Ripping Stitches: Breaking Form


Ripping Stitches: Breaking Form and Breaking Rules

When someone says “you need to know the rules before you can break them” consider the source. Where does this come from? What is the intense need to know everything before sitting down to the table to write? This can completely stall newer writers–this notion of needing to know everything. As writers we are all constantly learning. Even the most established writers should be asking questions and challenging the norm (how do we get to new places, if we don’t?)

Poems can be and encompass so many things.

What about form poetry?

What if our particular story or poem core does not fit this template?

Can we reinvent this?

 The following is from one of my Open Book pieces while I was writer in residence:

 @lethal_heroine: “Love the way this book by @PoetChelene is structured. Each chapter is an apartment or hotel room she & her mother lived in. I felt those mattresses, looked out those crummy windows, gave new boyfriends the stink eye, kept packing my suitcases and garbage bags, trying to keep up.”

When Heather O’Neill tagged me in this tweet, I was thrilled that the first thing she noticed and commented on, was the structure. So often we as writers feel like we have to write to a template. The work we produce needs to do the work it’s expected to do, while still pushing boundaries. What does it mean to turn a blind eye to a list of rules handed to you? If someone tells me they want me to cook, but insist they outline the recipe for me, then what’s the point? I don’t work like that in the kitchen or with how I parent, so I was totally fine with taking this same approach to writing. It was only natural.

Lately I’ve been concerned about the confines of genre and the claustrophobic-ness of predetermined form. I find that when I write, the structure and genre fill themselves in as needed—I let the writing decide where it wants to be and how it wants to be seen. I am one of those writers who is easily distracted, quickly discouraged, but fast to break the rules. But who’s to say there’s anything wrong with this? Why can’t we flip the script and bust some stitches?

Heather’s tweet not only validated the way that I work, it spoke truthfully about how intense the reader’s experience can be if we take a few risks.

Here are the risks I took with Dear Current Occupant:

Risk 1: abandoned the initial manuscript (all poetry) and said yes to writing it as memoir.

Risk 2: took the memoir form and spun it on its head by throwing in photos, maps, lists, poetry, and essays.

Risk 3: I wrote about traumatic experiences. I wrote about traumatic experiences surrounding my family. I wrote about traumatic experiences surrounding my family and I worried about how I’d be viewed once these stories were out there. Not sure if that’s a risk or a fear, but it’s something I thought about as soon as I let go of that final draft and sent it back to my publisher.

Since the launch of Dear Current Occupant, people continue to ask how my family felt about me writing these stories, but no one asked me how I felt living these stories. An interesting thing to think about. But that’s the rule. How will writing affect others? Right?

The structure that I used allowed me to tell my stories authentically. This meant more to me than fitting a template, following dusty rules, or worrying about the risks of busting a few seams along the way.


Take a phrase, scrap, word, image, picture … anything, and freewrite for 10 minutes. Do not worry about whether or not it should be a poem, essay, or story. Do not worry about spelling grammar, or punctuation. Just write. Freely. Go back, apply the digging for gold technique where you circle words, lines, phrases that stand out. Pull those out and begin to expand. Note your experience with this process. How does it feel to write freely? Without the rules, borders, guidelines? This is the beginning of authentic writing.

The above post is a lecture from my Advanced Poetry Workshop and my Advanced Memoir Workshop