and then bursting—if you looked hard enough—into blossom by spring. I didn't have my own plants then, but as I tapped my cigarette on the rusted railing and watched ash dance toward the green tangle below, I had a building sense that I'd traveled damagingly far from myself, a child of the Tennessee woods, and that whatever healing I was undertaking would involve returning, somehow, to that self who could lose hours crouched above a creek watching crawdads skim the bottom. It wouldn't be until a year later, in a room that overlooked an ... Read the full craft essay
SHOW, THEN TELL: Crafting Fiction with Alive Exposition by Grace Evans
SHOW, THEN TELL: Crafting Fiction with Alive Exposition  by Grace Evans While writing a first draft of a novel, I turned one scene and an economical one-paragraph description of a mother-daughter relationship into seven scenes dramatizing every aspect of their dynamic. Why? A writing craft book advised me to focus on plotting and crafting scenes, and that eventually I would string all my scenes together and find myself with a complete manuscript. So, I stretched every idea into a scene that included conjuring an event, developing conflict, and fleshing out character. I invented beginnings, middles, and ends. My draft got longer and slower. It started to bore even me. I didn’t end up with a decent manuscript draft, but with a realization: a novel should be some scenes, maybe even mostly scenes, but not every character detail or piece of information deserves a whole scene. To be sure I wasn’t just exhausted from scene-writing, I started to notice large swaths of text in published novels that told. Like oral storytelling, like a folk or fairy tale. But summary or exposition like this is what we’re often advised to avoid. Yet I found that these sections were often where I felt ... Read the full craft essay
A LESSON FROM MY THIRD-GRADE SELF: On Writing from the Heart, a Craft Essay by Vivian Conan
A LESSON FROM MY THIRD-GRADE SELF On Writing from the Heart, A Craft Essay by Vivian Conan I was fifty-two when I chanced upon the bright marigold flyer taped to a streetlight in my Manhattan neighborhood. The Writer’s Voice at the West Side YMCA, it said. One of the courses listed:  The Personal Essay. I had never heard that term, but it sounded like just what I’d been looking for. From the time I learned to print, I’d wanted to be a writer, even though on a parallel track, I believed all the books that were ever going to be written had already been written. I got this impression from the pictures on a card game called Authors that I played with my brother. With old-fashioned hairstyles and names like Sir Walter Scott, authors were, most assuredly, all dead. In third grade, I learned cursive, the grownup way of writing, and took up my pen. “Once there was a girl named Carol,” I wrote. “She lived in a wooden house. One day her house caught fire. After the fire, she could not find her mother.” The tension builds, there’s a resolution, and at the end of 579 words, “they all ... Read the full craft essay
COSMIC CONSCIOUSNESS: on Lewis Hyde’s Advice for Creativity, and How I Became an Artist in the Modern World, a craft essay by Geoff Watkinson
COSMIC CONSCIOUSNESS:  On Lewis Hyde’s Advice for Creativity, and How I Became an Artist in the Modern World A Craft Essay by Geoff Watkinson During the fall of my senior year of college, I took my first creative writing class and began to think that I might want to be a writer. I was a history major, read hungrily, and chose electives like Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Film, Modern Speculative Fiction. I remember thinking that writers (and artists in general) were born. There was a mystical quality to Albert Camus, whose books I’d started reading at age sixteen and Jim Morrison, whose poster hung on my wall and records spun on my turntable. I wondered if I might have that quality, too. I idolized the artists that were altering my worldview one book and one album at a time but struggled with how I, too, could be an artist. And then, along the way, I discovered Lewis Hyde. Lewis Hyde, in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, examines, among other things, creativity and the role of the artist. Hyde writes, “Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by ... Read the full craft essay
WANTED: TWO WRITERS MUSE ON THE ART OF SAYING NO by Beth Kephart and Stephanie Weaver
WANTED: TWO WRITERS MUSE ON THE ART OF SAYING NO by Beth Kephart and Stephanie Weaver They want you. They want you for free. Because you are wise, they say. Because you know things. Because they want their people to know your person, to learn from you, with pleasure. They will, of course, be keeping all the cash, but you should focus on the pleasure. Just an hour of your time, they say. Then (a few days later): Two? You say yes because you are conditioned for yes, because isn’t this what you, playing the writer, do—yield what you know and who you hope to be? You wish to be part of the conversation. You wish to be helpful, hopeful, a strike of winter sun or a jar of daisies, a puff of buoyancy. Amenable, in other words. At the very least, not nasty. Yes, you say, and then (a few days later), they say: Three? You should stop right there, when they say three. When have I paid my dues, had enough exposure? Am I—aren’t I—sufficiently exposed? Isn’t my light, my bouquet, the breath of words trailing from my fingertips onto the page enough to get paid for my ... Read the full craft essay
REAL ROT: My Newfound Impatience with Antiheroes, a Craft Essay by Tom Gammarino
REAL ROT: My Newfound Impatience with Antiheroes A Craft Essay by Tom Gammarino Something is wrong with me. Last week, when I tried to re-watch one of my favorite TV series of all time, Breaking Bad, I made it through just two episodes before calling it quits. The writing still struck me as masterful, but I just wasn’t in the mood to follow an essentially good man into hell. This was quite a shift. I’ve always felt bored by conventionally likable characters, preferring the knottier psychodramas of antiheroes who do good things for bad reasons or bad things for (what they take to be) good reasons. In books too, the darker things got, and the more twisted and confused a story’s moral calculus, the more I felt invested in the stakes. Not for me was the wholesome do-gooder; I wanted Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Bigger Thomas in Native Son, Bird in A Personal Matter, even Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Once I became a writer myself, my output resembled my input. I’ve written six novels to date and published three. Each is the outgrowth of some obsessive intellectual interest I had at the time, but what’s consistent through all of them is the way the ... Read the full craft essay
Craft Essays, Fiction Craft Essays /
HARNESSING WILDNESS: THE PRACTICE OF POETIC LEAPS A Craft Essay by Kari Ann Ebert To avoid stagnation and cliché, one of the tools in a poet’s arsenal is to conjure associations that bring energy to the poem and add complex layers. These associations can show themselves as metaphors, changes of perspective, or wild unfettered leaps. Carl Phillips identifies associative poetry as, “poetry that works almost entirely by means of association— no connecting narrative pieces, often no syntactical connection, poetry that is characterized by leaps not just from stanza to stanza, but from one image to the next in ways that do not immediately make sense…” Robert Frost’s adage, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader” is so familiar that we often lose its urgency, but without something fresh and new, why even read poetry? If we’re regurgitating the same form, the same imagery, the same metaphors, why even attempt to write a poem? A disruption is needed to engage the reader (and the writer) when we find ourselves falling into a familiar or even formulaic pattern. Christopher Salerno challenges us to startle and be startled: “I really want to read (and write) poetry that has the ability ... Read the full craft essay
Craft Essays, Poetry Craft Essays /
BUILDING BOATS, WRITING POEMS A Craft Essay by James Diaz When building boats, we try to craft something that will hold us aloft, a durable vessel that can bear and balance the weight, and hold out against the waves. Some boats are perhaps more beautiful than others. Some just do the job. When you’re in a jam and need to cross whatever inner seas need crossing, you work with whatever you have to work with. It’s important to write against the grain, it’s important to fuck up, fall flat, rip your pages apart, regroup, keep dreaming into the agony. Writing is agonizing. Organizing agony, categorizing wounds, sorting old stories, finding new insights buried beneath the familiar ways of seeing our life. How did I become the writer that I am today? Therapy. Lots and lots of therapy. Sitting in a room with another person who holds your story and then returns it to you in a different way. It might sound strange but give me a moment to explain. For most of my writing life, I had no voice that I could truly call my own. I was always writing because I knew if I didn’t something bad would happen ... Read the full craft essay
Craft Essays, Poetry Craft Essays /
THE ELEPHANT OF SILENCE, a poetry craft essay by John Wall Barger
THE ELEPHANT OF SILENCE by John Wall Barger Je suis maitre du silence —Rimbaud, “Enfance” I. At fifty, in the middle of the COVID pandemic, I drove my 1989 BMW motorcycle from Philadelphia to The Hambidge Center in the mountains of northeast Georgia for a three-week writing residency. They provided me with a cottage in the forest, with floor-to-ceiling windows and enough space for a person to spread out their work. My first feelings, when I’d taken off my jacket and sat down, were—as Wendell Berry describes it in “Stepping Off”—“along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement / a little nagging of dread.” It was so damn quiet. I’ve always felt an aversion to quiet. I was a hyper only child. The kid with the firecrackers and toy soldiers. The teenager with the boombox. As an adult, I am a talker and—I wince to admit it—a loud one. “Silence,” as William S. Burroughs said, “is only frightening to people who are compulsively verbalizing.” In my humble opinion, I’m qualified to write an essay about silence precisely because I compulsively verbalize. I’m the least silent person in the room. I observe silence from the outside looking in. With the least ... Read the full craft essay
YOU ARE A POET (Even When You Aren’t Writing) A Craft Essay by Mark Danowsky
YOU ARE A POET (Even When You Aren’t Writing) A Craft Essay by Mark Danowsky In Poetics, Aristotle essentially defines a poet as someone who has “an eye for resemblances.” This is a nice reminder to look up, both literally and metaphorically, look around, look within, simply look. We are all trapped in our physical bodies while also inhabiting external spaces. What are your spaces? What is in these spaces? People say, “Life happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Sometimes, in order to return to your writing, you need to live a little. This is not because you lack content. Flannery O’Connor famously says, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” Writers each have their own metaphor for “waiting for the well to refill” so that their ability to approach the page becomes feasible. When you’re not actively writing, or you feel like you’re not writing as much as you should, maybe you’re doing exactly what you need to be doing. Maybe what you need is a period of reflection. There are times for simply living life and times when you need to write to make sense ... Read the full craft essay
Craft Essays, Poetry Craft Essays /
SPECULATIVE MEMOIR: MAKING THE INVISIBLE VISIBLE A Craft Essay by Laraine Herring I was eight years old when the tree spoke to me. My dad had just gotten out of the hospital after a near-fatal heart attack, and I would ride my bike down to my elementary school to escape the new person who’d replaced the father who told jokes and let me walk across his back. I always brought a book. I’d lean up against the massive oak’s trunk, nestling in among the raised roots, and let the tree hold me. When she spoke, I thought it was the wind. When she spoke again, I thought it was birdsong. The third time, I knew I was both losing my faculties and gaining something magical. Her bark scratched at the place I couldn’t reach on my back. Her voice crept around the edges of my eardrums. I won’t tell you what she said because it’s private, and because she’s dead, her voice alive only inside me. She was bulldozed down to make space for more classrooms sometime after we left North Carolina for Arizona in the early 80s. I tried to take my husband to meet her on a trip ... Read the full craft essay
RESEARCH AND WRITING: The Warp and Woof of Historical Fiction, a craft essay by Terry Roberts
RESEARCH AND WRITING The Warp and Woof of Historical Fiction A Craft Essay by Terry Roberts When I stand before a crowd of curious readers and talk about my novels, which are generally understood to be “historical fiction,” invariably someone asks a version of the following: “How much research do you do before you start writing?” Sometimes that question is followed by more detailed queries about the kind and type of research: “Where did you go to find information?” and “Do you interview the experts?” and “How do you know when enough is enough and it’s time to start writing?” And one of my favorites: “To what extent are you constrained by history?” I understand the motivation behind all those questions, especially when asked by true historians (amateur or professional) or nascent fiction writers. But the truth is that I have never tackled the process of research and writing in the linear way most readers seem to expect. One process doesn’t end and the other begin on some magical date when it feels like I’ve learned everything I need to know and I’m ready to put pen to paper. ◊ My grandmother, Belva Roberts, was a mountain weaver of some ... Read the full craft essay
EMBRACE THE NELSON: Going Beyond the Pretty Narrative Voice A craft essay by Dena Soffer In my first graduate writing workshop, David Gates told a true story about Raymond Carver working on a piece of writing that wasn’t going well. Carver worked and worked, experiencing the feeling that all of us writers have felt—the piece was going nowhere. All of a sudden, the phone rang. He picked up, and the voice on the other line asked to speak to someone named Nelson. It was a wrong number, but this timely interruption made Carver think that maybe what his story needed…was Nelson. He inserted a new character by that same name into his story, which soon became “Vitamins,” and this proved to be the exact change the narrative needed. In a craft lecture at Muse and the Marketplace Literary Conference, Charles Baxter called this type of character a “Captain Happen,” someone to insert into a story to destabilize it on purpose. In workshop, Gates encouraged us to make trouble happen in our fiction in a variety of ways, one of which was by using this exact technique. When I had somehow forgotten this advice halfway through the term, he reminded me ... Read the full craft essay
NOTES TO A YOUNG WRITER: On (Re)writing, (Re)vision, Editing, and Other Random Terms, a Craft Essay by Gayathri Prabhu
NOTES TO A YOUNG WRITER On (Re)writing, (Re)vision, Editing, and Other Random Terms A Craft Essay by Gayathri Prabhu The young writer asks me, the mentor whose name is vertical on book spines, a question about writing they wish would go away. No doubt they can write, they know that, they love that, but the question is really about rewriting. What they seek is vigor and inspiration in writing, the kind of dazzling force that they believe only spontaneity can create, and none of that squares up to my advice about reflection, revision, and molten sentences constantly recast. Yes, yes, they agree with me about the demands of crafting, of sentences that need trimming or ideas that need extending, but what does one do with the air of drudgery and scrutiny that is evoked by rewriting? The young writer would like to believe in something that is complete in the incompleteness of the first draft, its creative ferment and immediacy, not to mention the freshness of a mind just churned. How does one retain such immediacy and force if one submits to the exhaustion of more drafts? I take recourse in an anecdote about two books written simultaneously by a ... Read the full craft essay
THE FUNNY IN MEMOIR: Alison Bechdel, Dinty W. Moore, and Trey Popp, a craft essay by Beth Kephart
THE FUNNY IN MEMOIR: Alison Bechdel, Dinty W. Moore, and Trey Popp A Craft Essay by Beth Kephart A few years ago, a friend who had first come to know me through my books and was slowly coming to know me through myself—our emails, our occasional actual conversations, our letters, our back-and-forth gifts—sent a note my way that included (I’m paraphrasing here; none of my friends speak as strangely as I write) this question: How is it that I’ve known you for all these years and I’m only now learning that you are funny? Why have you hidden your funny? I wondered then, I wonder now, what frees me to precipitate the giggle. And why I so rarely feel so free. And why funny isn’t in most of the books I write, why I tend, on the page, toward the not-hilarious me. Writing funny, especially in memoir, is a surprisingly recherché talent. Every spring semester at the University of Pennsylvania, where I teach memoir, the ratio of funny submissions to not-funny submissions is, on average, one: everything else. This semester our funny was the work of Jonathan, who had me choking on my chortles at 4 a.m., as I read ... Read the full craft essay
RESONANT PLACES: Houses We Live in, Homes that Live in Our Writing, a Fiction Craft Essay by Ellen Prentiss Campbell
RESONANT PLACES Houses We Live in, Homes that Live in Our Writing A Fiction Craft Essay by Ellen Prentiss Campbell Memory and imagination cast spells. Fiction is inspired by places as well as temps perdue. Many of us have dreamed last night that we went back to—well, not Rebecca’s Manderley but to a place from our past, one that resonates. Some places are lost to us even if the building remains because we can never again enter and live there. Perhaps we can peer in, but we cannot look out the windows again, never see the way the world is framed from within that particular shelter again. Sometimes indeed an entire small world is lost to us. Although years later we may wander through a campus again, a neighborhood, the people are gone or so changed as to be unrecognizable. Without our remembered familiars, it’s empty as a stage set. But story-telling, imagining, can open the portal to the lost place. Writing fiction, just as we can write from the point of view of people we have never been, we can inhabit resonant places we’ve never actually lived in. We can step over the threshold of the real or imagined ... Read the full craft essay
MAKING THE READER FEEL SOMETHING. PLEASE. SHOW AND TELL. A Craft Essay by Shuly Xóchitl Cawood “Show, don’t tell.” An old piece of writing advice, generally good advice, but sometimes hard to know how to do it well. Also, confusing, because telling is often part of the showing, especially when writing personal essay and memoir. The advice stems from how writers can best help readers understand what they are trying to convey—everything from emotions and mental state to the tone of a situation, the nature of a person or relationship, the look and feel of a setting. And much more. What if I wrote, “I’m so mad!” Do those words and the exclamation point make you feel my anger? They just aren’t enough.  I must work harder to convey my anger. Writing how an emotion makes us feel in our body or how it looks sometimes works. But it, too, might not be enough. Writing “my face turned red” tells you what I looked like (and it is probably better than “I’m so mad!”), but showing by using such a predictable, overused description probably doesn’t help you feel my anger. And I want you to feel it, not just know about it ... Read the full craft essay
QUEER (PRIVATE) EYE: Crafting a New Hardboiled Sleuth, a Craft Essay by Margot Douaihy
QUEER (PRIVATE) EYE: Crafting a New Hardboiled Sleuth by Margot Douaihy “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” —Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep There's arguably no writer more emblematic of the hardboiled experience than Raymond Chandler. On the mean streets of Chandler’s fictional Los Angeles, his private eye character, Philip Marlowe, expresses infuriating bravado and self-annihilation in equal measure. It was PI Marlowe who ignited my interest in, and enduring love for hardboiled crime fiction. His lyrical musings about fine whiskey, his tireless dog-with-a-bone persistence, his suit, hat, and gun—it all entranced me. As a closeted queer growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era, searching for headstrong characters in books felt safer than getting to know myself. I was in awe of Private Investigator Marlowe’s freedom, his devil-may-care brio, unaware that his swagger was probably shaped by his white, heterosexual, cisgender male privilege. Even if the hardboiled dick (yes, that’s the colloquial term for detective) is pistol-whipped, he is never afraid to throw a punch, snark at cops, or chase a lead down a shadowy alley. Besides the PI’s barbed charms and Chandler’s dexterity at ... Read the full craft essay
Craft Essays, Fiction Craft Essays /
AVOIDING / EMBRACING: Strategies for Writers with Anxiety Disorders A Craft Essay by Bailey Bridgewater
AVOIDING / EMBRACING: Strategies for Writers with Anxiety Disorders A Craft Essay by Bailey Bridgewater Ah, writing and mental health conditions—a power couple in the collective imagination of what influences how artists create. Biographies, movies, TV shows, and even books have reinforced the idea that psychological ailments produce the very best writers. It’s hard not to over-emphasize Edgar Allen Poe’s alcoholism, Sylvia Plath’s suicidal ideation, Emily Dickinson’s agoraphobia, or David Foster Wallace’s depression because we have been lured to focus more on these writers’ diagnoses than their process or even personality. I’ll admit, I fell for it. I have suffered anxiety my whole life. As a child, it manifested itself in nervous ticks like picking my lips and severe panic around people I didn’t know well. Despite being the most advanced reader in my class, I would count paragraphs and figure out which passage I would be asked to read aloud, then practice in my head until the teacher called on me. My condition severely hindered my writing process. I could dash off flash fiction in something near panic, but I could never finish a longer piece that required me to focus on it for multiple days. When I could, ... Read the full craft essay
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A woman browsing the fiction section of a bookstore
What I Learned from Jennifer Egan’s Use of Sensory Detail A Craft Essay by Sandy Smith On a friend’s repeated urging to read Jennifer Egan’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Visit from the Goon Squad, I went to my small local bookstore. They had no copies of Goon Squad in stock, but there was a single copy of Egan’s 2006 title, The Keep. Since Egan is a well-respected author and the flap copy looked promising (“…relentlessly gripping page-turner…rich forms…transfixing themes”), I took it home and dove in. I didn’t expect to be as engaged as the hyperbolic blurbs promised, but I found myself fully immersed almost immediately. When I came up for air nearly an hour later, I asked myself how The Keep had managed to pull me in so quickly and so thoroughly that I’d missed the ding of the microwave and the beguiling aroma of leftover lasagna. Over a dish of sadly steam-logged pasta, I went back to the beginning to re-read, paying closer attention to try and suss out what was so gripping. It hit me that Egan was using sensory description in a way that allowed me to subconsciously ground myself in the novel’s world. And her sensory ... Read the full craft essay
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SISTERHOOD: How the Books we Both Read Helped Me Write My Sister’s Life into Fiction, a Craft Essay by Jane Rosenberg LaForge
SISTERHOOD How the Books we Both Read Helped Me Write My Sister’s Life into Fiction A Craft Essay by Jane Rosenberg LaForge When my sister, Susan, was still in elementary school, a family friend gave her a book for her birthday, The Wizard of Wallaby Wallow, by Jack Kent. Dyslexic as a child, Susan wasn’t much of a reader, so the gift was unusual. In time though, she overcame her disability, it seemed, because she wanted to read the instructions for building things. Even after she managed to build her crystal radio set, or her darkroom, or teach herself how to play guitar, words and language were never Susan’s forte. Her conversations with friends and family often ended in arguments, and she could be cruel—prompting friends not to speak to her for years at a time—without meaning to be. During one of her lowest periods, when she was anorexic, my mother could not talk to her without the help of puppets. Mickey Mouse became her favorite interlocutor. For years, I knew I wanted to write a novel about Susan’s life and death. She grew up gay in a straight world, but as a musician found somewhere she could be comfortable: at ... Read the full craft essay
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A Man and a Woman behind a fogged class window
A BOOK BY ANY OTHER NAME: ON TITLES AND DATING A Craft Essay by Melinda Scully Imagine a reader is on a blind date with your book or short story. Maybe a friend set them up, or they ventured out for a local singles speed-dating extravaganza. The specifics don’t really matter. The point is, the reader is on the hunt for a new story to love, and it could be yours. How exciting! Your story walks up to the table, and in mere moments, the reader subconsciously asks and answers about seventeen questions in their head, maybe starting with… What is your story wearing? Did it walk up confidently? Is it smiling? Does it smell weird? Did your story pass the test? Did you even know you were being tested? Let’s hope so, because by this time your reader already knows whether they want to proceed with the date. Readers are ruthless. If they don’t like your first-date disco suit, they’ve already rung the rotation bell and moved on to their next option. That is the power of first impressions. In fiction, that is also the power of titles. Readers are supposed to judge a title. The author knows that ... Read the full craft essay
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woman's hands typing
In her essay “Nine Beginnings,” Margaret Atwood answers the question, “Why Do You Write?” nine different ways. In her honor, while completing my recent short story collection, I Have The Answer, I challenged myself to answer the question: “How does writing fiction help you deal with your own trauma?” nine different times ... Read the full craft essay
THE BIG WARM HOUSE An Essay on the Art of Becoming a Writer by Emma Sloley
The thing I believe writers (and perhaps also readers) need to know about the big warm house is that it’s built on a foundation of contradiction. Everyone who lives inside must crave solitude but instead find themselves bumping up against furniture, beds, each other, themselves. They must be forced into intimacy and driven apart by failing to understand one another. The fictional house must always be full of people but also profoundly lonely. The house must represent safety but also danger—a waystation between two worlds, though never exposing in which direction lies folly and which salvation. Most importantly, the inhabitants of the story house must be torn between desperately wanting to get away, and wanting never to leave ... Read the full craft essay
Long exposure shot of man surfing
Herein lies the problem: being a writer who surfs, a surfer who writes. When there is a wave to be ridden, everything else in life—dogs, loved ones, deadlines and writing—gets put on hold. To make matters worse, once you're completely and totally stoked from the waves, writing a coherent thought, especially one that attempts to describe the sublime experience of riding waves, becomes virtually impossible ... Read the full craft essay
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a small rodent on a dirt path
If memoir is sculpture, where writers must strip away the unnecessary to find the shape of the story, then it is my memory that wields the knife. Memory chooses certain scenes and impressions. Memory snips and stores fragments and shadows. Memory does not follow the rules of chronology or of rational cause and effect. Memory puts any old thing next to another for its own reasons and may preserve for example, the dance of a courageous vole in perfect detail, while jettisoning a crucial conversation with a friend who is now gone. Try as I might to recall that moment with my friend, memory carved it away, leaving only shavings on the floor, which I crushed into ever smaller pieces as I paced back and forth, studying what I had left to work with ... Read the full craft essay
silhouette of children playing on a hill
Writers seek truth—truth that makes a reader’s hair stand up and speeds our hearts with recognition. But that kind of truth is elusive, both from the perspective of craft and brain science. I spent two decades unable to write an essential truth of my own life, one rooted in my childhood, during which I experienced several years of sexual abuse by my stepfather, beginning when I was four. Not surprisingly, this experience shaped the person I am—and, as a writer, I sensed the importance of weaving this early trauma into some kind of narrative. But my attempts to do so were consistently ineffective and inartistic. Dreadful, really ... Read the full craft essay
The other night I was waiting for my daughter to finish a class. The father of a classmate sat beside me and we chatted about this and that. “How’s work?” I asked, and he began to tell me that he’d been driving his bus one morning when a man ran onto the road and jumped into his path. “His face stuck to the window,” this dad said. “He was looking straight at me until he started to slide down and onto the road. The counsellor told me it wasn’t my fault. She asked if I wanted to see a video of what had happened. ‘Why would I want to see a video of what happened?’ I asked her. ‘Don’t I see it every night when I go to bed?’” ... Read the full craft essay
Consider the phrase, “We’re not out of the woods yet” meaning “we are still in danger.” This phrase can refer to innumerable types of danger. A doctor may say to the loved ones of a sick patient: “She’s not out of the woods yet;” or in the middle of a trial that seems to be going well the lawyer may say to his client, “We’re not out of the woods yet;” in a traffic jam that seems to be moving again, a driver may say to a passenger, “We’re not out of the woods yet.” The insinuation is that those involved are thinking about being out of the woods—there is a light at the end of the tunnel, a glimpse of something safer, better, or in their control—but it is not yet certain that they will reach that light; there is still a chance that the threat—the woods—will overcome ... Read the full craft essay
“I hope you’re working on your platform,” wrote my agent last year after I sent a substantive revision of my manuscript. I had previously published three nonfiction books with small presses, but I typically spent more time following other writers on social media than promoting myself. That might not be unusual, but I did have one unique challenge: I needed to build online visibility, but I didn’t have a smartphone—a conscious decision. I wasn’t sure how to boost my social media presence without carrying a screen in my back pocket. But I was determined to try ... Read the full craft essay
The question is a familiar one, full of angst and hand-wringing, one I often asked myself but never out loud: How do you do it? How do you become a writer? There are more questions contained in this question—Where do you get your ideas? What should I write about? Where should I start?—and all these questions lead to the ultimate question: Is there a secret to this thing that I am not privy to? Yes and no. Yes, there are secrets. It wouldn't be an art if there were not. But no, they are not secrets you couldn't be privy to. It only takes knowing who to ask and learning that the person to ask is ultimately yourself ... Read the full craft essay
IN DEFENSE OF TELLING, a craft essay by Scott Bane
Almost anyone who has taken a writing class has encountered the sacrosanct dictum: Show; don’t tell. The late Wayne C. Booth, Professor Emeritus of the University of Chicago led me to question this doctrine in his influential book, The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961). I like books about rhetoric, so when I came across the book at my local Barnes and Noble, the title hooked me. Professor Booth is a warm and clear-eyed guide. And while he occasionally feels compelled to cut through thickets of scholarly debate, he always manages to keep his focus on the rhetorical devices that make fiction work ... Read the full craft essay
THE BELL DINGS FOR ME: On Writing with a Typewriter, a craft essay by Toby Juffre Goode
I hoist the case up onto my desk and struggle to release the typewriter. I don’t remember my portable typewriter in college being this cumbersome. Plug it in, feed a sheet of paper through the roller thingy, and flip the switch. Oh yeah—I’d forgotten that motor sound. Do I remember how to use this thing? I consider the keys. My fingertips find home row. Like getting on a bike again. The next thing I know I’m typing. Energy flows into my fingers. I can still do this! Even though it’s been more than thirty years. Through the serial number, Barbara confirms that this typewriter was manufactured in 1964. I was only eight years old then, trying to pick up Dad’s bowling bag. Talk about a time machine ... Read the full craft essay
YOU DON’T NEED AN ANNA MARCH IN YOUR WRITING LIFE to Know About Getting Burned, a Craft Essay by Anthony J. Mohr
Anna March and I never crossed paths, but she and Seth Fischer did. According to the Los Angeles Times, March, who apparently posed as a writing mentor, organized eleven workshops during 2016 and 2017, including one slated for Positano, Italy. Fischer signed up and bought a cheap ticket to Italy, but two days before the program’s start, March canceled it—an apparently frequent move. Fischer and some others traveled to Italy anyway, since his ticket was nonrefundable and he figured he already had a place to stay. Wrong. Says the Times, "They learned when they arrived that no rooms had been booked for the workshop at the advertised hotel." ... Read the full craft essay
SHOWING AND TELLING: Seven Ways to Help Your Writing Breathe, A Craft Essay by Billy Dean
“Show-don't-tell” is fine advice—unless you apply it absolutely, as if you should always show and never tell. Here are seven ways your prose and poetry can breathe with both showing and telling ... Read the full craft essay
FOUND IN TRANSLATION: How my Memoir of Life Overseas Turned into a Novella, a Craft Essay by Ele Pawelski
Slipping my reality into fiction was not overly difficult for two reasons: first, the story was taking place some years after I’d left Kabul. While I could picture the Kabul, I’d lived in, I also knew it had changed as the Taliban continued to creep up and in. Second, once I attributed a personal anecdote to a character, I found I no longer owned it. Rather, I sought ways to transform it, playing with the facts to fit the narrative. This was the case for all the characters, including the aid worker, who I fashioned after myself. In most cases, I wanted to add details that I didn’t remember to enrich the descriptions or create tension ... Read the full craft essay
WORKING FOR SURPRISE: On Running, Prescriptive Teaching, and the Language of First Drafts A Poetry Craft Essay by Devin Kelly
There are two things I do nearly every day without fail: write and run. I like to talk and think about them together because, to me, they are twin feats of both discipline and imagination. Growing up a competitive runner, never very good compared to the other people I competed against, I learned to value the sport as a way to keep me both grounded and honest. Your body has a way of letting you know how well you’ve treated it. Or how poorly. Lining up for an ultramarathon, I view the months of training prior as a succession of drafts. Practice gives me an idea of what to expect out of a race, but I like to leave room for surprise because the body, like a poem, holds more wonder than we can grasp. One of the reasons I race these long races is less because of some feeling of accomplishment that comes with finishing, but more for the strange and wondrous moments of mental and bodily access that arrive without any warning ... Read the full craft essay
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POETRY AS PRACTICE How Paying Attention Helps Us Improve Our Writing in the Age of Distraction A Craft Essay by Scott Edward Anderson
POETRY AS PRACTICE How Paying Attention Helps Us Improve Our Writing in the Age of Distraction A Craft Essay by Scott Edward Anderson In this lyrical essay on the writing life, Scott Edward Anderson shows how poetry can be more than a formal approach to writing, more than an activity of technique, but a way to approach the world, which is good for both the poet and the poem.—Grant Clauser, Editor Walking in Wissahickon Park after dropping my twins at their school in Philadelphia, I find muddy trails from the night’s heavy rains and temporary streams running along my path. The fuchsia flowers of a redbud tree shine brilliantly against the green of early leafing shrubs. A few chipmunks scurry among leaves on the forest floor. Birdsong is all around me: I note some of the birds—if they are bright enough and close enough to the trail or I recognize their song—the red flash of a cardinal lights on a branch nearby; a robin lands on the trail ahead, scraping his yellow beak against a rock. Observation like this helps feed my database of images, fragments of music, and overheard speech, which prepares my poetry-brain for the work of choosing ... Read the full craft essay
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MY WALK ON THE BEACH WITH ANTON A Craft Essay on Connecting the Body to the Brain by Billy Dean
He put his book down and looked at me over the top of his glasses. "I never said that, Billy." "Said what, Anton?" "Don't tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass." "Oh, that. Yeah, someone turned what you actually said into a show-don't-tell rule. On behalf of all the writers who should know better, I apologize. If they'd read your stories, they'd notice how skillfully you balanced showing and telling." ... Read the full craft essay
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IS MEMOIR AUTOMATICALLY THERAPEUTIC? A Craft Essay on Writing About Mental Health by Leslie Lindsay
I recently finished a memoir manuscript about my bipolar mother and her eventual suicide. Light, easy writing, right? When I tell strangers about my manuscript, they cock their heads in sympathy as if to say, “You poor thing. ” Some even suggest I've misconstrued the events in my own life. Surely your mother wasn’t really mentally ill. You must have it all wrong. Others lean in as if they are about to hear a juicy story. But the majority recoil: Mothers. Daughters. Mental illness. Who would touch such a topic? ... Read the full craft essay
SHOULD YOU REALLY BE WRITING THAT? A Craft Essay on Writing Diversity in Fiction by Sawyer Lovett 
Compulsory diversity reads like a checklist: one character of color, one queer character, one character with a disability. Ta-da, instant diversity, just add water and stir. Predictably, this shallow formula reads pretty false. Black characters written by black authors are always going to be more real. Bookish people on twitter have been talking about this for a couple of years now and a phrase that I've seen pop-up a couple of times is “stay in your lane.” I love this analogy. We're all readers and writers on the same highway. We all want to do good art that reflects the world around us. We should be aware of all the cars on the road. We shouldn't merge just because that's where all the traffic seems to be going: changes to our destination can be dangerous. Your writing and your perspectives are important ... Read the full craft essay
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SPYING THROUGH THE KEYHOLE: A Novelist Grows Roots in the Glamorous, Twisted World of V. C. Andrews by Emma Sloley
For the uninitiated, if it's even possible there exist humans unaware of Flowers in the Attic, the series concerns a family called Dollanganger (in hindsight, perhaps a sly play on doppelganger?) who, for reasons I can't and don't even care to remember, end up living with the mother's parents in a big old Gothic mansion in Virginia, where the mother agrees to lock her four children away in an attic for an unspecified stretch of time. (Spoiler alert: it turns out to be years.) ... Read the full craft essay
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THROUGH GIRL-COLORED GLASSES A Craft Essay on Gender and Writing by Dina Honour
Was there a noticeable difference in the way I structured my writing? Did I have a particularly feminine way of tapping the keys of my ancient word processor? When my very loud printer zig-zagged along could it tell the prose churning out was written by a woman? The stacks of perforated pages, waiting to be carefully separated and submitted, did they have the indelible pinkish watermark of ‘girl’ stamped upon them? ... Read the full craft essay
WRITING THE SUPERHERO POEM, a craft essay by Lynn Levin
The superhero is a staple of pop culture, but poets can use elements of superhero identity to craft poems and explore their own mythology. Lynn Levin offers a writing prompt designed to allow poets to reach beyond the real in search of other truths ... Read the full craft essay
FIVE STAGES OF GRIEF FOR WRITERS When Dealing with Negative Feedback, a craft essay by Floyd Cheung
Anyone who has written and submitted anything—poems, stories, essays, books—knows that immediate acceptance is extremely rare. When that happens, we celebrate and try not to let it spoil us. Much more often, we receive negative feedback in the form of outright rejection, advice, and/or an invitation to revise and resubmit (an option much more common in the academic world than in the poetry and fiction publishing scene) ... Read the full craft essay
TURNING OUT THE LIGHTS: On Cuba, Writing, and the Ecstasy of Planetary Topography, a craft essay by Tim Weed
The blackout was a revelation. It happened at around eight PM, in Trinidad, Cuba, on one of those moonless tropical nights that fall so suddenly you barely notice the dusk. This was several years ago—before the loosening of travel regulations that occurred under President Obama—and the number of American tourists remained small. In common with many others who’ve dedicated their lives to the dream of producing enduring literature, I’ve had to make my living by other means. I was a Spanish major in college, and through a series of happy accidents I ended up developing a parallel career as an educational travel guide with specific expertise in Cuba. Before the resumption of diplomatic relations, organized cultural travel programs provided a highly sought after legal method for Americans to travel to the country, and my knowledge base was much in demand. At the time of the occurrence described in this essay, I was traveling to the country with cultural tourism groups at least half a dozen times a year ... Read the full craft essay
DON'T BE A DRONE: Manipulating the Reader Through Pitch and Pace, A Poetry Craft Essay by Grant Clauser
Pacing in poetry can be used as a focusing technique. Both fast and slow pace equally have the ability to draw in a reader’s focus in slightly different, but complementary, ways. A sudden shift into high gear can raise our excitement or anxiety, while hitting the slow motion button compels us to look with greater scrutiny and concentration. Either way, pace is a kind of volume adjustment–by turning the volume of the poem up or down you force a shift of attention upon the reader ... Read the full craft essay
TIME HEALS, EVEN YOUR DRAFTS: Three Key Realizations for Revising Your Novel, A Craft Essay by Wendy Fox
When I finally picked my novel up again, there were sections I didn’t even recognize as having written. It was the passage of time which showed me that I had a bigger problem with how the novel was built, and it was time that helped take me through a final revision that ultimately led to the manuscript getting placed. Being away from, and then returning to, a dormant work helped me come to three important realizations ... Read the full craft essay
LIES I TELL MY STUDENTS, a creative nonfiction craft essay by Liz Stephens
Pat answers are the comfort of some other disciplines. We who write and teach creative nonfiction don’t get that luxury. Ours is more like: philosophy, but with consequences. No one’s life is riding, as far as they know, on math, yet in writing classrooms and around workshop tables students may approach us like hotline workers, hands out for the right word, the final word, the bottom line, the prophecy, the truth of their life stories, and thus, their lives ... Read the full craft essay
CHILD'S PLAY: How Creative Play Helped Unlock My Nonfiction Writing, a craft essay by Megan Culhane Galbraith
Playing in my Dollhouse has been important to my writing. The scenes, photos and videos I make match the imagery of the color Polaroid photographs of the 60s. I have a deep affinity for the babies, in particular. Staging a scene mimics the feeling of writing the first draft of an essay, achieving a mythic freedom on the page where my voice is alive and unconcerned with self-editing. I remember playing this way as a child, immersed in my fantasy world, and utterly happy. Children are metaphor makers and their language is play ... Read the full craft essay
ACROSS THE DIVIDE AND BACK: How Writing Poetry Is Changing My Nonfiction, a craft essay by Vivian Wagner
Writing poetry has also reminded me once again to pay attention to the rhythm of language. Rhythm is central in poetry, but I often overlook it when writing nonfiction. When we read anything, there’s a hidden music to it. We hear the words, as well as the relationship between the words, the stressed and unstressed syllables, the complex intertwining of word and phrase and sentence. Listening to rhythm is understood and expected in poetry, but I’m now more conscious that it’s just as important in nonfiction. I’ve been thinking much more about rhythm and flow. I’ve started reading my nonfiction aloud, as I do with my poetry. Since I’m a musician, I’ve always at least unconsciously understood the relationship between writing and melodic line and rhythm. Writing poetry, however, has reminded me of that relationship, made me sit up and take notice. And in recent months, my nonfiction, such as my short essay “Cut,” has become more rhythmic and musical ... Read the full craft essay
I live in Provincetown but I’m from West Virginia. I’ve been thinking of the simultaneous provocation and balm that literature, like art, can have on moments of social and economic crisis. In Provincetown, year-round residents are disappearing as more and more houses are bought as second homes, thoroughly and exquisitely renovated, and then occupied in the summer only. In my hometown, Madison, West Virginia, streets have emptied out as an economy built on coal mining weakens, in part due to worries that burning fossil fuels overheats the planet. I want to paste a poem on the front of the beat-up house down the street from me in Provincetown where, in the last few months, shade trees have been cut and an architect’s sign has been planted out front. Here’s the possible poem ... Read the full craft essay
WHERE TO BEGIN: An Investigation into First Lines, a Craft Essay by Michael Overa
As a writer I’m forever reverse engineering great stories. That tendency to reverse engineer initially sparked might interest in first lines. First lines, like titles, are often given short shrift. Good lines, like good titles, have a way of becoming wallflowers ... Read the full craft essay
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INTENT TO WITHHOLD, a Craft Essay by Alisa A. Gaston
Soon after I moved from Denver to Loveland, Colorado—a town of close to sixty-five thousand people and an odd mixture of artists, retirees, and hicks—I agreed to hold a series of one-on-one creative writing workshops for a twelve-year-old girl. Once I set everything into place, her mother phoned and explained that she wanted me to give her daughter feedback on her writing, yet above all, she wanted me to discourage her from becoming a writer. She wanted me to verbally agree to this proposal, this instruction to put an end to her daughter’s dream. I somewhat addressed the mother’s request—I told her that the writing industry is quite competitive and can be challenging to break into and that I could explain this to her daughter ... Read the full craft essay
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50,000 words in November. That's 1,667 words a day. Typing at a good clip, that's 21 minutes of work for me. But is National Novel Writing Month really about writing? For me, it’s about climbing a mountain. It has less to do with writing than with the sense of accomplishment that goads me as a writer. And I’m not alone: last year, 431,626 writers worldwide cranked out a couple of billion words ... Read the full craft essay
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BECOMING AN OUTLAW Or: How My Short Fiction Became a Memoir, a craft essay by Andrea Jarrell
I began as a fiction writer, naturally drawing from my childhood as my mother had told it to me, working hard to bring her stories to life through scene, dialogue, and sensory detail, pacing them as mysteries. The memoir that many of these fictionalized stories eventually became is better, I think, because I didn’t start out writing memoir, trying to “remember.” ... Read the full craft essay
BEST READER, WORST ENEMY, a Craft Essay by Claire Rudy Foster
There are two kinds of important reader: the one who hates you, and the one who understands you. When I write, I come to the page knowing that someone will probably hate what I produce. In fact, I count on this. As I work, I read each sentence as though I am my own worst enemy. Zadie Smith says to “try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.” That means that every adorable turn of phrase—everything that I thought was so smart—gets bullied out of the final copy ... Read the full craft essay
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EMOTION IS NOT PLOT: Using Detachment to Create Powerful Fiction, a craft essay by Claire Rudy Foster
Here’s my greatest fear: that I will never be able to name the essential emotions I perceive in myself and others. Our shifting tide and all its smells and sweat and words and secret hidden codes and eyelashes and old letters and emotional ephemera that moves across the surface of the human world like that gyre of discarded belongings and trash that is so large it could cover Texas and is comprised of plastic, the things made of plastic that surround us our whole lives, including baby pacifiers and Barbie dolls and old soccer balls and parts of cars and rubber duckies and condoms and tiny things collected by the swale of the sea the way we will accumulate a hundred precious objects and love them as though they were anything but trash, our collection of special garbage with our memories attached, our stories which burrow deeply into our minds and tell us that there is more to this than plastic, more to this, more ... Read the full craft essay
IN THE MINES, A Craft Essay on Creative Nonfiction by Linnie Greene
I. Towards a New Empathy A couple of years ago, Leslie Jamison and Francine Prose debated in The New York Times about whether or not it’s ethical to use your children as literary fodder. They discussed the demerits of transforming real life into words on a page in a pair of pieces titled “Is It O.K. to Mine Real Relationships for Literary Material,” and the conclusion seems to be this: that real people get stuck on the page, often one-dimensionally, trapped like mosquitoes in amber. I know a few real people I’d love to trap. For all of its hardships, writing’s appealing in no small part because it allows one to pin down an idea like a butterfly in a shadowbox, to memorialize whatever or whoever you find worth remembering, in whatever state you might remember them. That prick you knew it high school gets his comeuppance, even if it’s only to an audience of several Facebook friends or readers of a literary magazine. Tempting as it is to play God (albeit a fairly unimportant one, bound to the MLA Handbook), it was memoirist and poet Mary Karr who instilled in me an appropriate fear and reverence. In a piece ... Read the full craft essay
THE EMPATHY MACHINE, Part Two by Kelly McQuain text version
THE EMPATHY MACHINE, Part Two Text Version by Kelly McQuain 1. Tweet No Evil In an effort to get my head around what I consider the purpose of art-making, I attended three writing conferences during summer 2015. The first was at U.C. Berkeley and was supposed to commemorate the influential 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference fifty years prior, inspired by a student Free Speech Movement earlier that year. But poet Vanessa Place’s inclusion on the bill caused the commemoration to implode. Place, whose current project uses Twitter to disseminate instances of the “n-word” from Gone With the Wind, has been the subject of controversy before.[1] Place’s name on the Berkeley schedule caused many invitees to drop out in protest. The organizers canceled the conference and replaced it at the last minute with Crosstalk, Color, Composition: A Berkeley Poetry Conference. I made it from Philadelphia in time to attend the last day. There was a lot of talk about colonization theory, and at the end of the day people sat in circles discussing race and their feelings in ways that were careful not to offend. I learned that the organizers kept notice about “conference 2.0” largely on the down-low out of fear ... Read the full craft essay
SEEKING CHILDHOOD by Nathaniel Popkin
SEEKING CHILDHOOD by Nathaniel Popkin In early 1951, when the Mexican writer Homero Aridjis was almost eleven, he came home from playing soccer with friends and, following a vague urge, took his brother’s shotgun to the yard. He shot into the air, scattered the birds aloft from the sapodilla tree, and dropped the shotgun to the ground. The gun fired and struck Aridjis in the stomach. He barely survived. The accident, writes Chloe Aridjis, his daughter, “cleaved in two” his life and sealed off his early childhood “like a locked garden.” In the aftermath of the accident, Homero Aridjis began reading and writing in earnest, the crucible of an astonishingly prolific career, but without access to memories of his own boyhood. Twenty years after the gun accident, with his wife, Betty Ferber, pregnant with Chloe, the couple’s first child, Aridjis began to have “astonishingly vivid dreams” of his childhood. These dreams unlocked the garden of memory. He eventually recounted them in a slender memoir of childhood, El poeta niño, published in 1991. Now, Chloe Aridjis, the author of the novel Book of Clouds, has produced an English translation, The Child Poet, brought out by Archipelago Books this month. I am ... Read the full craft essay
Craft Essays /
THE MAN ON THE COUCH AND THE MAN WHO SPEAKS POEMS by J.G. McClure I pay a therapist an hourly rate to listen to my feelings. I pay literary journals reading fees to read about my feelings. My therapist says she’s struck by two parallel versions of me: the Man on the Couch who seems pathologically unable to feel, and the Man Who Speaks the Poems who feels all too deeply. She wonders which is real, or are they both? One of me finds a parallel in art to go with this question from life. In his classic short piece “Borges and I,” Jorge Luis Borges talks about two versions of himself, whom I’ll call Borges the Famous Author (who wins awards and has deep thoughts) and Borges the Guy Drinking Coffee (who reads with befuddlement about the exploits of Borges the Famous Author). Borges the Guy Drinking Coffee enjoys the prose of Stevenson—a wry allusion to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a little joke which tries to establish the separation between art and life by using an example from art beloved by the Borges from life. The lines become hopelessly blurred, and in the end Borges can’t decide which ... Read the full craft essay
WHY I WRITE Or, It’s The End of the World as We Know It and I Feel (Sorta) Fine by J.G. McClure
WHY I WRITE Or, It’s The End of the World as We Know It and I Feel (Sorta) Fine by J.G. McClure I remember as a kid going to a science museum somewhere in Missouri. They had an exhibit—basically a rickety computer with MS Paint hooked up to a radio transmitter. The idea was this: you’d draw a picture, the transmitter would transmit it upward, and voila, your masterpiece would travel out among the stars, waiting for distant life-forms to receive it. Whether this actually happened or whether it’s merely a cocktail of youthful misunderstanding and nostalgia is beside the point. I remember it, and I remember the conviction that aliens would discover my rudimentary stick figure family and feel a pang of pathos for life on our little rock. This was a great deal of pressure. If the drawing was bad, what would that say about our society? The aliens who found my little sketch—the lines rough, the colors off—might decide not to visit us after all. Or worse, they might rain fiery death down on us all for my grave sins against representational art. (My sketches were not good. If that turns out to be what dooms our ... Read the full craft essay
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IN PRAISE OF MISTRANSLATIONS On Conversational Translation by J.G. McClure We all know Freud talked about the ego and the id. Except he didn’t. What he actually talked about was Das Ich und Das Er, which is to say, “The I and the It.” The words “mean” the same thing, except they don’t. When we translate Freud, we use the Latin pronouns for “I” and “It,” whereas Freud used the regular, everyday pronouns of his German. It’s the same meaning, sort of, but the Latin “id” is outside our ordinary speech, and so it lacks the disturbingly uncanny mix of familiarity and otherness that “the It” conveys. “The id is made up of our primal desires—inaccessible and constantly influencing our actions, while the ego struggles to keep up.” “The It is made up of our primal desires—inaccessible and constantly influencing our actions, while the I struggles to keep up.” Hear the difference? I love translating poetry. I’ve done many translations. But it’s my suspicion that translation is fundamentally impossible. As Cervantes said: reading even the best translation is like looking at a Persian rug from behind ... Read the full craft essay
THANK YOU, JUDGE JUDY by Jen Karetnick
THANK YOU, JUDGE JUDY by Jen Karetnick I’m a poet and fiction writer by vocation and a journalist by trade. The first two I learned in school, ultimately ending with two MFA degrees, one in each genre. Journalism I was taught on the job, trained by several editors. But seven years ago, when the economy crashed and the future of print journalism was a serious concern, I took a job in a charter school for the arts, charged with creating and teaching a program for grades 6-12 that included poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction. For poetry and fiction, I had few worries, but for personal essays and memoir, I had to expand my repertoire. That’s when I began to watch the television show Judge Judy, and found that everything I needed to know about writing and teaching creative non-fiction was an oft-repeated truism that came directly from the Honorable Judith Sheindlin’s lips. I didn’t come to this conclusion right away. At first, I started to watch the show because it was on when I got home from school. I was so exhausted from my unexpected new career path that I immediately took to my bed, unable to do anything else ... Read the full craft essay
CROSSING BORDERS IN FICTION by Ellen Meeropol The main character in my second novel, On Hurricane Island, is a lesbian. I’m straight. There are also an African-American attorney and a cross-dressing F.B.I. agent in that book, and I’m neither of those. So what right do I have to burrow under these characters’ skin, see the world through their eyes, and write their voices? It’s an important question and one that has been frequently argued, especially when a white author writes from the perspective of a person of color. Think about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People, and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. Over the decades, fiction writers have been roundly criticized for appropriating the voices of marginalized groups. More recently, writers have also been criticized for not writing characters who represent our diverse world. The opportunity to explore “other” voices – to live lives and tell stories that are not our own personal experience – is, I think, one of the main reasons why many of us write. I want to know how it feels to be a lesbian kidnapped by misogynist national security officers, and what it’s like to ... Read the full craft essay
CONFESSIONS OF A FICTION EDITOR by George Dila I am the fiction editor of a respectable independent ink-and-paper quarterly literary journal. We publish short fiction of up to 1500 words. I see every piece of prose submitted to the journal. The editor-in-chief has given me sole discretion to accept or reject any piece submitted. Here are my confessions. Confession #1: I reject nearly everything. Most work I see should never have been submitted in the first place. It is embarrassingly amateurish. It makes me wonder whether these submitters have even a modicum of critical judgment of their own work. Frankly, I would have rejected much of what I see published in other journals, too. To the dismay of my editor-in-chief, who probably thinks my standards are too high, some issues of our journal have run with no fiction at all. Other issues have included work that I should have rejected. I accepted them because they were, at least, competently written, and the boss was getting antsy. A few issues have included some real gems of short fiction, and of those I am most proud. Confession #2: I make up my mind fast. I read few submissions beyond the first paragraph, ... Read the full craft essay
LEAVING APPALACHIA: Overlap in Poetic Landscapes by Julia Paganelli
LEAVING APPALACHIA: Overlap in Poetic Landscapes by Julia Paganelli In August, I stuffed my summer dresses and cooking implements into a Toyota and trekked eighteen hours from Appalachia to the Ozarks. I’ve been tallying the difference between the mountain ranges. Appalachia is older than the Ozarks—cliffs softer. More oil painting than chiseled sculpture. I’ve been reading up on architecture. In the book Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture, Rowan Moore writes, “Where things get interesting is when desire and built space change each other, when animate and inanimate interplay” (19). Of course, Moore is referring to the architect her structures, but I’ve approached these theories otherwise. I’ve approached as poet to landscape. Moore states, “Architecture is experienced as background or not at all” (91). An architect fails when she creates a place that cannot be added to by he who lives there. Landscape is meant to be lived into, as are poems ... Read the full craft essay
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THE POET’S “I”: DISTANCE THROUGH FIRST-PERSON by Katie Rensch In a recent conversation with a group of mixed-genre writers, it came to my attention that we were all writing in the first-person, well, more or less. In fiction, we call the first-person the “main character”, in poetry we say the “speaker” of the poem, and in nonfiction it’s the writer’s name because the “I” must, by definition, be the person writing. We might just call these labels for the first-person simply labels. Character, speaker, writer –is there really any difference? I would like to think the “I,” that one small, vertical line, one letter, was so simple. Because voice is a basic element of craft we are encouraged to think no true distinction exists between genres. As writers we enjoy the simple rules of voice because it gives us boundaries. We have three choices: first-, second-, or third-person. In my own reading and writing of poetry, though, I have noticed a great capacity for the use of the first-person voice, and I’ve come to understand it as a gesture, one that is possible in all three modes of voice. Lately I’m drawn to Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III (Farrar, Straus, and ... Read the full craft essay
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APPROACHING BORDERS by Nathaniel Popkin Two men, one aged 61, the other 65, each born in late January, each a father in grief. The first is the Israeli writer David Grossman, whose son Uri was killed in the brief 2006 Israeli war in Lebanon. The other is the American poet Edward Hirsch, whose son Gabriel died of a drug overdose in 2011. On a bookshelf these men and their books may stand together, G then H, Grossman then Hirsch, David then Edward. They are joined too by the instinct to drill into unfathomable sorrow. In 2008, Grossman produced a startling work of preemptive mourning, a novel published in Jessica Cohen’s English translation in 2010 as To The End of the Land and last summer the ecstatic lamentation Falling Out of Time (also translated by Cohen), both brought out in U.S. by Knopf. Hirsch reviewed Falling Out of Time in the New York Times Book Review shortly before Knopf published his piercing seventy-eight page elegy, Gabriel ... Read the full craft essay
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TRAPPED IN THE ALPHABET by Niels Hav When Barack Obama was inaugurated as president in USA, the poet Elizabeth Alexander was reading at the ceremony. The poet may take on a similar role in different cultures. But in everyday life, and most of the time, the poet is an outsider. A lonely bandit in the desert. That’s how it is in Europe, and so it is in the rest of the world. We writers are soloists. We celebrate the same virtues as the Bedouins: perseverance and generosity. Some poets among our best colleagues know about hunger and thirst, heroic poverty and longing. There are other values than the material, and retaining this knowledge is one of poetry's tasks ... Read the full craft essay
Translation Craft Essays /
CROSSING THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE: ARCHER, BOB’S BURGERS, AND CONTEMPORARY POETRY by J.G. McClure 1. The emotional landscape of the reader determines the work that can reach her. Imagine the interior world as a sea: the boat-poem can move ahead, but the truck-poem can’t. Conversely, if the interior world is a field… 2. Over the holidays, I’ve been binge-watching Netflix, especially two animated comedies starring H. Jon Benjamin, Archer and Bob’s Burgers. The same deadpan voice comes from two vastly different characters. Sterling Archer is a James Bond parody working at an inept spy agency. He’s wildly narcissistic, a barely-functioning alcoholic, a womanizing braggart whose skill as a secret agent is—as he constantly reminds everyone around him—nonetheless legendary. He is, above all, a terrible person. For example, we often find him planning to inflict bizarre punishments on his servant Woodhouse—the man who raised him in his mother’s absence—for minor failings. (“[Woodhouse] thinks he’s people!” “I have to go make an old man eat a bowl of cobwebs”). Woodhouse, for his part, is a fawning servant and a hardened heroin addict. He also has no qualms about knocking Archer unconscious and blaming somebody else—he assures us he’s done it plenty of times ... Read the full craft essay
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RETHINKING THE SHITTY FIRST DRAFT by George Dila I do not write shitty first drafts. In fact, that phrase, inspired by Ernest Hemingway, popularized by Anne Lamott, offends me slightly—both the idea of thinking of my own work this way, and also that word itself, shitty, to my ear an ugly and repellent adjective. What does the phrase mean, though? To quote the wonderful Miss Lamott, from her book-that-everyone-has-read, Bird by Bird, “The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” ... Read the full craft essay
Poetry Craft Essays /
THAT DEXTEROUS MARGIN by Michael McFee 1. A poem is a visual as well as a verbal object. Its language is primary, obviously, the sounds the words make, and the effects those sounds have on the reader, phoneme by phoneme and as a whole aural object. But the shape the poem makes on the page is crucial as well. 2. I spent my first two years of college in design school at a technological research university. It was not a very verbal place or time for me. I logged many hours in studios, drawing and drafting and working on various design projects. I was learning to observe closely and to present what I saw in clear yet imaginative ways. That visual urge abides in me. My imagination is most often triggered by something I see and try to convert into lines. And once those lines start to become a poem, I can’t stop thinking about the way it looks: my favorite medium in design school was pen and ink, and I want the poem to be perfect down to the very last crosshatch ... Read the full craft essay
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THE ART OF DESPAIR by Allison Seay
The Art of Despair by Allison Seay I. Out of the Depths Perhaps it is a weakness to rely only on my own poetic experiences or sensibilities as a way to talk about craft or as a way to teach. In writing this, I thought of all kinds of things I could write about, things I have discovered about form and experiment and figuring out what it means to write from a Real Place. To be self-referential is sometimes not interesting or helpful to another’s plight in art or otherwise, even if we intend it. I can only say how it has been for me. I can only say the truth as best as I know it and hope that you find some seed of truth you might use for your own work, or find some luminosity that might illumine your poems in a new way ... Read the full craft essay
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TO STAY OR TO GO INTO EXILE: Milosz and Szymborska by Niels Hav
TO STAY OR TO GO INTO EXILE: Milosz and Szymborska by Niels Hav translated by Heather Spears This year Patrick Modiano received the Nobel Prize for Literature and, as often before, it was a complete surprise when the secretary of the Swedish Academy opened the door and released the name to the press. Every year this event is a celebration, and the joyous news spreads round the world with the speed of light. I was in Warsaw the year Tomas Tranströmer was awarded the Nobel Prize. Sitting in the mild October sunshine in front of the Literature-House with a group of poets from many countries. It was a few minutes past one, and Transrömer’s name passed cheerfully from table to table. Wislawa Szymborska, Nobel prizewinner from Poland, was asked by a journalist, “What did you think when you heard that Transrömer won the Nobel Prize? “I was so pleased,” she answered, “that I hopped on one foot.” An unforgettable reply. At the time Szymborska was 88 years old, and the memory of her happy hop is a blessed thought. Many modern writers have become a species of nomad, living in exile because in their homelands freedom of speech is limited ... Read the full craft essay
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IN A SPRAY OF SPARKS: Emotion, Sincerity, and the “Skittery Poem of Our Moment” by J.G. McClure
IN A SPRAY OF SPARKS: Emotion, Sincerity, and the “Skittery Poem of Our Moment” by J.G. McClure Pick up any fashionable poetry journal and you’re likely to see an example of what Tony Hoagland has called the “Skittery Poem of Our Moment.” Such a poem does not simply lack coherence; it actively resists it.... The characteristics are familiar: leaping from thought to thought, sharply-written-but-largely-nonsensical phrases, quirky humor, an assertive-yet-evasive voice, and so on. We move from talk to skin to cities to tubas to friends, never afforded the chance to stop and consider any one element. The mode is so widespread as to be instantly recognizable: it is what many readers likely think of immediately upon hearing the phrase contemporary poetry ... Read the full craft essay
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SAY IT AGAIN, BUT BETTER: Resistance and Revision by Devi S. Laskar Writers get writers’ block. Happens to everyone at one point or another. It happens to some writers every solstice, every month, every fortnight. I struggle every day. Thanks to a recommendation from an old friend, I’ve been reading Steven Pressfield’s really great book, The War of Art, which talks about resistance and how we as writers get sucked in to the war of Doing Anything But the Writing That is Most Important to Us. Resistance, as Pressfield calls it, comes in many forms, including but not limited to: fear, self-doubt, self-dramatization, victimhood, isolation and general unhappiness ... Read the full craft essay
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THE MISEDUCATION OF THE POET: High School and the Fear of Poetry by J.G. McClure
THE MISEDUCATION OF THE POET: High School and the Fear of Poetry by J.G. McClure When I was an undergraduate taking one of my first poetry workshops, my poet-professor joked that “high school is where poetry goes to die.” I chuckled, thinking he was simply making fun of the melodramatic effusions of teenage writers. I’ve since come to realize that what he was getting at is a much more systemic problem: that the way we’re taught about poetry in high school (the last time that many people will likely ever read a poem) bleeds the living energy from poetry and teaches students that the art is nothing but the dusty stuff of a museum of antiquities. I’ve since come to realize that what he was getting at is a much more systemic problem: that the way we’re taught about poetry in high school (the last time that many people will likely ever read a poem) bleeds the living energy from poetry and teaches students that the art is nothing but the dusty stuff of a museum of antiquities ... Read the full craft essay
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