Freedom in Structure

BY Cindy Maguire

The last two weeks have been challenging; extra hours at work, commitments in the evenings, visits to family. I didn’t write as much as I usually do. I started to feel anxious and worried about missing deadlines. When I did sit down to write, my thinking was scattered. How to find my way back to a productive place?

I needed some structure for my writing; something solid to hang onto so that I could relax and allow my creative self to flourish. I wanted rules and guidelines. A book landed in my lap- In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry. I turned to the introduction and read these words:

“A form poem is one in which key details of composition, including rhyme, repetition, metre and rhythm, are accepted as givens.”

The editors, Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve, go on to note that creating form poetry- sonnets, haikus, ballads, etc.- can be surprisingly freeing for a writer. This made sense to me. The logical part of your brain feels soothed and content with the orderly structure you are working within. That leaves your creative side free to explore and experiment.

The haiku is a good example. This traditional Japanese form of poetry consists of three unrhymed lines. The aim is to evoke a sense of emotion around a singular event in nature, in a particular season. Here’s a haiku written by the Canadian poet, Winona Baker:

from Spring

                             in the pocket

of his woodshed coveralls

a nest of deer mice


A simple composition that evokes a startlingly clear image. Are there similar forms we can turn to in prose writing that will give us structure so that we can be free to create?

In the current Sister Writes workshop sessions, we are working on Flash fiction, and I am finding that this prose form is helping to settle me down. Flash fiction is short; 800 words is the general limit.

This word limitation provides the framework within which to fashion a complete story. There is no room for “filler.” You must grab your readers attention immediately ( a catchy title and first line helps), and then use your words judiciously so that they have maximum impact.

Author Jennifer Pieroni suggests that “one strong, central image can make the difference between a story being forgettable and being one that stays with the reader forever.” Think of painting and colour and visual impact. Write with your eyes wide open. Picture what you want to say and use words to “paint” the image onto the page. Here’s an example from, White Elephant, by Shannon Peavey:

“The hole in my mouth goes deeper than the missing tooth. It burns and then is numb, like rubbing alcohol on a wound, and it radiates down my jaw and into my throat and stretches fingers through my lungs and it’s obvious that a part of me is missing, has been pulled out with pliers and dropped into a sterile envelope.”

The necessity of getting right to the heart of the story does feel like a form of freedom; a release from wordiness. I have found it helpful to free write first, then edit my story down to 800 words or less. One way to do this is to take a red pen and cross out anything in the free write that doesn’t provide essential information or move the story along. Like decluttering your closet, the end result is liberating.

Another form of short fiction which can be fun to write, is the postcard story. The structural framework is that your story must fit on a typical postcard-250 words or less. You have room for only what is essential. There are many good examples on

Reading and writing classic forms of poetry, working on a flash fiction story, challenging myself to write a postcard short- all of these writing tasks have helped to get me back to a place of calm. One other simple and intriguing idea is to write lists. Author Ray Bradbury, wrote about list making in his book, Zen in the Art of Writing. He talks about making long lists of nouns as triggers for ideas for stories. He recognized that when he freed himself to free write in list form, his creative mind spewed out words which then triggered memories and associations which could be turned into stories.

If coming up with lists of nouns seems too vague, why not try some of these ideas for generating lists of 10 things. You can then choose one or more items on your list to write about in depth:

  • 10 things that make me laugh are
  • 10 things that I value about life
  • 10 things that make me happy
  • 10 places that I would like to visit

The list provides the structure, the freedom comes from working within that framework. If you find yourself unable to settle or have a busy week with only short bursts of time for writing, give yourself some structure or guidelines. Try your hand at a haiku; take one of the writing prompts below, and   concentrate on one sharp, vibrant image the prompt brings to mind; make a list.

These writing prompts can be the basis of a flash fiction or postcard story or used for a 10 minute free write:

  1. Rescue
  2. If you had a choice, what would you dream about tonight?
  3. This is the title of your story: The Crooked Woman
  4. The fog comes on little cat feet (this is from a poem by Carl Sandburg)
  5. Spicy

Til next time, keep writing.