Doing something which is “different” does not come easily to most of us. The wrestling team I coach will look at me sideways if I ask them to practice cartwheels. I’ve even heard that some professional football teams bring in dance instructors to teach their behemoth linemen the art of ballet and foxtrot. My point is that practicing “any” athletic sport develops your skill in another seemingly unrelated sport. The same is true in writing. Through practicing the skills and techniques used in different genres of writing, we can enhance the overall quality and effectiveness of the writing we love to do (or are required to do because of schoolwork or employment.) By practicing different styles and genres of writing, we learn to avoid the rut of developing a formulaic, predictable, and downright dull writing style—plus, you might even discover a renewed love and energy for a “new” kind of writing when you practice writing in an unfamiliar genre.
Over the course of the next few weeks, try and write in each of the following genres and styles of writing. I will post more detailed descriptions and writing prompts that span the many different types of writing, but it is up to you to give them a full-hearted try. Good luck and have fun!
1. Your Daily Journal: Every good writer keeps a journal that remembers the daily events of his or her life, no matter how mundane or common. A daily journal is a recording of your life as live it, and as such, it is a treasure trove of memories that you can draw from later in life—memories and snapshots that you can expand upon in a more formal writing piece any time you wish.
2. The Ramble: The Ramble (often called ‘free-writing’) is close related to the daily journal, but it is more of a free-flowing series of thoughts, ideas and experiences. It is a journey with your mind and heart and soul down an emotional and intellectual highway. The ramble does not have to have a formal structure, but it does try to find and focus on a specific theme, and it does try and punctuate and paragraph to the best of your ability. By defining a certain post as a ramble, you are freed from all criticism of your writing style and technique because you are simply on an exploration of yourself, and as such, it is hard to go wrong! Rambles are great fun and an invigorating exercise in writing, but it is what it is. Kerouac aside, it is a misnomer to call a ramble anything but a ramble. I have had many chagrined students who tried to pass off their ramble as a thinly disguised essay.
3. The Personal Narrative: Personal Narratives are the stories of our lives. By habitually practicing the art of storytelling through personal narratives, we practice the basic craft of the Short Story and the Essay. By telling the stories of our lives, we follow the main rule of all writing: write about what you know! I could write all day about the joy of Bungee jumping, and I still couldn't convince a toad that I knew what I was talking about. But if I wrote about the day I watched people bungee jumping off a bridge, then I could probably get that toad to publish the story for me. I could be the protagonist, and my best friend forcing me to try could be the antagonist; fear of jumping into the unknown could be the conflict; standing up to my friend could be the climax; falling out of a tree when I was young could be my supporting facts; facing and trying to overcome my fears could become the theme of my essay/story, and when a reader can relate to your theme, they are able to recreate your story in their own imaginations. It might force them to think about their own fears, and in doing so, your story effects a powerful transformations in their lives. Every day and every experience is a possible personal narrative. If that experience means anything to you, it will mean the same thing to someone else because we are all tied together by our "common humanity;" we share the same emotional connections, but how we experience those emotions is infinite and infinitely varied—and that is why our libraries and bookshelves are filled, and that is why we all keep returning to the power and creative magic of literature. Think of everything you write as true literature.
4. Memoirs: The way in which a person affects your life is a profound statement of your values and an enduring testament a specific person’s influence on your life. A memoir is a type of personal narrative that paints a vivid portrait of an interesting and worthy character. Through images and actions, thoughts, feelings and memories you, as a writer, recreate the power and magic of someone who has left an indelible mark on your life. Every good novelist and short story writer is a master of the memoir because writing memoirs is the key to developing dynamic, real and empathetic characters, without which a story falls flat on its face!
5. Short Stories: Every writer is essentially a storyteller, but the craft of short story writing requires a discipline and attention to detail that most writers are not willing to undertake. A good short story effectively creates a powerful experience for the reader out of the writer’s imagination and experience. Most beginning short story writers bite off more than they can chew; they attempt to scale a high peak without first learning how to tie their boots. I will write more in a future post, but for now keep it simple: don’t write stories with a bunch of different characters. Two or three characters is all a good short story needs! Make the plot easy to follow, and be sure that there is a clear protagonist and a clear antagonist and a clear conflict. Most importantly, create characters that you can relate to on a personal level. If you are ten years old, make your main character a ten year old, because that is what you know best, and you can recreate experiences for your reader that are compelling and real. And remember that your first draft is never ever your best draft!
6. Poetry: Poetry is the highest art. A great writer is not always a great poet, but a great poet is always a great writer. Poetry is the hardest genre to pin down and say, “This is poetry!” Poetry is the rough gem of life polished to perfection. To write poetry, you need to simply ask yourself: “Why is this a poem?” A poem is more than thoughts expressed in short lines; it is the meticulous crafting, choosing and placing of words, lines, spaces, breaths, and stanzas that defines what you call a poem. This is all up to you as the poet. I can’t tell you what is and what is not a poem, but I can tell you that good poets read the poems of other good poets, and they spend huge amounts of time on their own poetry. With practice comes skill; with skill comes perfection, and poetry will only happen in this order. The first skill of a poet is to ask, “Why am I writing this?” The second skill of a poet is to ask, “Did I tell my reader something, or did I lead them somewhere and show them something?” Don’t give the meaning of a poem away, but do leave clues for the reader to find that meaning.
7. Personal Reflections: I love personal reflections. There are few joys greater than the opportunity to just “think about something.” At the highest level, a personal reflection is an intimate and high-minded conversation with our own self—a conversation that is focused on a particular subject, topic or idea. The personal reflection differs from the ramble because it refuses to jump from thought to thought. Like a ramble, it retains the “I” in the voice; however, it stays fixed on a theme that is expressed in some kind of thesis or guiding statement. It is, by nature, less formal than a topical essay by retaining a spontaneous and unaffected narrative flow that feels to the reader like it is coming directly from your heart. It always has a distinct beginning, middle and end, but it never loses the sense of an open and inquiring mind on a search for truth—and every one appreciates someone who is willing to explore their own assumptions. I often tell my students that a reflection explores the question, while an essay answers the question. A personal reflection asks of each of us: Why am I writing this? What am I writing about? What do I think about my topic? If I come to a conclusion, how did I get there? A well-written personal reflection is as powerful as writing can get; it is the best of your mind offered to the reader as a gift that the reader can share in, think about, and agree or disagree in equal measure. A personal reflection is the best of your thoughts distilled into an experience of words!
8. Literary Reflections: Writing without reading is like an egg without a yolk; the nutrients are there, but the flavor is lacking. Usually, when we finish reading something, we put it away on the shelf and convince ourselves we are impressed, amazed, indifferent, or profoundly moved. The literary reflection is an offshoot of the personal reflection because it does not try and criticize a writing piece solely on its literary merits, but rather it “talks” about something you have read purely on an emotional and intellectual personal level. There is almost no reason to write a literary reflection about something which you didn’t like reading. (That is what a “Review” is for!) Write Literary Reflections about literature that you feel is important for other people to read because you want them—your readers—to experience the same magic that you experienced. It’s like being on a sightseeing whaling boat and someone shouts out “There’s a whale,” and everyone turns to see the whale for himself or herself! They all appreciate your attentiveness, and in turn, you are pleased to point out the magnificence of the moment to them.
9. Reviews: One of the cool things about being in a writing community with your peers is the chance to write about and read about a whole assortment of books, movies, places, games and any other activity people your age love to do. We live in a world of reviews. We avoid movies because they get panned in the Boston Globe. We refuse to eat in a certain restaurant because it only has a three star rating in Gourmet Magazine. What many “reviewers” fail to realize it that what they write directly impacts a person’s very livelihood. The main job of a review is to tell your reader whether or not what you are reviewing lives up to the hype. If somebody is arrogant enough to say they are the best in town, then by all means, hold them to that standard. But if Al at Al’s Diner says he sells cheap burgers, it is up to you to tell us just how cheap his burgers are—and you might want to add in that you get what you pay for. I love reading reviews, but I insist they be honest and fair. Use common sense when writing a review: don’t give away the plot and ending of books and movies; don’t write a review about something someone else can’t experience. (That is what a personal narrative is for!) Make sure to balance out your reviews. If your reviews are all negative, you will soon get the rep as a negative guy; if your reviews are always positive and glowing, people will think you live in la la land.
10. Expository Essays: Everyone likes to be right, and the expository essay is the perfect vehicle to define what is—and what is not—right and true! The word essay comes from the French word, “essai,” which means “to try.” A good essay tries to defend a certain point (called the “thesis”) using logic and supporting facts, not personal opinion. You can’t say in an expository essay that the 2008 Celtics are the best team in history because they make you feel good about yourself (great for a personal reflection) but you can say they are the best team in history because the Celtics are the first team to go from last in the league to champions in a single year!
11. Multi-Media: When I first wrote this list (I have always been a fan of "Top Ten," but now I have to make an exception and create the Top Eleven list because the ability to create multi-media posts has gone from incredibly hard and frustrating a few years ago to unbelievably easy and fun to do now. Muti-media can include videos you have made, photo albums and galleries, podcasts, and screen-casts--even TV shows and newscasts--and all of it possible to do on your own iPad.
A Word Slinging, Song Singing, Story Swapping, Poet, Raconteur, Teacher, & Craftsman