Writing Exercises and Inspiration
First offered March 23-April 30, 2020, when we were adjusting to our stay-at-home weeks to protect each other from covid-19. Most exercises will take about 30 minutes. A few will need somewhat longer and a few can be done in less time.
Fragments and Epigraph
1. Grab any book and flip through until you find a fragment that interests you. This should be something less than a complete sentence.
2. Embed this fragment, fully stolen, into a piece of short poetry. Don’t start with your fragment, but write toward it and then through it to some kind of ending.
3. Grab a different book and this time, find either a fragment or a complete sentence that interests you. Use this piece as an epigraph (a short quotation placed after the title intended to suggest or resonate a theme or direction to a short poem.)
Example of a poem with an epigraph: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42668/american-solitude
Break the Rules Memory Exercise
1. Make a list of at least 10 rules you’ve learned about writing. Things like, “Always capitalize at the beginning of a sentence” or “Develop a clear setting as soon as possible in a story.”
2. Select one of the rules on your list and violate it as you write about the experience of reading a favorite or pivotal book. Answer some of these questions in your writing: How did you discover this book? Can you describe the cover, binding, illustrations? What particular details of the day, the light, the time of year when you first read it seem meaningful? What was going on in your life at the time? What did the book rouse in you, even if you can’t quite pin it down?
Create a story or prose poem that is 26 sentences long, each sentence beginning with the next letter of the alphabet. (Add other, arbitrary conditions that sound like fun, such as one sentence should be one-word long; there should be one question mark, one quotation, etc.)
Here’s a longer explanation of this idea, along with an example: http://saitoutloud.blogspot.com/2012/01/alphabetical-stories-sample-26-sentence.html
Weird Writing Material
You can find a version of this exercise I contributed to Creative Writing Demystified, edited by Sheila Bender, and published by McGraw-Hill in 2011.
1. Select something strange to write on and have it ready. I often use adding machine tape, but you might choose to write on the back of a huge paper bag, or use dry erase markers on a big window or mirror, or pull a cereal box out of recycling, cut it open, and write inside. Or go tiny and write in your smallest script on the back of a grocery receipt.
2. But first, in a notebook or on your computer, warm up by responding for three minutes to each of the following five prompts designed to evoke memory or sensory responses.
a lost love
something that happened late at night
the way a familiar animal moves
names of streets where something important happened to you
a recurring dream or dream image
3. Without pausing, jump from your notebook or computer to the non-traditional writing material you selected. Begin with a fragment, sentence, or image from one of your 3-minute pieces that interests you. Keep writing without stopping to change words.
Shitty First Drafts inspiration from Anne Lamott
"The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.... You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, "Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?," you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Even though my baby is so young, sometimes he seems very dramatic. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. My papers have never been six pages long. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you're supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go--but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages."
(From “Shitty First Drafts” by Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, 1994)
Newspaper or Magazine Inspiration
Choose a sentence from a newspaper whose meaning gets larger and stranger when taken out of context. Use it as the first line of a poem. If you get stuck partway into the poem, try repeating just part of the line and vary how you complete the rest of the sentence, changing the meaning and music of the line each time. When you have a draft you like, try moving the full sentence to the end of the poem, or somewhere to the middle, or maybe take it out entirely. Stir, and see what happens.
This poetry prompt comes from Idra Novey whose debut collection The Next Country received the Kinereth Gensler Award from Alice James Books and was included in Virginia Quarterly Review’s list of Best Poetry Books of 2008. She teaches in the School of the Arts at Columbia University. (This exercise appeared in The Time Is Now section of Poets & Writers (pw.org) website on May 9, 2011.) https://www.pw.org/writing-prompts-exercises
Take a Walk
1. Spend 15 minutes walking around outside where you won’t run into other people (because we’re practicing physical distancing for the good of the each other.) Pay attention to the objects you see. Make a list of five “foreign objects” (such as a Band-aid stuck to a stop sign or a scarf hanging from a tree).
2. When you sit down to write, try to imagine the story behind the object – how it ended up where you found it. Build a narrative poem around the object.
Describe the scene in great detail – the landscape surrounding the object, then the object itself. Build a lyric poem around the object. (20 minutes)
This exercise comes from Ms. Gamzon’s list at http://advancedpoetrysota.blogspot.com/2019/10/more-poetry-prompts.html
Write a poem that is composed of only one-syllable words, or a poem that alternates between one and two-syllable words. (A professor at Western Washington University suggested this with sentences to indicate that even when we think something is "simple," it is also possible to be layered and complex.)
We still have the postal service - for now. Choose something you’ve written that will fit on a postcard, an index/recipe card, or a similar sized piece of paper. Copy it onto the postcard, address it, and mail it to someone, envelope or not. (Bonus points if you change something in the piece as you copy it. Writing by hand often jolts revision.)
Read Local Poets
It’s National Poetry Month! A delightful way to celebrate is to read poems by people from your town or state. If you’re in Salina, read poems by Patricia Traxler and by Harley Elliott. You won’t be sorry you did.
Lucky for us, both writers have new books coming out: Traxler’s story collection In the Skin will be published by Spartan Press. Elliott's new and selected poems, The Mercy of Distance, will be published by Hanging Loose Press.
1. Spend longer than you usually would (5 whole minutes) examining an old photograph—a found image, a photo from childhood, an iconic shot from history—then give it a title. DON'T READ STEP 2 UNTIL YOU'VE DONE THIS.
2. Then put the photo aside and write a poem using this title.
Email or Text Message Collaboration
Compose a poem collaboratively with a friend at a distance (across the street or the world). Write one line and text or email it to your co-writer. Invite your friend to write the next line. Keep passing the growing poem back and forth. Continue composing the poem together, line by line, until you have 14-20 lines.
Then each of you may separately consider the draft and revise it independently. Compare your final versions.
Look up “ekphrastic poem exercise” on Google. Find an idea that you like and follow the directions.
Physical distancing means you can’t go to a gallery or art center to find a work of art. Here are some other ways to find visual art:
* Look at your local art center's or favorite museum's website. So many are having virtual exhibitions online or on social media.
* Find public art, graffiti, or other visual art from the safety of your car as you drive to your essential services.
* Look at the art in your own home for inspiration.
Self Portrait Poem
1. Begin with a title: Self Portrait With ______________ (fill in the blank)
2. You are welcome to fill in the blank with any current obsession or interesting word/words you like. Try to choose a title that excites you. It can be anything: Self Portrait with Machete, Self Portrait with Mother Teresa, Self Portrait with Broken Coffee Mug, Self Portrait with Winning Lottery Ticket. Or, shelter-in-place style: Self Portrait with Week-Old Tea Stain or Self Portrait with Surgical Mask.
3. Then write the poem. The metaphorical gold lies in describing not only you, but the object you used to fill in the blank.
Find a newspaper, magazine, or old book page. (Here's a chance to clear out the hoards of reading material, and reuse for poems.)
Austin Kleon is the master of newspaper blackout. Click the link, watch the video (less than 2 minutes), and follow his directions.
Write a poem that explores how you were named and the meaning of your name (whether that meaning comes from research or your imagination). Include at least one bold and meaningful lie.
Set a timer for five minutes and freewrite—write anything that comes to mind without stopping until the timer goes off. Keep moving your hand! Then circle every third word or phrase from what you’ve written. Use these circled words as the starting point for a short poem.
Q and A
1. Start with listing about 5 questions that don’t have “real” answers. These should be questions that you are interested in: What are all the wrong reasons? What colors are birds in the dark? Where do zombies go to get their kicks? What do sunflowers think in summer?
2. Now, write 5 answers to each question. Here are the guidelines: Each answer must have an image in it that comes from one of the five senses. You’ll now have 5 short poems, each starting with a question. Choose your favorite. Rearrange the lines until you are pleased.
I borrowed this exercise from somewhere many years ago. Here’s my poem in response:
What colors are birds in the dark?
Jays are midnight’s blue secrets.
A robin’s red breast drums up thunder before dawn.
Lost parakeet pecks a vanilla cookie.
Scent of smoke – a crow’s wing.
My hand stroking velvet sparrows.
I’ve been writing science poems with Salina high school students – and sixth graders in Minneapolis – this school year (before the shutdown, of course) through the Salina Arts & Humanities Arts Infusion program. Here’s one of the exercises we do together. It has lots of parts, like an experiment:
1. Make a list of 3-5 science things you’re interested in. (A field of science or a phenomenon or a force or substance or animal/plant …)
2. Make a list of at least 8 words and phrases that sound beautiful to you no matter what they mean (for example, from linguist Robert Beard: diaphanous, bungalow, elixir, lilt, ripple, woebegone).
3. Now, look at the list of science things. Choose one from the list and go a layer deeper into specificity: not plants, but oak trees. Can you go another layer closer? Not oak trees, but acorns or leaf shape. Get as specific as you can. Do this for a second science thing on your list.
4. Select two of your science things from anywhere in your notes – specific or more general. Do a 3-minute Google search on each thing on your phone or computer. Click a website, article, or image that catches your eye and read a bit, copying down no more than 10 words/phrases from each site.
5. Now, be a chemist. Mix as suggested by the math equation below and see what new compound or substance you invent that looks like a poem:
Something from your science lists
+ At least one of your beautiful words
+ A phrase or idea you copied from a website during your online research
+ Whatever this alchemy calls you to write
= A poem (give it a title)
Choose something you’ve written in response to any of the earlier exercises, or a piece you've had around but isn't finished yet and double its length. Two ideas about how you might do that, but feel free to double it in any way you like:
1. Type or write out the poem leaving a line of space between each written line. Then, go back and fill in those spaces with another line.
2. Call the poem you’ve written Roman numeral I. Write Roman numeral II at the bottom and write the second part.
"Write an essay [or prose poem] that has fewer than five hundred words. Give yourself a time limit—a half-hour, say—and write about one image that comes to mind or an image that has stayed in your memory from the last couple of days. Use vivid, concrete details. Do not explain the image to us but allow it to evolve into metaphor. If you are stuck, open a book of poetry and write down the first line you see as an epigraph (an opening quote). If you write more than five hundred words, you must trim and cut to stay under the limit. Find what is essential."
(Note: 500 words is about 2 double-spaced typed pages, or 1 single-spaced typed page.)
From Suzanne Paola and Brenda Miller, authors of Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction (McGraw-Hill) (Paola and Miller were my professors at Western Washington University.)
The Photographic Negative
Look back at what you’ve written lately, or find an old draft that isn’t working yet.
“Write the opposite of your poem, the poem’s other. Then write the opposite of the opposite. This will either be a translation more or less back to the original, which will prove the poem, or it will translate away from the original, into what is also there.”
From Oliver de la Paz’s “Thirteen Things to Do to the Poem You’ve Already Written: Adventures in Revision” (De la Paz was another of my Western Washington professors.)
Two-fer! Listen and Write
Poetry Unbound is a new podcast that examines one poem in each 10-minute episode. The poems are read by Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama. I am listening to Joy Harjo’s “Praise the Rain” as I type this. (Harjo is the current Poet Laureate of the United States – the first Native American poet to hold the office.)
When you choose a poem and listen, you'll see that the page for each episode has a "question to reflect on." Use those questions as inspiration for your writing.
Choose a juicy word, perhaps from a word puzzle you recently completed. Then, follow Terrance Hayes’s instructions:
“The Anagram Poems are adopted from the word game puzzles found in several syndicated newspapers:
1. End words must be derived from four or more letters in the title. [This means the word at the end of each line.]
2. Words which acquire four letters by the addition of "s" are not used.
3. Only one form of a verb is used.”
In the following example, Hayes started with the word OVERSEAS. He ends each line of the poem with a word that can be made from some of the letters in OVERSEAS by using the instructions above: over, rose, save, savor, verse . . .
o v e r s e a s
I traveled so far West it became East again, over
the mountains & through the woods until the mountains rose
again. I knew no one & knew no one could save
me. I learned to savor
the soft pink flesh of fish & listen to the odd verse
whispered by my stooped eaves-
dropping neighbor, the shy old woman obliged to serve
green tea from a stout yellow vase.
All the kneeling made my knees sore.
I moved with the ease
of an ink stain on a white kimono in a skin I couldn't erase.
Food and Art Poem
1. Watch this super 16-minute video “Having a Coke with Frank O’Hara.” (Thanks Nancy W for sending this my way!) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_n_H0huNf0
2. Next time you fix lunch, pay attention to the ingredients and how you arrange it on a plate. Take a cell phone photo of it, then savor every bite.
3. Now, write a poem about your lunch, addressed to a specific reader (but don’t name her or him) in imitation of O’Hara. Let in the small things of your day, even jujubes and sequins and chocolate sodas! (You can find those things in O’Hara’s exuberant “Today” https://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/105.html)
Kinds of Things
Write a poem that is a list like My Tran does in “Kinds of Ghosts,” which appears in the Fairy Tale Review Coral Issue, 2020.
Use repetition, contradiction and paradox.
Vary sentence lengths (look at that beautiful long sentence in the middle that begins “No more putting on shoes . . .” and how it’s followed by two very short sentences).
Let yourself freely associate (“Childish ghost. Ghosts of children.”). And make sure there are lots of interesting things in it, real things of the world like Tran’s field, bowl, chairs, shells, telephone booth . . . Find a haunting way to end rather than simply stopping.
Solar Circle Poem
the power between us is magnificent
Check out this link: https://poets.org/poem/social-distancing
Then, imitate the form and write a poem (metaphors about distance, about solitude, about safety, about caring . . .) that fulfills Juan Felipe Herrera’s design:
“The solar circle poem can be read in any direction, or simultaneously with various voices at a ‘distance,’ or it can be cut out and spun like a wheel. You choose where to begin and end.”
Juan Felipe Herrera is a former poet laureate of the U.S. (A couple of years ago, he answered a question I asked through NPR’s Facebook live-streamed interview about how poetry can make a difference in the face of our national presidential catastrophe.)
Narrative and Lyric
Narrative: Tells a story. A narrative can be a short story, a piece of memoir or creative nonfiction, an essay, a poem, song lyrics, a tale that is told aloud. Narrative has setting, characters, and may include conflict/resolution and connection/disconnection.
Lyric: Expresses or mimics feelings, thoughts, observations, states of mind, and/or imagination of a single speaker (who does not necessarily need to be the writer). What it expresses is or seems personal. A lyric makes its impact in a very brief space of time. The themes often emerge in a shift of perception – some feeling or insight seems to come suddenly into focus.
1. Write a narrative poem with two or three characters that tells the story of something you can’t get out of your mind. Go away and let it rest.
2. Come back a few hours later and write a lyric poem that focuses on one image, metaphor, or moment that you pluck out of your narrative poem.
Quickly, write 5 lists as defined below. Each short list should have at least 3 items on it. Write fragments, not sentences.
List 1: Three memories of swimming, bathing or being in water
List 2: Three facts about water
List 3: Three images having to do with water
List 4: Three feelings about some form or type of water
List 5: Three metaphors about water
Assemble these into a poem by choosing (and rearranging) one item from each list. Title it “On Water.”'
I borrowed this exercise years ago, and I failed to make a note about where it came from.
“Find an object that you consider a ‘talisman,’ something you either carry with you, or keep in a special place in your home. Hold this object in your hand, with your eyes closed, and feel all its textures. Begin to write, using this tactile description to trigger memories, scenes, metaphors.”
From the Instructor’s Guide to Suzanne Paola and Brenda Miller, Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, 1st ed.
Language is a Virus
Seems impossible now in this time of virus focus, but this website has been around for years. Take a look at what it offers, but especially check the Text Manipulation list at the left when you click Games, Exercises, Techniques, or Poetry at the top.
Take something you have written and run it through a couple of the online manipulation “machines.” Copy the result into a Word doc and someday soon, see what you can make of it.
Read the four experiments. Choose one and go for it.
Bernadette Mayer's Writing Experiments
* Pick a word or phrase at random, let mind play freely around it until a few ideas have come up, then seize on one and begin to write. Try this with a non- connotative word, like "so" etc.
* Systematically eliminate the use of certain kinds of words or phrases from a piece of writing: eliminate all adjectives from a poem of your own, or take out all words beginning with 's' in Shakespeare's sonnets.
* Rewrite someone else's writing. Experiment with theft and plagiarism.
* Systematically derange the language: write a work consisting only of prepositional phrases, or, add a gerund to every line of an already existing work.
For the long list of Mayer’s famous experiments: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/library/Mayer-Bernadette_Experiments.html
Here’s Mayer’s bio: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/bernadette-mayer
Your Beautiful Words
Write a list of beautiful sounding words to your ear, no matter what they mean. (For example, I think the word “bomb” is lovely – so soft with a sigh-hum in the middle.) Add to your list until you have at least 20 words.
Write a poem using at least 7 of these words. The first line of your poem should be about 7-9 words long and should come from opening a book, magazine, or newspaper to a random page and pointing until you find a piece of prose that has an image in it – something you can see, taste, touch, smell, or hear.
Do not rhyme. Do not center your lines. Do not worry too much about “meaning.” Simply begin to embed beautiful words into lines. This poem should be about 100 words long.
Choose an image from the list below as a way to get started. You may:
1. Use the image you chose in the title and write a poem “about” something this brings up for you,
2. Put the image in the first line and see where it takes you,
3. Repeat the image in every stanza (in a new or different way), or
4. End with the image.
Paprika (taste, smell, or the spice)
A siren (the sound)
Hail (sound or object)
Matches (the smell or the object)
A deck of cards
The Milky Way
How to Become a Writer
“First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/ missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age - say, 14. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at 15 you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire. It is a pond, a cherry blossom, a wind brushing against sparrow wing leaving for mountain. Count the syllables. Show it to your mom.” – Lorrie Moore “How to Become a Writer”
1. Rewrite the paragraph above in an angry voice.
2. Rewrite in a triumphant voice.
3. Rewrite in first person (I).
4. Rewrite in third person (he/she/they).
5. Take one of your rewritten pieces and break it into poetic lines. Leave a few words out.
Road Trip Fantasy
Try this stay-at-home idea from Karen Craigo, poet laureate of Missouri.
"Wouldn't you love a road trip right about now?
Imagine you can drive anywhere you want. There are no limits to how you take off or where you go. You can take any companion you wish, or you can enjoy blissful solitude.
Write a poem in which you drive somewhere. How does it feel to be moving in a direction of your own choosing? What is the first thing you will do when you arrive in Memphis, in Kathmandu, on the moon?"
This is the first of three "buttoning up" exercises to put small closure on April and head into more writing:
Make a list of what you want to write about but haven’t yet. Mine your life for moments of surprise, clarity, or discovery. List the images and objects that haunt your memory or imagination. Which books, movies, songs, paintings and other works of art deserve a poem? Who would you like to write to or about? List things you have lost or found. Don’t edit yourself. Let your list get messy and put it somewhere obvious so you can add ideas when you think of more.
This is the second of three "buttoning up" exercises to put small closure on April and head into more writing:
Write a writing exercise you wish you had discovered here. Write a writing exercise you would have loved when you were 12. Write a writing exercise to give to someone you love. Write a writing exercise that will set you on a path of discovery. Write a writing exercise that nobody ever thought of before.
Get Your Work Out
The last exercise for National Poetry Month is an encouragement to send your poems to literary journals.
So many online journals are publishing great writing. Spend a little time reading a poem or two (or a story or essay) from an online journal every week. You can find lists of online and print journals at https://www.pw.org/ (click Tools for Writers), https://www.newpages.com/ and lots of other websites.
When you find a journal that resonates with you, submit! Here are the guidelines for an online publication specifically for Kansas writers with rotating editors: https://150kansaspoems.wordpress.com/about/