Exam for my prose style creative writing class

I believe that creative writing classes should teach techniques, especially a class like the “prose style” one I was offering this autumn, and so I thought: why not include an exam in the syllabus? My approach in my creative writing classes at Rutgers has been to divide each semester into two parts—first techniques, discussions, lectures, weekly prompts, readings, and then a sequence of workshops (with two submissions from each student). During the semester, I discovered that my students seemed to need wider technical advice than only prose style, so I added classes on plot and point of view, and as a result those topics also entered the exam. My ultimate goal as teacher is to teach everything I expect to say in a workshop before workshops begin; no one should learn about some complex writing idea at the same time as she sits tense and silent with her story or memoir on display.

Here is the exam. Having never seen anything like this before, not all of my questions were very good. Some were merely meant to ensure students knew the terminology; others asked that students utilise the course’s most central techniques. Question six unfortunately encourages the clichéd understanding of Freytag’s triangle that I think makes many writers leery of plot and its wonders, and seven was too vague—everyone interpreted it differently. But overall, I was pleased, and plan to include something like this in the next creative writing class I teach (whenever that will be). Have you ever included something like this in a creative writing class? Does it look impressive? Too basic? Does it turn your stomach?


Adv. Creative Writing Mid-Term Exam

1. What might be some of the benefits, as Strunk and White recommend, of putting the key word in a sentence last?

2. Does this passage use more of a noun style, or more of a verb style? Why might the author have used that style for this passage?

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of those Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination–indeed, everything and anything except me.

3. Is the passage mostly paratactic, or mostly hypotactic? Why?

There were only two Americans stopping at the hotel. They did not know any of the people they passed on the stairs on their way to and from their room. Their room was on the second floor facing the sea. It also faced the public garden and the war monument. There were big palms and green benches in the public garden. In the good weather there was always an artist with his easel. Artists liked the way the palms grew and the bright colors of the hotels facing the gardens and the sea. Italians came from a long way off to look up at the war monument. It was made of bronze and glistened in the rain. It was raining. The rain dripped from the palm trees. Water stood in pools on the gravel paths. The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain. The motor cars were gone from the square by the war monument. Across the square in the doorway of the cafe a waiter stood looking out at the empty square.

4. What is the meter of this poem? You don’t need to describe every line, just give a general sense of the rhythm. Is it iambic? Is there a pattern to the number of stressed syllables per line?

With rue my heart is laden

For golden friends I had,

For many a rose-lipt maiden

And many a lightfoot lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping

The lightfoot boys are laid;

The rose-lipt girls are sleeping

In fields where roses fade.

5. According to Francis Christensen, the cumulative sentence is very effective at combining narrative movement with description—the plain language of the main clause advancing the action while the modifying phrases offer details, sensory information, characterisation. Write two cumulative sentences that show how this sentence can do what Christensen describes.

6. Draw Freytag’s triangle, but leave off the labels or names for the different stages. Now attach the different pieces of the following summarised story to the different parts of the triangle, showing how they fit the triangle’s structure. You can just put a few words by each point—no need to copy the whole thing out.

A boy feels unhappy with his uncaring foster parents. He discovers he has magical powers. He goes to wizard school, and learns he must one day fight the dark lord, V___. He overcomes the plots of many of the dark lord’s servants and helpers. Finally, in the climactic battle, he defeats the dark lord. The forces of evil flee, and peace returns to England. The boy, now a man, marries the girl he loves and settles down.

7. Take the following passage, in distant third person, and rewrite it in close third person. You will probably have to lose some information, but you can also add some if necessary.

Denise Lakely Commasino was a sweet young woman, born and raised in the least appealing end of Atlantic City, five foot six in heels and a hat, who had a terrible temper where the socially uncouth were concerned. She usually held it in check, but the morning when she was visiting her sister at work, and her sister’s boss was yelling at everyone, and literally, as he crossed the office, flicking his employees’ work on the floor, and upending their pencil holders, she turned red, and she looked ready to explode. Denise Lakely Commasino told herself that if this oaf touched her sister’s work, he would get a sturdy kick to the nether regions.

8. Turn this list of statements into one or two subordinated sentences, in which all the logical relationships are clear.

The English language is sacred to the English. The English make no new words. The English language will die. Americans are good at making new words. They are less good at using the old ones. They can prevent the language from dying.

You can get some of the answers from my essays on prose style, posted here.

A Night with Hemingway


Inspired by a reading for Jane Bowles that I saw in the KGB bar in New York, I realised that I could organise something similar—an entire evening’s reading devoted to a dead and famous writer, an introduction to his or her work. So, myself and a group of readers are returning to Bodhi Coffee to read some Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway was the writer easiest to think of for such a reading—he wrote flash fiction, short shorts, essays, memoir, poem poems and prose poems. His writing ranges from the barest minimalism of stories like Hills Like White Elephants to the florid passion of Death in the Afternoon. If you study the craft of writing, Hemingway is inescapable. He is the closest thing we have to a scientist of fiction.

I would love, on this night, to perform with readers a condensed chapter from Robert Lamb’s “Art Matters,” which explains how Hemingway’s fiction revolutionised modern dialogue, with one voice reading Henry James, another Hemingway. I haven’t quite worked out if it will be possible.

I hope to see you there.