Elements of Craft

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  • Learning from Adichie

    Today we’re going to turn our attention from writing constraints – which are fun but exhausting! – to consider the dangers of telling a single story. In 2009, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie went viral for her Ted Talk discussing the single story. She was already a renowned writer, having published two highly-honored novels and a critically-acclaimed collection of short stories. She’s well-known for her expert level skill of creating real, compelling characters. They’re the type of characters that stick in your head for a while, that you feel like you know. 

    Adichie explained in her Ted Talk that a “single story” (a one-sided perspective) is dangerous because it doesn’t take other perspectives into account – it only tells one part of the story. When she was growing up, she said, she didn’t recognize herself in any of the stories that she read, to which “the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature.” She goes on to say:

    “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

    And in an interview with Parul Sehgal, she elaborated further: 

    “I don’t start out writing to challenge stereotypes. I think that can be as dangerous as starting out to “prove” stereotypes. And I say “dangerous” because fiction that starts off that way often ends up being contrived, burdened by its mission. I do think that simply writing in an emotionally truthful way automatically challenges the single story because it humanizes and complicates. And my constant reminder to myself is to be truthful.” 

    As you write this week and beyond, keep Adichie’s words of wisdom in your mind. How can we all strive to be emotionally truthful in our work? How can we take care to complicate by adding other perspectives and nuances to a situation that might seem straightforward at face value? How can we turn our heroes and villains into real breathing humans, with virtues and flaws and someone or something they love deeply? 

    Also, if you have some time, spend some time with one of Adichie’s moving stories. Notice how she has a way of gently breaking your heart.

    2 days ago
  • A Brief History of Oulipo

    With our focus this week centered on writing with constraints, we would be remiss to not address “Oulipo.” Oulipo, short for ouvroir de littérature potentielle (loose translation: “workshop of potential literature”), was a literary and mathematical society founded by Raymond Queneau, a poet, and François Le Lionnes, a chemical engineer. 

    Georges Perec, the author featured in our latest prompt, was also a prominent “Oulipian,” an identity that Raymond Queneau once so eccentrically described as a “rat who constructs the labyrinth from which they plan to escape.”

    It isn’t an inaccurate description. The genius of Oulipo exists in its rigid, self-imposed constraints. The Oulipian writer decides to write a novel without using the letter “E,” and sets out to achieve that goal, no matter how painful the process. In doing so, they are able to write sentences and stories they wouldn’t have thought possible... or so the thinking goes. The creation of Oulipo was also predicated on the idea that no writing is without constraint, that a writer is bound to their own comfort in style, form, and content. The Oulipian philosophy is to accept this and double-down by creating new restraints, resulting in fresh viewpoints and crisp writing.

    Was that your experience? As you write within the constraints offered this week, leave a note in the footnotes or in your message to readers explaining your reaction to this strange manner of composition. And if you are still curious about Oulipo, check out this enlightening article written in The Guardian.

    Until next time!

    3 days ago
  • Week 7, and this week's featured piece

    Hello writers,

    Welcome to Week 7 of Elements of Craft! This week we will focus on unorthodox writing constraints and techniques. When you’re ready to try some out, check out today’s prompt: “Your Writing, Your Rule”!

    Before you do, though, I encourage you to go read lulu.mae’s stunning poem, and our pick for Monday Musings this week, “Ode to the Power of Cherry Blossoms.” Talk about form reflecting content – lulu.mae uses both sound and line breaks to build power right into the reading of the poem. The “p” and “b” sounds mimic the way that the blossoms “beat through the thickest wood of branches”; you can just hear the crackling and popping of the blossoms! Throughout the piece, we move from the “p” (pink/ pink/ pink/ pink) and “b” sounds (blossoms/ branches/ brief/ bleed) into softer “w”s, “m”s, and “s”s (wind/ words/ marking/ sowing/ seeds), until we explode right back into pollute/ pollen/ pink/ pink/ pink/ POWER. It’s a short poem that makes use of every single word and packs quite the punch.

    I also love that lulu.mae chose to use such powerful alliteration in a poem about soft petals – it’s quite the juxtaposition! She hammers in the sensation of breaking through her use of enjambment, which happens when a line overflows into the next line: “They bleed/From wounds.” 

    All of your pieces have contained so much power, and it’s been such a pleasure to read them. Keep up the awesome work this week!

    4 days ago
  • Sharing Your Writing Rituals

    Sometimes the perfect pre-writing activity is just what you need to get writing. Last week, we asked you to share any writing rituals that you practice. We loved reading all the different ways that you find inspiration and compel the words on to the page. The pandemic has not slowed you down – if anything, most of you are writing more than ever! In the name of sharing trade secrets, we wanted to give you some of your peers’ tips, so that we all may have the chance to try out a new pre-writing ritual. If you’ve been feeling stuck with writing lately, maybe one of these activities will be the one that finally does the trick!


    “Do some stretches.”

    “I make a cup of tea and find a comfortable spot on the sofa. I like to take some time to think before I write. Sometimes this takes half an hour in which I simply remember what I did that day, what I dreamt last night or what my surrounding looks, feels, or smells like.”

    “I always make tea.”

    “I like to drink some water, then I stop everything else and concentrate fully on the words and the screen/page.”

    “I make sure I have a full water bottle so I don't have to get up.”

    “I go to the bathroom beforehand and then find a quiet, generally empty place to work.”

    “I always like to put on a little bit of music that fits the scene, especially if it's dramatic.”

    “If I'm needing inspiration, I'll put on some emotional or dramatic music and dance around for awhile. (as long as no one is around of course!). I know it's weird but it works.”

    “I like to listen fantasy music to get me completely in the mood.”

    “Before I write, I always make sure to put on instrumental music. If the situation permits, I will sit in my balcony to write, and if it's raining, well that's just a plus!”

    “Take a few deep breaths, and relax. It'll be much harder to write naturally if you aren't feeling comfortable.”

    “I do deep emotional imagination of my topic so that everything which I write has a living effect.”

    “I often find that my best work started spontaneously with random ideas, which usually does not involve much routine. I do like to take walks outside or just travel before writing, though.”

    “The one feature of my writing I can always count on is unpredictability.”

    “I read what I have previously written not only to get into the flow, but to review and refresh my memory of what emotion / scene I'm writing.”

    “I write on an old typewriter. When I write, I first take a moment to just settle in. I always note the smell: my typewriter has a certain, old sort of smell that makes me so happy! I put the paper in—it takes me a minute or two to get it perfectly straight. I always leave the exact same amount of space at the top of the page. The I let myself say hello to my characters, and I begin to look at where they are. I zero in on them and build a scene around them. Then, I see what they do.”

    “I definitely get more inspiration at night.”

    “Chocolate. I find that I love chocolate before writing as it calms me down. I also take hot showers.”

    6 days ago
  • The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

    We tend to associate characters with stories, not poetry – but poems have characters too. In fact, all poems have a “speaker” which is oftentimes distinct from the poet. For instance, I could write a poem from the viewpoint of a tomato, in which case I am the poet and the tomato is the poem’s speaker. The tomato, then, is also the poem’s main character! 

    One of poetry’s most famous characters is J. Alfred Prufrock, the protagonist of T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Eliot’s poem consists entirely of Prufrock’s internal dialogue as he grapples with self-doubt, regret, and loneliness. 

    It’s quite the beautiful poem, and I hope you’ll give it a full read. But in the meantime, here are a few particularly striking lines from Prufrock’s speech. Pay attention to the imagery and the music of the words; try out the words aloud. No prompt today, just a question: Do you dare to eat a peach?



    “Let us go then, you and I,
    When the evening is spread out against the sky...
    The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
    The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes, ...
    And indeed there will be time
    To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?” ...
    Do I dare
    Disturb the universe? ...
    I should have been a pair of ragged claws
    Scuttling across the floors of silent seas. ...
    I grow old ... I grow old ...
    I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
    Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
    I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
    I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
    I do not think that they will sing to me.”
    7 days ago