This is the time of year when summer is starting to feel a bit shabby. We’ve made the turn to August—the dog days—and the heat, the sun, the humidity have begun to feel oppressive. Here in the Midwest, the grass is brown, the daylilies are fading, the leaves of trees curl for want of rain. Summer is quickly becoming a guest in danger of overstaying its welcome.
It’s easy to feel a bit of malaise these days. Sometimes even our writing can seem listless. Here’s something we can all try to jazz it up and make it again feel exciting and new. It’s time to think smaller.
We can take something we’ve written, or something we’re currently working on, and see what we have to do to make it fit a certain form. Reduce a novel to a short story. What sequence of events can the book not do without? What climactic moment is the most important one?
Take an essay and reduce it to a piece of flash creative nonfiction no longer than 750 words. To do this, you’ll have to decide what the heart of the essay is and then pare everything away to make it stand out.
Turn a poem into a sestina. The sestina follows a strict pattern of the repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, culminating in a three-line envoi. What words will you end up repeating? How do they awaken the material by pointing out what’s important, or possibly what still needs to be explored?
Heck, turn your novel, or story, or essay into a sestina. Find out what the important words are. See how you can use them to generate new material. Take one of those repeating words, and begin crafting new lines, new scenes, new thoughts.
Autumn—though it may be hard to believe this in the dog days—is waiting in the wings. Crisp days, a riot of color, familiar sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures. Everything will again seem new. For now, though, let’s get a head start with breathing new life into what we feel is stale in our writing. Let’s cast it into a different form so we can see it with new eyes. Here’s a sestina by Marilyn Hacker to remind us how important it is to surprise ourselves with language. Daughter,” “friend,” “bread,” “mother,” “lover,” “myself.” Six words finding the heart of the poem. What six words can you find to make something you’re writing, or have written, come alive with possibility? How can those six words make it new?
TOWARDS AUTUMN / Marilyn Hacker
Mid-September, and I miss my daughter.
I sit out on the terrace with my friend,
talking, with morning tea, coffee, and bread,
about another woman, and her mother,
who survived heroism; her lover
who will have to. I surprise myself
with language; lacking it, don’t like myself
much. I owe a letter to my daughter.
Thinking of her’s like thinking of a lover
I hope will someday grow to be a friend.
I missed the words to make friends with my mother.
I pull the long knife through the mound of bread,
spoon my slice with cherry preserves, the bread
chewy as meat beneath, remind myself
I’ve errands for our ancient patron, mother
of dramas, hard mother to a daughter
twenty years my senior, who is my friend,
who lives in exile with a woman lover
also my friend, three miles from here. A lover
of good bread, my (present) friend leaves this bread
and marmalades biscottes. To have a friend
a generation older than myself
is sometimes like a letter for my daughter
to read, when she can read: What your mother
left undone, women who are not your mother
may do. Women who are not your lover
love you. (That’s to myself, and my daughter.)
We take coffee—and teapot, mugs, jam jars, bread
inside, wash up. I’ve work, hours by myself.
Beyond the kitchen, in her room, my friend
writes, overlooking the same hills. Be’friend
yourself: I couldn’t have known to tell my mother
that, unless I’d learned it for myself.
Until I do. Friendship is earned. A lover
leaps into faith. Earthbound women share bread;
make; do. Cherry compote would please my daughter.
My daughter was born hero to her mother;
found, like a lover, flawed; found, like a friend,
faithful as bread I’d learn to make myself