Making All Things New: Rules for Writers

This year on Moving Writer’s, I am dusting off some old-but-wise books on my shelf about writing, creating a tiny review, then considering how one passage from the book can inform writing instruction today, even decades after the book was first published. 

This month, I’ll consider Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems by Mary Oliver

Length: 140 pages

Year of Publication: 2000

A Tiny Review:

Any book by Mary Oliver is worth your time, but this one is exceptional for its genre-blurring and the nuggets of writerly advice we can mine from it. 

The book is not so much essays as what Oliver calls “ruminations and conversations,” but they range from the introspections about nature that we have come to expect from this poet and the analysis of other poets like Whitman and Poe. Oliver also stands back and considers her own writing life, habits, and craft. The book is a quick read that leaves you with a glow of good ideas.

One Wise Quote: 

“Years ago I set three ‘rules’ for myself. Every poem I write, I said, must have a genuine body, it must have sincere energy, and it must have a spiritual purpose. If a poem in my mind failed in one of these duties, it was rebuked and redone, or discarded. Over the forty or so years during which writing poems has been my primary activity, I have added other admonitions and consents.  I want every poem to ‘rest’ in intensity. I want it to be rich in ‘pictures of the world.’  I want it to carry threads from the perceptually felt world to the intellectual world. I want each poem to indicate a life lived with intelligence, patience, passion, and whimsy (not my life – not necessarily! – but the life of my formal self, the writer).” 

In Today’s Classroom: 

I chanced upon Oliver’s list of three rules while browsing my own bookshelves as I was reading Jason Reynold’s masterpiece Long Way Down with my students. This novel-in-verse also contains rules gathered in lists of three, most notably the rules the protagonist, Will Holloman, ponders following or breaking, rules about crying, snitching, and revenge (Reynolds 31-33).

Long Way Down is a far cry from Mary Oliver, and yet just as Oliver’s list defines her writing, so do these rules define Will’s decisions . . . or at least they might. 

This got some rumination and conversation going in my own mind. What if we invite our students to think in this “three rules” sort of sequence about their own writing lives?  What might that look like?

Here are three possible prompts to share with students after reading that brief excerpt from Mary Oliver’s book:

1. What are the three rules that you hope everything you create as a writer this year will follow? 

I like how this one helps readers establish and commit to an identity as a writer that moves above and beyond rubrics, assignments, or the teacher’s objectives.

2. Imagine Jason Reynolds has three rules he tries to follow as a writer. What might they be?  What have you noticed in your reading that makes you say that? Use Mary Oliver’s words as a mentor text to help you write three rules and possible expansions from another writer’s point of view. 

Of course this could be adapted to whatever author you are studying. We read four pieces – poem, novel-in-verse, and essays – by the author before I would pose this question. This question could also be altered to reflect a musician that the student knows well. 

3. What three rules might writers of novels-in-verse choose to guide them to excellence? OR What three rules of traditional novels might writers of novels-in-verse choose to break?  

This question could also be adapted to any genre you are studying!

I wonder: Have students ever thought of artists, writers, and musicians developing their own rules by which to judge their work, rules that guide them to excellence? Have they ever considered rules for writing that do not come from a teacher or relate to grammar and punctuation? This snippet from Mary Oliver’s Winter Hours could help them develop “rules” for their own creative lives.  

My book, Poetry Pauses, is due out from Corwin Press in February. You can connect with me on Twitter @theVogelman or engage on Facebook at to continue the conversation.  

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1 Comment

  1. You’ve got me thinking about writing three rules for teaching. Here’s an initial draft:

    Every lesson must allow for thoughtful reading, messy writing, and lively discussion.

    Thanks for getting me thinking!

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