[exercise] Conference Survival 101: Found Fiction in Boring Presentations


As the speaker at the front of the room drones through her PowerPoint presentation, you furiously take notes. Those seated near you are impressed. At the break, over coffee and stale pastries, they point you out to their friends: he must have written down every word she said.  Not far from the truth, but instead of taking notes you were discovering free verse. Here’s how.

Listen for an instant, then write down what the speaker just said, as much as you remember, word for word. You may write five words, maybe ten. That’s the first line of your poem. Now open your ears, listen for another instant, write that down, and so on. Don’t try to memorize or retain what is being said, just listen, jot, listen, jot. Get each phrase you write verbatim. When you can no longer remember the exact words you heard, it’s time to stop and listen for the next line of your poem. Do not edit.

Here’s an example that I recorded at a wetlands conference, during a presentation by the manager of a state wildlife area.

They have both tractors and these / individuals travel so kind of keep that in mind / In 2011, the left hand / inundated important things/ windrows of hay are left out / these so just be aware and / fires created / by that equipment itself / at least I think it has / to various types of forbs / just to name a few out there / The major emphasis of the Killsnake plat / short-eared owls out there / and turkey vultures through time / the cutting out there doesn’t mean they can / get out there over the last 10 of 15 years./ Species what I used to do out there / on Killsnake itself and so the property / is changing with the times.

“Killsnake” is the name of the property, poetic in itself. The repeated occurrence of “out there” was habitual to the speaker, a phrase he sprinkled throughout the last part of the presentation, in the same way some people repeatedly interject “you know.” A bit annoying, but the repetition also emphasized the otherness of this place, far removed from a conference room in a big city.

Much of it is gibberish, but occasional lines pairings work together. For instance:

In 2011 the left hand / Inundated important things.  
Short eared owls / And turkey vultures through time.

Surprisingly, the fragments usually retain the major themes of the talk. As jumbled as the Killsnake jottings are, you can still sense the transition between two sections of the talk:  the first one about activities undertaken at Killsnake, and the second about animals observed on the property.

Aside from the obvious reason, to combat boredom, I do this because I’m fascinated by the way the duration of my memory — 10-20 syllables — and the natural rhythm of language work together to create snippets of what can be read as free verse.  The natural extension of this exercise is to mess with it, changing or adding a word here, switching the order of two phrases there, to discover or create a meaningful piece.

And here’s a completed poem based on this exercise. Enjoy!

On the Killsnake Plat

They have tractors and these /
Travel. Keep that in mind. /
In 2011, windrows of hay
Were left in the field, unbaled,
Inundated by the flood.
Where were the tractors?
In 2012, sparks from tractors
Burned the hay up. Fires created
By the equipment itself ,
At least I think it was.
Hay is an important thing.
Keep that in mind.

They hay the meadows
To raise the cash to
Restore the wetlands
Out there,
To various types of forbs,
Sedges, rushes, to name a few.
I’ve seen short-eared owls and,
Through time, turkey vultures,
Out there.

Cutting hay doesn’t mean
The emphasis is cash
Out there.
Keep that in mind.
The next 10 or 15 years,
The more they restore, the less they’ll hay
Out there.
Species, not property,
the Killsnake itself, is
Changing with the times
Out there.
Keep that in mind.
Just be aware.

Dedicated to the Killsnake State Wildlife Area, Chilton, Wisconsin

Joe Artz is an archaeologist and fiction writer. His stories have appeared in print in the Wapsipinicon Almanac and PromptPress. He posts short fiction at joeartz.wordpress.com. He and his wife, Cherie, have unleashed two daughters on an unsuspecting world.

Get ready for draft at the Witching Hour Fest

Witching Hour Festival

We’re pleased to announce that draft will be hosting a panel  on November 6 from 5:00-6:15 exploring the creative process at a new event in Iowa City. The Witching Hour Fest, curated by Iowa City’s arts leaders, seeks to explore and engage the unknown through performances and discussion.

Rachel Yoder, a founding editor of draft, will be hosting a panel that explores first and final drafts of creative work from a writer Kerry Howley, director Rachel Chavkin, and innovative cross-disciplinary artist Mei-Ling Shaw Williams. Here’s the full description:

What inspires creative work? How does it first materialize and then grow and change? What does a first draft look like compared to the final one? And how does the artist get from point A to point B?

Rachel Yoder, founding editor of draft: the journal of process, leads a discussion with The TEAM’s artistic director Rachel Chavkin and other fantastic creators about the murky process of conceptualizing, crafting, revising, and editing new work. Our panelists will provide passages from first and final drafts of their work to discuss and share with audience members.

If you’re in Iowa City this November, we hope to see you there!

[marginalia] on rejection : : barret baumgart

Typewriter close up shot, concept of Bad News

Before I’d ever been published, I submitted to a lot of places large and small and got pretty used to rejection (as I still am). Obviously, there are form rejections and there are personal rejections. The good thing about all the rejection back then was that there were some personal rejections that came from some great places. I found this encouraging. Continue reading

[writing prompt] the misconceived history story :: Marisela Navarro


In the Misconceived History story in “A Public Denial” by Allan Gurganus (published in the anthology Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories) the narrator attempts to restore his deceased grandfather’s dignity by challenging rumors that his grandfather’s death was the result of his own foolhardiness.

The story opens with this line:

Despite persistent rumors to the contrary, my grandfather did not die driving a Toyota across his pond.

The story resembles a persuasive essay; the narrator uses transition words such as “despite,” “while,” “admittedly,” and “evidently” to compose his argument. What I love about the story is how Gurganus uses no emotion to tell it, just the facts, yet it still carries an emotional impact. For a story that spans only two pages, I find this remarkable. Continue reading

[marginalia] Saying Goodbye To My Novel :: Marisela Navarro


I worked on my novel for six years, on and off.  I completed and revised several drafts.  Something was wrong with it, but I didn’t know what.  My whole body went into it.  My fingers, shoulders, knees, eyes.  It grew, seed to forest.  I gave it a name.  I forgot about it.  I cared, I didn’t.  Nothing was so serious.  I avoided it.  These are all the places I traveled to throughout the years I said I was writing a novel:  Puerto Rico, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Florida, Jamaica, Maryland, California, Texas, North Carolina, Illinois, Virginia, France, New York, New Hampshire, Nevada, New Zealand, Colorado, New Mexico, Maine.  I wrote the most in Massachusetts.  Other things I did that come to mind first, without thinking:  painted walls, moved apartments, tried on wedding dresses, ate sushi, jumped rope, had dreams of lovers dying. Continue reading

[marginalia] The Literary Slacker :: Jen Pieroni

Reality Bites

This post is part of our ongoing web series MARGINALIA about all things writing, reading, & learning. To submit your own experience, please read our guidelines.

I knew I was actually going to finish Danceland when I kept drafting it even though I’d already realized that the structure was all wrong. Being of the “slacker generation” (see film: Reality Bites), I don’t believe I had ever before exemplified the stick-to-itiveness to see a failing project through. (See unfinished novel: Fishtival). Why did I bother this time? Because I really, really wanted it. Continue reading