My MFA in Creative Nonfiction workshop at Ohio State went through some activities last week to help them with revising their essays. Two of the people in the workshop, Cait Weiss and Jody Gerbig Todd, have been kind enough to allow me to share the activities that they devised. I hope you’ll find them as useful as I did. Revision is often a matter of thinking more deeply about our material. Sometimes it’s helpful to do that thinking from perspectives we usually wouldn’t consider, as in the brainstorming activity that Cait gives us. The deepening of our thinking can also occur, as Jody points out, when we’re invited to consider how a particular craft choice such as the white space between sections provides us an opportunity to consider where the tension lies in a piece.
From Cate Weiss:
Boardroom brainstorming is not about coming up with a solution, at least not directly. Instead, the experience is about unlocking new, unexpected, often entirely crazy ways of unhinging and re-assembling old, worrisome things. Speaking of old, worrisome things : a CNF essay, multiple drafts in, that just won’t do what I want it to. Here’s one brainstorm strategy teased from Corporate America that Lee let me try out in class:
The Worst Idea, the Weirdest Idea, and the Idiot Question
1. Write the most painfully obvious “topic sentence” or “thesis” to the essay you’re tackling. This is the sentence you want to roll your eyes whilst uttering, the one that you swear to yourself will never make it into your piece.
2. Write the weirdest, fringe-wild sentence your essay inspires. This is the sentence your inner child/spirit animal/hippie aunt with thirty cats (the one who scarf dances to bongos) might take away as the moral of your story.
3. Write the most obnoxious “What If?” question possible, considering the situations/anxieties/possibilities your essay discusses. This is the question that aims to be so profound it’s absurd, or so basic it should go beyond saying.
This exercise might change how you’ve been looking at things. That’s the hope, at least. Once you let yourself say the painfully obvious, bizarre or basic thing, you’ve incorporate your whole self into the writing process and onto the page, ideally leading to a more cohesive, honest narrative.
If you can, share these sentences with others who have read your work. They might be surprised, and their surprise might help you realize what you thought was so obvious/weird/stupid actually needs further illumination or nurturing in your piece. Or they may just learn your mind’s an endless, absurd little trove of surprises. Either way, give it a try and good luck!
From Jody Gerbig Todd
White Space Revision
In our creative nonfiction workshop, we assign one another names according to particular skills: Dialogue Diva, Detail Guru, White Space Queen. These names affectionately identify our adeptness in—and our seemingly natural ability to tighten, intensify, and empower—one component of our writing. But many writers also struggle in a particular area, making the process of revision daunting. As you try to revise this weaker area of your manuscripts, you might think, as one of my classmates did recently, “I’m in hate with this piece right now. I just sit there, staring at the screen, not knowing what to do with it.” We’ve all been there.
When feeling this way, it might be helpful to use a revision exercise designed specifically for that weakness. Thus (in my attempt to overthrow our current White Space Queen) I have devised five revision exercises to help you think about what happens in the space in between, also known as white space, the double drop, or the section break. Writers can use white space to denote a time jump, a scene change, or a new topic. But that space can become so much more. It can become the silence between notes, the pause between beats, the thing left unsaid. In other words, the tension in your piece.
Below are five exercises, which can be applied to fiction or nonfiction, revision or drafting, in combination or alone. Choose one or several, follow the directions, and see what happens.
1. Give each segment denoted by the double-drop, hashtag, or white space a subtitle, including a gerund and a prepositional phrase or its concrete object (“Crying in my Cheerios”; “Seeing the Shades,” etc.). Using gerunds might help you understand your piece’s development (even if it’s lyrical). If gerunds don’t help, try creating other kinds of phrases. Regardless, try to keep the phrases concrete and specific. After you label each section, evaluate whether it shows narrative progression. Does the speaker grow, develop or realize something in a sequence? Do the subtitles tell you something about the essay’s subject matter?
2. (You can try this one as a drafting exercise, as well, especially if you’ve found yourself blocked at the end of a scene.) In each white space, write out the following statement and fill in the blanks, or have someone fill them in for you: “You just read about ___________, which will reveal __________ about the next part on ____________.” Try using the first blank’s word in the end of the early segment and starting the next section with a sentence using the words in the last two blanks. What happens? (You might find this helpful in combination with #3.)
3. Identify what is at stake in each section. In other words, what does your narrator have to lose? Is it internal/emotional? Is it external/physical? Once you identify these stakes, make sure that the lines surrounding the white space reveal that tension. (Kate Walbert once taught me that the first line of any novel or story should reveal all the tension contained in the entire story following, so that if a writer is blocked, all she must do is to go back to that tension in the first line and write about it in a new way. You might think of the first line after your white space this way.)
4. Find the last image you give in a segment. Imagine you cross off everything after and end it there. What happens to it and the first line of the following segment? Do you land on a powerful and symbolic image that resonates more than the telling of it does? (This might be particularly helpful as a final revision exercise, after you’ve already figured out and drafted what the piece is centrally about. It also might be particularly helpful for the very last lines of your piece, where writers have a tendency to over-tell.)
5. Take a line highlighted by a workshopper, or a line that you feel is meaningful in the piece, and move it to before or after a white space. What does that change do for the tension around it? Does it work as a particularly insightful conclusive or introductory statement?