Revising, Re-perceiving and Playing with Form

    Kristin Dorsey - September 2019


   In August, I got to teach my favorite workshop for COCC’s continuing education:  Creating Keepsakes through Memoir Writing.  Not only does this class provide the opportunity to explore life writing around physical objects (photos, journals, letters, postcards and so on), but it also allows participants to think about a wide range of final “forms” they might consider in order to incorporate both their own writing and these physical artifacts.  On the final day of the class, we talk about how thinking outside the “book” or the “poem” or the “essay” can lead to revelations in how we approach the way we convey content.  

     Since finishing the class, I’ve been thinking a lot about the use of form to reinvigorate, revise, and rethink writing projects.  As writers, we tend to think content first.  But what if we think form?  What if we let the final form of our work shape the content as we draft?  As someone who writes (and delights) in hybrid creative nonfiction forms, this idea appeals to me.  I suspect that those of you who write poetry are also familiar with this kind of process.  

     If you feel like you have a project that has become stale to you, or you know you need to do some rewriting but find yourself feeling as if you have stepped in cement and let it harden around your feet, there are easy things you can do to re-perceive your writing.

  • If you don’t read your work out loud, do.  It sounds different to your ear than it looks to your eye.  Consider reading into a recording device (even a smartphone will do!) and listening back.  Or have someone who loves you and owes you a favor read your work aloud to you. 

  • Create an easy accordion or concertina book out of paper you have around the house.  If you are writing poetry, write a line or stanza on each page.  If you are writing longer fiction, write the first sentences of paragraphs on each page.  Think about the flow of the lines across the folds of the book.

  • Take a short piece of text, print it, and cut lines or sentences into their own strips of paper.  Play with laying out the strips in a different order—or removing strips altogether.

  • Change the font of your text.  Use a different style or a different size.  This seems silly, maybe, but it makes your text look alien to you, and that can prompt you to consider it anew.

  • Choose an image that represents each stanza of a poem or each chapter of a book you are working on.  Play with where you would place that image.  Think about how and why the image represents the work.  

  • Create an inspiration board for your project.  Choose images that represent characters, setting, mood, the story arc, the feelings you hope to evoke.  Don’t limit yourself to photographs or pieces of art.  Choose things like fabric that have texture.  Or small knickknacks that have dimension. 

  • If you are unfamiliar with hybrid nonfiction, read some.  If that doesn’t knock things loose and free them in your mind, I don’t know what will.  Try Bluets by Maggie Nelson.  Or How Literature Saved my Life by David Shields.  Or Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn.  Even if you don’t like these books, they will expand what you think prose literature can look like.

  • If you have never looked at artist books, seek them out.  A Google image search will send you down a rabbit hole, as will a search on Pinterest.  Often, artist books aren’t even interested in written content—but think about the power these objects could have if they married form and content.  WOW! 

And when you feel full up, return to writing.  If you sign up for Sarah Cyr’s email list, she will send you thoughtful prompts at the beginning of each month.  Or attend a Blank Pages Salon every third Saturday.  Or you can take a generative workshop with me, Kristin Dorsey, taught monthly this coming school year through COCC’s Continuing Education program. 


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