The briefest of assignments can be instructive, too. They need a few elements to teach you, like surprise, and a very close deadline. Here at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, I’m learning from the short stuff at the end of the week.

Yesterday we had about 3 minutes to compose a poem. Short poem, sure. It was the quick that challenged us. Douglas Goetsch, a fine poet whose work I’ve shared with my writing groups (his latest is The Job of Being Everybody), had us write a poem from a construction worker.

The set-up: There’s been construction in front of the Iowa House hotel (where I’m staying, right on the bank of the Iowa River), ripping up the sidewalk all through the Festival. Early morning construction, waking up guests. So one worker decides to post a sign, apologizing for the inconvenience. He’s not a fan of the work schedule himself. Nobody’s yelled at him about it, but he’s seen people complaining to the foreman.

We wrote, then a few of us got to read aloud in the auditorium. (My favorite, of course). Here’s mine:

That growl and beep, it wakes me too
We’d like to sleep as long as you
So please forgive our sounds of labor
This work, once done, gives the river fresh flavor

Goetsch made it easy for us, in a way, while we were working quick with a surprising exercise. “If it winds up sucking, make it suck exquisitely — make it utterly bad,” he said. Freedom to risk failure. It feels familiar, a part of what we do in the Writer’s Workshop.

Good thing that failure is an option on the way to creation. The final assignment in the Novelist’s Tools class is to summarize our novel in three sentences. Hmmm, 80,000 words to a handful of sentences. Short stuff, tall order.

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