judithpulmancraftIn July 2013, I ran a marathon up Mount Adams near Trout Lake, Washington. Nobody questioned my physical prowess, because the accomplishment was indisputable. But, if you actually pressed your fingers against my belly, you would have felt pudge, and you probably would have been surprised to not feel functioning abdominal muscles (you’d also be surprised to have your fingers on the belly of someone you had just met, but let’s skip that part). My abs weren’t important unless I found myself in the plank position, and why would I attempt plank when I could lie down, sit or run 13 miles? I learned how to engage my gluteal muscles for the first time in early 2014, when my new gym membership included sessions with a personal trainer. However, the fact still stands that I was able to complete a mountain marathon with scant help from my abs or glutes.

One can write a fantastic essay without understanding point of view. I know this since I teach intermediate memoir classes to adults at a community center in Portland, Oregon, and some essays written from an indistinct point of view manage to get the job done. Students who come to my class have often taken years of prompt-centered writing classes in which they free write, share their work, and receive non-judgmental, usually positive, feedback.

Through a prompt-centered writing class, beginning writers develop awareness of the multitude of stories they contain. However, for intermediate students who recognize their well of stories won’t dry up too soon, more prompted free writing won’t improve their writing much. Accustomed to writing intuitively, these writers haven’t been taught to consider possible structures or tensions that might buttress the story.

Because free writing is initially taught as an easy and flowing process—just like distance running has been for me—students have not yet developed their internal editor. Due to the catchiness of the first thought, best thought mantra, it takes time for students to recognize that their 10th thought is not better, but usually is more serviceable to the story than their first. The internal editor, a force for good decision-making, must become distinct from the inner critic. Beginning students can conflate the critic and the editor, which can lead to the writer’s inability to discern useful feedback from paralyzing judgment. Developing an internal editor is necessary for every writer, and the editor utilizes a separate set of mental muscles distinct from the writer.

Physical-resistance training involves exercises that cause muscles to contract against external resistance. Resistance can be provided by body weight, rubber tubing, dumbbells, or anything heavy, and the movements isolate certain muscles or muscle groups. Like most people, I avoid doing things I don’t feel comfortable with and tend to do what’s easier. My covert laziness is the reason that I now work with a personal trainer (the discount helped, too) and why I like teaching intermediate writing students. Do you think my personal trainer tells me to run five miles when we meet? If she did, I wouldn’t be able to do 20 pushups in a row today.

Many of us become writers because we grew up in homes where there was resistance to speech. However, when students become comfortable enough putting down their personal stories, they need to work out other forms of resistance. And dynamic use of storytelling tools creates this resistance, which might also be called tension. These tools include voice, tone, structure, point of attack, length, character, scene and summary, to name a few.

My first writing training was in poetry, and it certainly felt like serious training. My teacher had me write a sonnet a day for a month, then a pantoum a day, then tercets with 11 syllable lines, and so forth. You bet I learned the tools of the trade, and these repetitive exercises taught variations on how a poetic line might function. I also learned how to place stories inside seemingly rigid structures, another form of resistance training.

The essayist doesn’t have the same ready-made forms as poets, but she does have tools that can be manipulated to explore a story’s tensions. Writers can build skills by either employing storytelling tools in isolation or in tension with one another. If essayists consciously choose some tools to use before writing their first draft, they’ll end up with a product that is more than just a story they know; they will find a new way into an old story—essentially, a new story.

Following are five exercises intended to guide a nonfiction writing class toward more focused writing; the exercises can be adapted and used by individual writers, as well. Writers might initially be resistant to these exercises, especially if they are used to free writing, or when they realize that these tools are used primarily by poets or fiction writers. Give students five to 10 minutes to brainstorm, then begin 50 minutes of focused writing time.

  • Have students come to class with an essay idea that they’ve considered for some time. Ask them to think of one strange or sidelong thread that they might be able to weave into their work. Set this exercise up by discussing unusual or risky choices by using examples from other art forms, such as Chaim Soutine’s paintings or some of Quentin Tarantino’s film clips, though the choices are endless; then solicit artistic examples from the class of other bold, strange strokes. [1]
  • Share pieces with tones that don’t match their subjects, such as David Kirby’s poem, “At the Grave of Harold Goldstein” (in Kirby’s The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems). Ask students to approach a subject or a story that they’ve lived through in a tone that seems unnatural or in opposition to the subject. This exercise is often a real hoot.
  • The week prior, ask students to research a subject that interests them. Anything they want to know more about will work, as long as they can find written material and bring it to class. Then ask them to begin a personal essay and fold quotes from the research into their essay. Some considerations: They might consider writing their personal material in a voice that mirrors the research, or a voice that opposes it. Ask them to consider how they might use quotes to create tension. Ask if the research itself suggests a structure for the essay.
  • Ask students to bring in a draft, four pages or more, that they don’t believe is done. Give students two of these four discrete formal limits: 750 words, 500 words, 14 lines, haiku. Have them first write the sonnet or haiku, and then the 750- or 500-word version —ask how the different lengths inform each story. This engages students as editors and provides an opportunity to discuss what an editor might look for when considering each version of the story.
  • Lead a discussion of how to create a vivid scene, and the difference between scene and summary. Let the students brainstorm 10 scenes from their life and then have them pick three. Ask the students to imagine an essay that includes these three scenes, and consider ways the scenes might be ordered for greatest effect. Have the students write out the scenes. If they finish writing the scenes in class, they can start brainstorming the connective tissue between the scenes.
  • Bring in an interesting, non-political news article—I used this one about a cat that walked 200 miles through Florida to get back to her owners. Read aloud and discuss the story that is told by the text, and the story that is left out. What is unknown to the readers? Who are the characters? What are the events that matter in this story? Then ask students what they are most curious about—my students were all feline lovers, so they wanted to know whether Holly’s family was actually committed to Holly and more about Holly’s journey home. Next, I had each student pick the character they found most interesting, imagine what mattered most to that character (point of view), pick a discrete point in time for their character to be writing from, pick an audience to write to, and start writing.

1. Thanks to David Oates for this exercise.

Judith Pulman writes poetry and prose in Portland, Oregon, where she also translates poems from Russian to English, just to keep things light. She has been published or has work forthcoming in The Writer’s Chronicle, Los Angeles Review, New Ohio Review and Basalt. She works as a teacher, administrator and editor.