Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Five Easy Pieces

I want to share a writing exercise that I do with my poetry workshop students.  It is not one that I invented, but it is one of my favorites, partly because I borrowed it.  It's like a good recipe for blueberry cake that you've borrowed and made your own, adapting for your fussy oven, your particular love of cinnamon, or your passion for an extra crumbly top.  It's also one that I wait to spring on students until the last week or so of class because it takes some trust to make it work--trust in oneself, in the process, in the person who is asking one to do it.  Even then, some students think it's pretty crazy.  Others, though, create something magical from this foundation.  It works well for writing poems, but it can work for other kinds of writing, too.
The exercise is called "Five Easy Pieces," and it was created by the poet Richard Jackson, one of my graduate school professors.  I actually never did this exercise with him.  Instead, I found it in The Practice of Poetry, a collection of writing exercises edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell.  Robin was my MFA thesis advisor, so this book is near and dear to my heart, but it is also just a fantastic book for days when one is stuck or needs a new direction to try.  So here goes:
"This exercise, " writes Jackson, "attempts to tell a whole story in a quick scene.  It is to be written in five sentences. . . . There are two preparation steps.  The first step is to remember a person you know well. . . .  The second step is to imagine a place where you find the person.  Then you are ready for the five easy pieces."
  1. Describe the person's hands.
  2. Describe something he or she is doing with the hands.
  3. Use a metaphor to say something about some exotic place.
  4. Mention what you would want to ask the person in the context of 2 and 3, above.
  5. The person looks up or toward you, notices you there, gives an answer that suggest he or she only gets part of what you asked.
About the exercise, Jackson writes, "it is useful in showing how a poem can condense narrative and characterization, how it can quickly shift focus like a photographer going wild with a zoom lens, how images reveal stories behind them simply by knocking against other images and perspectives, how you can use dialogue in a poem--each time I use it I've found different uses."
And I have found my own uses for it, too, but I'd love to hear from other folks about it.  If you try it, please let me know how it works for you!


  1. Oh ho ho, those are some of my favorite hands! I'm so eager to try this exercies that I might just have to sit down and do it myself -- since I can't stand to wait until next semester. Thank you for putting it up.
    kisses on your head

  2. They are some of my favorites, too! Kisses right back at you.

  3. I love this exercise; and the photos are great, too! So expressive, hands almost disembodied but, at the same time, full with the force and weight of the bodies behind them. With all three pairs of hands, too, each hand seeks the other, whether in knitting where they work together or in sculpting a straw wrapper (?) or in scraping with one nail the corner of another. I love these pictures. But where are your hands, themagpiesfancy?

  4. Well, Todd, as tempted as I am to quote a terrible song from Jewel here about my hands being my own, I will try not to. Oh, it is difficult to resist. My hands are not what's interesting, I'm afraid--at least not to me. When you have a blog, you can post my hands on it as often as you like.

  5. I've used this exercise, and I like it. It can have mixed results, though. It seems to be one of those things that works either really well or just not at all. Some students write absolutely brilliant poems with it, but there's no middle ground. As a preliminary to this exercise, I like to read and discuss Seamus Heaney's "The Harvest Bow." The Heaney poem doesn't follow the formula exactly, but it is easy to imagine that it could have started out with this exercise before being revised into what it is now.

    I studied with Robin Behn at Alabama. What a great teacher she is. And I'd recommend The Practice of Poetry to anybody. I still do exercises out of it, myself, sometimes when I'm stuck.

  6. I'm gonna try it... I adore these photos you have taken! They are so beautiful.

    my best,


  7. James,
    I know what you mean about mixed results. Some of my students get nowhere with it while others write some of their best work of the semester. I think it's a fun one to try regardless. I love your suggestion about using Heaney's "The Harvest Bow." Great to hear that you studied with Robin, too. She was, and is, a huge inspiration to me.

  8. Thanks so much, Gretchen! Let me know how the exercise works for you.

  9. What a great exercise (I'm going to try this while on the train to NY tomorrow) and a wonderful blog (which I am going to add to my reader right now). Thanks for stopping by Secret Notebooks!

  10. Thanks so much! I'm really enjoying Secret Notebooks, too. Hope the exercise is helpful.


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