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Postcards & Other Experiments in Formalism

From the Open Page | Selection by Alexander Weinstein

The postcard exercise is part of a larger genre within creative writing known as Formalism.  In formalism you steal pre-existing forms (often ones not considered “literary”) and pirate them to produce poems, essays, and fictional stories.  Many writers have used forms such as dictionary entries, recipes, fictional interviews, water bills, and mock scientific reports to create their stories.

The benefit of using a form such as a recipe or a dictionary entry is that it comes with a very tight structure and often a pre-determined voice.  We are all familiar with the dry and academic voice of scientific reports, for example, or the icy tone of a form-letter sent by a corporation—and we can use these tones to have a lot of fun. Remember that part of the joy of working in formalism is when you allow the strictness of the form to break its container just slightly. 

For example, what does a dictionary entry written by someone having marital problems sound like? Are there moments when that author might let something slip into the definition that they didn’t intend? What about a formal scientific report written by someone who still longs to see unicorns? Again, the variations of formalism are as infinite as are the genres it can span!

Let's Get Started:

1. Create a list of 20 forms.

 These forms should use language which already exist in the  world. For example: 

  •      Book Reviews

  •      Self-Help Article

  •      Menus

  •      Report Card

  •      Dictionary Entries

  •      Anthropological Study

2. Choose a form from your list and now spend 15-30 minutes writing.

Within the constraints of the form you've chosen, write a story/prose poem. Often the form comes with really fun additional elements you can play with (for example, dictionary entries often have synonyms listed afterward, scientific reports get to use graphs and formulas, etc.)

3. Now use the same form to create a second piece.  One of the exciting elements of formalist constraint is that, within the parameters of the form you’ve chosen, you still have a lot of room for variation. Exploring the same form multiple times will allow you to play with the very malleable and expandable terrain of the form you’ve chosen.

Note: in some cases you may find that you’ve got a series emerging.  Particularly if you choose a form which is shorter (dictionary entry for example) you may find that the story or poem you’re producing is actually a series of dictionary entries.

You can find this writing exercise, along with many others, in Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing's anthology:


About the book: This 300-page book collects creative writing exercises and award-winning stories, essays, and poetry from some of our most beloved instructors from the past 10 years, and captures the magic of our program in its pages. Both a craft-book as well as an anthology of award-winning fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, this book is the perfect way to bring the magic of MVICW with you into the coming year!

About the writer: Alexander Weinstein is the founder and director of the Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. He is the author of the short story collections Universal Love and Children of the New World which was chosen as a notable book of the year by The New York Times, NPR, Google, and Electric Literature. His fiction and interviews have appeared in Rolling Stone, World Literature Today, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, and Best American Experimental Writing. He is a Professor of Creative Writing at Siena Heights University.


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