Exercises in Creative Revision + Some Notes on Running a Revision-Focused Workshop

I recently had a chat with a talented poet working on a first book. This writer was in an ad hoc workshop group and wanted to know what I thought about some advice on voice that had been given. The advice wasn’t given carelessly or cruelly, but it did reveal that the giver of that advice was not a good reader for this kind of project. As happens sometimes. I love dearly some people who aren’t always good readers of some of my projects.

A draft of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.”

But this student was stuck on that note in a way that reminded me of all the revisions I’ve seen over the years where a writer tries to implement every single suggestion and answer every single question a workshop raised. It reminded me of all the poems I’ve ruined over the years by clumsily stitching this person’s vision to that one atop my own lost draft.

Sometimes you have to ignore advice altogether, I told this young poet. Sometimes you need to do the move that was critiques twice as hard or do exactly the opposite of a recommendation. Sometimes you have to cut the parts the workshop loved best. But what I wanted to convey to this writer and try to teach explicitly in the workshops I facilitate is that the workshop is a small part – and in no way the editing part – of a revision process that works best when it is generative and playful.

A note: I have really appreciated and learned from thinking about how workshops can become toxic spaces for BIpoc, LGBTQ+, and disabled writers. Beth Bich Nguyen’s essay on Unsilencing the Workshop is required reading; as is David Mura’s, A Stranger’s Journey, on creative writing, craft, and how/why race must be considered as a crucial part of these subjects. This particular workshop group was versed in these ideas, and even proficient in innovative workshop methods like Liz Lerhman’s Critical Response Process. I’m thinking here about how writers learn to use the feedback they receive when they can trust the spirit in which it was given, as well as the cultural competencies of the giver.

One of Gwendolyn Brooks’ notebooks

In my workshop classes I’ve been trying to develop a Revision-Focused pedagogy. To that end, the most significant assignment I give is “The Big Revise,” where I ask students to revise a poem five ways. The grade is based exclusively on how boldly and radically they experiment from draft to draft. Frankly, I never grade poems at all, because I can’t imagine what it would mean to say a poem is an A, much less a C. So the only experience they have with grades in my workshops is via a rubric based exclusively on trying, experimenting, and risking. Depending on the course I might ask students to do a Big Revise once or to undertake this process every time a poem is workshopped.

Often the first (and sometimes second draft) in a student’s Big Revise portfolio closely follows the notes given in workshop. But after students have deployed this low-hanging revision fruit, they have to think more deeply and weirdly about the relationship between their ideas and an audience of readers. This is when the revisions start to get really interesting.

A draft of May Swenson’s “Women”

To help students imagine a wild, weird, radical revision process, I show them the revisions of some well-known poems, like Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” and also let them take a peek at the pages of one of my drafts in progress, covered up in scrawling margin notes. I also give them revision prompts to help inspire those 3rd, 4th, and 5th drafts:

  • Add new images and reframe existing ones. Make the eye of the speaker a kind of camera that zooms in and out, pans around, and endlessly seeks unlikely angles.
  • Complicate the chronology. Add three or more jumps in time.
  • Change the point of view from first person to third, third to second, etc. Try a persona. Try a different persona.
  • Enrich with research. Add a tangent that involves interesting factoids from science or history. Meditate on a story in the news that hangs heavy on your mind. All the better if the research seems unrelated to the poem at first glance.
  • Make the poem twice as long. Then make it half as long. Your new half will probably not look like the old one.
  • Cut and salvage. After every draft pause to notice what you might have lost from earlier drafts. Bring those beautiful lines, stanzas, and ideas forward, combining them with what you love best about newer versions. (Printing out the drafts and the cutting them into chunks that you scotch tape together into the new poem can be a fun and productive way to approach this.)
  • Play with form. Let the poem lead you to its form. Has your voice fallen into a somewhat regular rhythm or line length? Try to make that pacing intentional throughout the whole poem. Maybe you notice your lines are quite ragged and unpredictable – be intentionally irregular and disrupt those spots where the line lengths are regularized. Have repetitions emerged that might lend themselves to becoming a refrain, or even a pantoum or villanelle? If you are in the 12-18-line range, ask yourself whether the poem wants to be a sonnet. Consider whether you are writing subtly in the tradition of odes or ballads or other familiar forms, and whether you might like to make that subtle influence more explicit.
  • Polish the lines. (An exercise not to be used before draft 5). Focus here on varying sentence length and structure. Put a short periodic statement after a long and complex sentence with many subordinate clauses. Have a dependent-independent-clause sentence follow an independent-dependent-clause one. Reframe one or two lines as questions. Can you get away with an exclamation point? Try some asides and learn to love the em dash.

The Big Revise is a great process to use on your own as a writer outside of workshops too. It is one I personally use. But it is also great to enter a workshop conversation knowing a piece will have to go through such an intensive revision process after the workshop is over. That understanding reframes the role of the workshopper – no longer are they hypothetical editors praising or critiquing a piece, leaving the author feeling accepted or rejected. Now they are on the same team as the poet, working with them to brainstorm ways to see the poem with fresh eyes.

This relationship puts those giving the workshop feedback at ease too – many people (like me when I was a student) can hardly bring themselves to speak in a workshop for fear they will hurt someone’s feelings or because they do not believe that kind of evaluation of another person’s work is appropriate or because they are still developing a vocabulary around the idea of revision. Some students will only say what they liked about a piece, which is helpful for sure, but those encouraging and confidence-building notes do not always lead to a workshop that inspires.

I have seen in classes where I used this Revision-Focused workshop method how poets smile and eagerly jot down the ideas their classmates spitball with a spirit of camaraderie. And I’ve seen lovely, sustaining writer friendship emerge from these rooms, in contrast to the competitive or spirit-crushing environment that can arise when writers give the workshop a position of authority and judgement over the work. In a Revision-Focused workshop there are no succeed or failing poems or poets, there is only the writing, undertaken joyfully together.  

Published by Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger's latest books are THE WITCH OF EYE (Sarabande), an essay collection about witches and witch trials coming out in February 2021, and RUE (BOA, 2020), a collection of poems about plants historically used for birth control and pissed off feelings about patriarchal bullshit. The End of Pink (BOA 2016) won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection of lyric essays is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (The Ohio State University Press, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, H. J. Andrews Research Forest, She teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Waxwing.

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