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Archive for the ‘Revision Exercise’ Category

The Bizarro Revision

For this revision assignment, choose a piece from your body of work that you feel is not working. With that text before you, write its exact opposite. For example, if I began a poem with “December and the first snow stained with dog piss and Michelin sludge” might become “July and pristine white sand beach and Gulf glisten an explosion of precious gems,” and so forth. Once you’ve created the inverse of your original piece, see if a useful hybrid can be made, blending the original with its inverse to create a new piece.

The example above works with images, but if you are writing plot-based fictions, you may want to work a story toward the opposite conclusion: girl meets boy, girl likes boy, girl and boy buy a condo on Michigan Ave. might become girl meets boy, girl like boy, boy likes to cheat, girl tortures herself by staying with cheater, girl kills boy by pushing him over the upper deck railing at sporting event. A hybrid might be girl meets boy, girl likes boy, girl and boy move in together, boy dies tragically falling to his death while trying to catch their ferret, Chumly, who was about to swan dive off the balcony of their high-rise Michigan Ave. condo.

Another variation on this assignment is to not look at the original text but to write its inverse from memory.

Rationale: Most revision work we do in creative writing occurs with texts that we are not satisfied with, for whatever reason. All the invention work we did during the early part of the semester gives us a great body of different texts, and our journals and blogs can be a great source to mine when we are unable to invent or generate new material or when its time to revise and put a project together. I find also that the things we want to write about most come up over and over again in my writing, whether I consciously strive to write about them or they unconsciously invade my writing, so using old texts as sources often leads me to discover or better understand the work I want to write about.

This revision assignment can also break us of the habit of trying to stay true to real events in our fictive creations. When I was beginning to write, it mattered to me a great deal to be able to “get things right” as they occurred in real life or in my memory of it. Assignments like this can help us to learn that the truth of real life does not necessarily make better creative writing, and that by straying from reality, we can encounter the (capital T) Truth of knowledge, language or emotion, among other thigns.

Adapted from “Jump-Starting the Dead Poem” by Lynne McMahon from The Practice of Poetry, Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, eds.

The Bizarro Code, Superman comics

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Try translating this German poem byRainer Maria Rilke homophonically, or by writing how it sounds to you in English:

MITTE aller Mitten, Kern der Kerne,
Mandel, die sich einschließt und versüßt, –
dieses Alles bis an alle Sterne
ist dein Fruchtfleisch: Sei gegrüßt.

Sieh, du fühlst, wie nichts mehr an dir hängt;
im Unendlichen ist deine Schale,
und dort steht der starke Saft und drängt.
Und von außen hilft ihm ein Gestrahle,

denn ganz oben werden deine Sonnen
voll und glühend umgedreht.
Doch in dir ist schon begonnen,
was die Sonnen übersteht.


Rationale: Homophonic translation can be a way to work with texts that yields something new and different from what we write on our own. I often read and re-read my own work until the language literally guides me in new directions.
For later: Homophonically translate a text or part of a text you’ve already written. You can do entire poems or just the dialogue of stories. This often has surprising results.

Further Reading: Check this link to my friend M. Ayodele Heath’s blog.

Charles Berstein wreading experiments at UPENN.


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This assignment asks you to generate new work by rewriting or writing over an archaic, canonical, tradtional, or classic work of literature that you really like, find interesting, or especially, one you despise. You can choose to graffiti over your text by translating (and/or imitating) the work into contemporary language (aka pastiche) or by spoofing the original work (aka parody). Russell Edson performs this action on the story of Goldilocks and Humpty Dumpty, making completely new stories out of the fairy tale and nursery rhyme many of us are already familiar with.

This assignment can be really fun because you can play with being irreverent toward a text or author that you and/or teachers or other students might perceive as sacred. It can be useful to you as a writer to take on this project because canonical or famous writers can be intimidating, which can, in turn, inhibit our writing practice. For example, I often find myself saying, “I’ll never write a line like that one by Shakespeare,” but by way of this assignment, we essentially get to do just that, although maybe not quite like we expect.

Another of my favorite writers, Harryette Mullen uses this exercise to experiment with texts and graffiti over a famous Shakespearean sonnet, and she has produced some fine poems as a result of her efforts. As a source text, she uses Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, which you may have encountered in high school or literature courses:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damasked, red and white,

But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

And in some perfumes is there more delight

Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know

That music hath a far more pleasing sound;

I grant I never saw a goddess go;

My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

As any she belied with false compare.

Here, then, are two Harryette Mullen versions from her book Sleeping with the Dictionary that write over or through Shakespeare’s original:

Dim Lady

My honeybunch’s peepers are nothing like neon. Today’s special at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid paper is white, her racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys, dishwater Slinkys would grow on her noggin. I have seen tablecloths in Shakey’s Pizza Parlors, red and white, but no such picnic colors do I see in her mug. And in some minty-fresh mouthwashes there is more sweetness than in the garlic breeze my  main squeeze wheezes. I love to hear her rap, yet I’m aware that Muzak has a hipper beat. I don’t know any Marilyn Monroes. My ball and chain is plain from head to toe. And yet, by gosh, my scrumptious Twinkie has as much sex appeal for me as any lanky model or platinum movie idol who’s hyped beyond belief.


Variation on a Theme Park

My Mickey Mouse ears are nothing like sonar. Colorado is far less rusty than Walt’s lyric riddles. If sorrow is wintergreen, well the Walt’s breakdancers are dunderheads. If hoecakes are Wonder Bras, blond Wonder Bras grow on Walt’s hornytoad. I have seen roadkill damaged, riddled and wintergreen, but no such roadkill see I in Walt’s checkbook. And in some purchases there is more deliberation than in the bargains that my Mickey Mouse redeems. I love to herd Walt’s sheep, yet well I know that muskrats have a far more platonic sonogram. I grant I never saw a googolplex groan. My Mickey Mouse, when Walt Waddles, trips on garbanzos. And yet, by halogen-light, I think my loneliness as reckless as any souvenir bought with free coupons.

While Mullen’s first piece engages with the same theme as Shakespeare’s sonnet, the second one, as the title indicates playfully, changes the theme and content to something completely new and unexpected. Both poems also change from Shakespeare’s strictly metered sonnet form to the prose poem, which allows Mullen more freedom to play without having to worry about fitting her poems into iambic lines or rhyme schemes. Note too how she still composed both poems with great attention to how the words sound, keeping them both “poemy.”

Try to choose a shorter, manageable piece to graffiti by pastiche or parody, which will keep your task from being overwhelming. Sonnets are good choices, so are some shorter short stories. Tolstoy’s War and Peace, on the other hand, is not a good choice unless you plan on doing some serious condensing. The pressure for you to invent structure and content are alleviated in this assignment; you can focus on playing around with what already exists. At least, you will have played around with a text and had some fun, but at best, you might get a really surprising new piece from this assignment.

On the other hand, you may find the original piece inhibits your ability to imagine how it might be reinvented or spoofed. The feeling of inevitability, that a text was meant to be the way it is and doesn’t seem as though it can be otherwise, is a characteristic that people mark as a sign of great writing. If you can get past this notion, though, that writing pr famous authors are sacred, it might help to remove some of the pressure to create great writing when you sit down to write. It can be encouraging to stand up to literature you admire, helping you feel more free as a writer to try new things.

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