Think Smaller: Writing in the Dog Days

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


  1. Robert Boucheron on August 1, 2016 at 8:47 am

    Excellent idea, to rework an unpublished story or novel by cutting.

    • Lee Martin on August 1, 2016 at 9:56 am

      Thanks, Robert. And thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.

  2. Cathy Shouse on August 1, 2016 at 10:02 am

    Thanks for this. I just was saying how crunchy the grass is under our feet. The brittleness seems to spread.

    • Lee Martin on August 1, 2016 at 10:03 am

      Cathy, I’m so eager for autumn.

  3. Michelle Villers on August 1, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    Thanks for this. It is very helpful for an idea I want to try.

    • Lee Martin on August 1, 2016 at 3:03 pm

      Thanks, Michelle. I hope it proves useful for you.

  4. Suzanne Guess on August 1, 2016 at 4:41 pm

    This is a really interesting idea. We talked about something similar in a class two weeks ago so I am looking forward to the challenge of whacking a 5000-word essay to 750. And fall–yay for football season! Sorry. Had to say it.

    • Lee Martin on August 2, 2016 at 10:20 am

      Thanks, Suzanne. I hope the exercise proves to be useful for you. Go big Red!

  5. Vivian Markley on August 1, 2016 at 6:46 pm

    In the third grade, I quit painting because the teacher told me that I erased too and when I went to college at age 38, I discovered I can paint. One of the first things that I learned was those erased line are the learning curve of the drawing. I set a goal of winning a Juried show. I achieved this with a painting that I had repainted for three years. Now, I want to learn to write. Since the workshop, I have been editing like mad. I had no idea how erasing all those wrong words would change the entire direction of the work and take me closer to the road that I wanted to be on when I began. Your teaching is a true gift.

    • Lee Martin on August 2, 2016 at 10:21 am

      Good for you, Vivian! Your comment makes an excellent point about the erasures we all have to make in order to progress in our chosen craft.

  6. Richard Gilbert on August 3, 2016 at 5:06 pm

    The light is dwindling, days are shorter, even if oppressive still. So yeah, relief is coming!

    I want to invite your readers over to my blog to enjoy and learn from the interview I did with you, Lee, about fiction and nonfiction. It’s keyed to your compelling new novel, Late One Night:

    • Lee Martin on August 4, 2016 at 10:56 am

      Always, a pleasure, Richard.

  7. Kelli Schaffter on August 4, 2016 at 2:36 pm

    Excellent post, Lee! Wonderful to read.

    Absolutely beautiful poem as well. 🙂

    • Lee Martin on August 4, 2016 at 3:27 pm

      Thanks, Kelli! I appreciate your reading my blog and taking the time to leave a comment.

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