A Revision Exercise for Creative Nonfiction

Last week, my advanced undergraduate creative nonfiction workshop read Patrick Madden’s “Writing the Brief Contrary Essay” from The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Madden talks about what he calls “essayistic subversion,” by which he means the essays that, to quote Phillip Lopate, “go against the grain of popular opinion.” Think, for example, of Lopate’s own essay, “Against Joie de Vivre,” which begins with the line, “Over the years I have developed a distaste for the spectacle of joie de vivre, the knack of knowing how to live.” You see here the stance of the contrarian, the curmudgeon, the essayist who’s willing to take an unpopular viewpoint in an attempt to discover a new way of thinking that may very well be just as valid—perhaps, even more so—than the sentiment of the general population. Madden suggests a writing exercise that asks writers to take a popular truism and turn it on its ear. For example, one might choose, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and then write a brief contrary essay against that observation.

Because my students are in the process of making final revisions, I decided to use Madden’s good exercise toward that end. I share it now with you:

  1. Take the rough draft of an essay you’ve written and assign a popular truism to it. Choose whatever you sense applies to the material the draft covers and what it explores. Imagine that someone has read the draft and then says, “It makes me think of that old saying: (and then fill in the blank).” Maybe it’s “misery loves company,” or “a fool and his money are often parted,” just to name a couple of options, or maybe it’s a truism that you make up on your own. The key is to cast the draft in general terms by fitting it into this general popular observation that most people assume to be true.
  1. Begin a freewrite whose intention is to oppose the truism. You might want to show the logical fallacies in the thinking that makes most people believe that the saying is indeed true. You might want to consider scenarios in which the saying is definitely false, perhaps even coming on moments from your own experience when the truism didn’t hold true, or times when you wished it hadn’t held true.
  1. As you keep freewriting, let your sensibilities wander, considering the truism from various angles as you create this contrary opinion.
  1. When the freewrite is done, consider what you’ve found that might add more texture to your essay. What can you use to show a more complex and contradictory side to your own character or to the situation that forms the heart of the essay?

When it comes to truisms, here’s one I believe: Our first drafts usually need to be deepened by looking at things from more than one angle. We need to discover more rough edges to our thinking and our feeling, to our portraits of ourselves and others, to the very material we grapple with on the page. We need to welcome more uncertainty. Sometimes this means going against the grain of popular thought. I hope this exercise will provide the invitation necessary to broadening and deepening your perspective to create denser, more richly textured essays.






  1. Bren McClain on December 7, 2015 at 7:47 am

    Lee, this exercise applies to fiction, too, doesn’t it? I’m going to do this with each of my characters in my work in progress. Thank you!

    • Lee Martin on December 7, 2015 at 10:40 am

      Bren, I imagine that the exercise might help you discover some angles to characters in a work of fiction that you might not find otherwise. I’d be interested to know what happens when you try it with yours, Thanks, as always, for the comment.

      • Bren McClain on December 9, 2015 at 1:09 pm

        Here’s my report, Teacher…..I applied this exercise to a character in my novel-in-progress. Originally, I’d written him as a “Leave It to Beaver dad,” but I decided to change the TV show and make him more of “Archie Bunker dad.” WOW. I found out that this father, Fleet, contains both. Totally deepened his character.

        An awesome exercise! Thanks, Lee!

        • Lee Martin on December 9, 2015 at 3:18 pm

          Thanks for the report, Bren. I suspected that the exercise might work for deepening a fictional character.

  2. Susan Cole on December 15, 2015 at 6:59 am

    Lee, Thanks for another great exercise. I’ve been working on an essay about the narrator’s utter and prolonged silence after a very painful experience and it deepened my understanding of that silence.

    • Lee Martin on December 15, 2015 at 12:36 pm

      Susan, I’m so glad that the exercise was useful to your current project. Thanks for continuing to be a reader of my blog.

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