Teachers Write 8/6/13 Tuesday Quick Write with Laurel Snyder

Happy Tuesday!  Guest author Laurel Snyder joins us with today’s quick-write.

Laurel is the author of many books for kids, including novels like Bigger than a Bread Box and Any Which Wall, and picture books like Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted To Be Kosher.  Her next novel, Seven Stories Up, will be out in January. Laurel lives in Atlanta, GA and online at http://laurelsnyder.com, and she spends way way way too much time on Twitter:  @laurelsnyder


One of my very favorite writing prompts is something I learned a long time ago, from my poetry teacher in college.

Essentially, the goal is to stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone. To include things in your work you might not otherwise include.

For poets (especially young poets), this is a critical skill.  Because they often have a very formatted sense of what a poem should be about.

A young poet (or the young poet I was, at any rate) typically thinks poems are about the natural world. They love birds, the sky, rivers, mountains, lakes, seasons times of day or night, etc.  They also love to write about FEELINGS. Darkness. Sadness. Blah blah blah.  Not to mention old places in Europe and broken American landscapes and junk like that.

Of course, poems can be about ANYTHING.  But “anything” doesn’t always feel natural to a young poet.  So the assignment is this:

Make a list of things you’re unlikely to include in a poem. Categories of things!

Like mine might be…

Electrical appliances
Brand names for cereals
Dead presidents
Types of cars
Mass murderers
Comic book characters
Something in quotes
Cuss words
Religions not your own
Car part
State capitals
Words with more than 4 syllables
Board games
Video games
Things you can find at IKEA
Names of bad hair bands
Scientific names of mushrooms
Sports teams
Reference to WWI

Now, when you’re using this for poetry, the goal is to get a certain number of the categories into the poem.  Maybe you’d require yourself to use 5 or 10 of these things in a poem.

Of course, when you revise, you can always do what you like.  But even if you take the details out later, you will have pushed the writing into a new place.  So let’s say you set out to write a very typical poem like,

As the
the gray
the river
I can’t help
But think
of you.
That night
we walked
The streets
Till dawn.
I closed
My eyes.
To keep

Now, that poem has been written a jillion times by a jillion college students, pretty much.  But let’s add some of the details from my list, and see what happens.

As the sparrow
Falls through the gray Albany
Sky above me, I can’t help
But think of leprosy.
Why is that?
I guess they both remind me
of you, honey. 
Remember that night
We drove your sister’s Corolla
too fast, and the
tailpipe fell off?
I do. The Yankees
Were on the radio. They had just won.
No surprise there.
But you said you were leaving me.
“Why?” I asked.
“You look too much
Like Charles Manson,” you told me.
I closed my eyes. And tried
to remember If we were out of
Captain Crunch.  Or not.


Now, this is NO GREAT POEM. But do you see what the items from the list did to the work? They demanded specificity.  They demanded that I make a more real relationship for these two characters.  They required me to make sense of how incongruous the details themselves were.

If I asked someone else to put Albany, Leprosy, Dodge Dart, Yankees, Tailpipe, Captain Crunch, and Charles Manson in a poem they’d have to make sense too, but they’d make a different sense.

This exercise  a lot of fun to try, and especially good as a trick to get yourself out of feeling stuck. If you’re bored with something you’re writing, or you feel blocked.  And it doesn’t just work with poetry, obviously. You can do this with a chapter, or you can do this with an outline. Challenge yourself to work details or moments you wouldn’t typically write into an outline, and see what that does to the shape of the work.  You can keep a running list on your desk or cork board.  Call it “Things I’m not likely to put in a book.”

For picture books, it’s a wonderful way to alter the tone of your work.  And it can be a neat way to add vocabulary you don’t always find in picture books.  New words for kids to learn.

Anyone feel like trying to write a paragraph using three or more of my examples? Anyone have details to add to our list?

Feel free to share all those thoughts, ideas, and (of course!) poems in the comments!


17 Replies on “Teachers Write 8/6/13 Tuesday Quick Write with Laurel Snyder

  1. Good Morning, Laurel (&Kate),
    Your Quick Write today is what I love..to play with words and write poetry. This really tickles my right-brain! I’m so glad you shared your process, it was a great tool to get me writing this morning. Here goes…

    My categories and (words I chose)…I found I had to brainstorm the category to see the word in front of me. I brainstormed the (words) after I had my list of categories:

    colors (lilac)
    golf (Phil Mickelson)
    houses (colonial)
    brand name pens (BIC gel)
    toilet paper (charm in)
    flower beds (butterfly bush)
    carpet (wrinkled, pilled, stained)
    hospital supplies (mask, oxygen)
    phones (cell, wireless)
    movies (The Way, Way Back)
    TV shows (Blue Bloods)
    types of dogs (mutt)
    types of cats (abandoned, runaway)
    ocean things (starfish, shells)
    lake things (dock)
    Adirondack animals (bear)
    babies (George, crying)
    celebrities (Kevin Costner)
    jewelry (diamond, peridot)
    classes (crochet)
    candles (birthday cake)
    magazine (Oprah, Artful Blogging, People)
    herbs (basil)
    candy (goobers, gummy bears)

    I really thought hard about things I had seen in the past weekend. (No, I didn’t actually “see” Phil or Kevin)

    My first attempt….I really just wrote quickly. Afterwards, I thought it might sound sad, but it really is not.

    I sit in the morning,
    Wondering about life.
    Praying about life.

    I write to tell a story.
    Mine, ours,
    Theirs today,
    Their in history.

    To find inspiration,
    and inspire others.

    Then, I found the feeling really comes through when you add those other details. My second QUICK write attempt:

    I sit in the diamond glittering, morning Sun,
    Wondering about the wrinkle, pilled and stained lives we lead.
    Praying for a way, way back,
    To birthday cakes with lots of sprinkles,
    and gummy bear hope-full.

    I write like the blossoms of a butterfly bush,
    pointed in all directions.
    I pick up a BIC gel and tell
    a Charmin story,
    Mine, ours
    Today, in history.

    To find Phil Mickelson inspiration,
    and end the 18th hole at Number One.

    Thank you for pushing me to write outside my comfort zone today! I am amazed at what just happened. I plan on using this tool in my WIP this week. I hope it yields the same results.

  2. I kind of made my own list…It was SO much fun!

    The smell of garbage
    brings a reminder of the day
    I read the letter telling me
    you were leaving me.
    The memories of our time together
    buzz around my mind
    like flies attracted to refuse.
    My thoughts of you are withered, dead plants
    to be added to the compost pile
    to decompose along with the
    grass clippings of the love I had for you.
    All that we had together
    breaking down to decay.

  3. I LOVE this exercise–what a great way to get the brain going! I’m off to write–hoping to post my poem in a bit!

  4. Thank you so much for a great post. I wasn’t even planning to write today but this was such fun! I used your list, since I was short on time, but will do this again with my own. Here’s my poem that I wrote, reworking something from an earlier quick write this summer.

    Sometimes early on a misting morning in July,
    I stand and look out the rain-dropped window.
    The garden vista blurred,
    an oasis of moist green,
    like Gregor Mendel’s peas,
    verdant and ripe with promise.
    The old Ford reclines in the back field
    gastropodal silver trails crisscross its askew bumper.
    Damp leaves rustle
    Errant drops scatter to the ground
    Birds call and I listen,
    enthralled by the jungle echoes
    of the pileated woodpecker
    On the radio the distant buzz of voices
    Irwin Gratz reports the latest scores
    White Sox 8 Yankees 1
    The house settles around me
    The dog rustles and sighs, slipping deeper into Milk Bone dreams
    The promising drip-drip-hiss of the coffee pot punctuates the silence
    along with the Snap-Crackle-Pop of my Rice Krispies
    I soften
    lean into the moment
    and breathe.

    Thanks for a great start to the day and for inspiring me to share my first post of the summer!

    1. Wicked specificity, and now I know what ‘gastropodal’ means 🙂 Thanks for sharing, Molly!

      1. Thanks, Brian. By the way, I may have made up the word gastropodal, based on gastropod. I actually couldn’t find it in the dictionary but liked it anyway. 🙂

        1. I’m all in favor of new coinages! FYI, my token research led me to ‘gastropodous,’ so feel free to add that to your word-nerd arsenal…

  5. For several Tuesdays now, I’ve drawn on a prompt from Teachers Write *last* summer. I visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s site and create a poem — part clerihew, part couplets — inspired by the Artwork of the Day. (Here’s the link: http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/) Those constraints already yank me out of my comfort zone, but today I threw Laurel’s list into the mix too. I ended up including a type of car, a sort of mass murderer, and a word in quotes:

    Renaissance churches craved the touch of those like Carlo Maratti
    to decorate each nook, nave, or spandrel with the ornate and haughty.

    He splashed an inverted pyramid speedier than a Maserati,
    filling in inks, chalks, washes the colors one finds in a potty.

    Crouched low, a naked, guilty man (Dominic Gatti?)
    gets stepped on by his opposite: a woman, not naughty–

    her left hand clutching a cliche when what she needs is a hot toddie;
    her right stretching towards “Peace” and a cherub from the angel literati.

    1. Brian,
      I love using art to inspire writing! Unfortunately, it’s Wednesday, and a different piece of art is being featured, so I can’t see the painting that inspired you. But, your poem includes enough details so I can visualize the scene. I love the humor you include to lighten what was probably a pretty typical religious scene!

  6. This was indeed fun! The categories I used were electrical appliances, types of cars, brand names for cereals, things you find at Ikea, names of bad hair bands, cuss words, and state capitals. I wrote a paragraph rather than a poem today:

    The toast popped out of the toaster and I jumped, my distraction abruptly ending. How long had I been staring out the window? Long enough for my Rice Krispies to become a soggy mess in the bowl. I grab the cheap LUGN bowl and dump the mushy contents into the garbage; as I do, the bowl slips from my shaking hand and crashes to the floor. A large crack appears along its side. “Shit,” I mutter. I’m an absolute wreck. As I clear the mess, I calculate how long it will take him to drive home from Boston, and I realize that he should be almost here. Just then I hear the crunch of the Wrangler’s tires on our gravel driveway, and the sound of Trixter wailing from the Jeep’s speakers. And then it stops. The door squeaks open and bangs shut, and the crunch of footsteps grows louder as he approaches the kitchen door. I remain crouched by the spilt cereal with a wet paper towel in my hand, and am frozen to the spot. It is about to begin. The door opens.

  7. Laurel, I love this. I will have it in the back of my mind this morning, thinking about not poetry, but my WIP which is set in a foreign country (Ireland). It is so easy when writing setting to go for the most obvious and iconic details, even if you don’t mean to. Sheep, pastures, hedgerows. Specific details of my characters have helped to come up with more concrete/less obvious details… but I think this quick write is a great way to create a scavenger list of more specific details to mention. Name of the petrol station, brand of bread they buy, colors worn by the soccer fans. Actually, it had me imagining a scene from a friend’s youtube on twitter, where a lt. mayor was marching across the striped cross-walk holding up the soccer tournament cup they hoped to win with his mayoral chains draped over his shoulders. So how much more specific and less obvious is that than sheep? Great prompt for today, so thanks!

  8. Laurel, This was so much fun! Thanks for the inspiration.

    Cody walks right past me the first time, her rainbow flip flops smacking the pavement, and has to double back. I can hear the screeches of a Poison power ballad coming from her up too loud headphones. When she finds the place, she looks casually in both directions with her hand on a hip, making sure no one is looking, which of course they aren’t. Once she’s certain, Cody pushes back branches of the weigela and pokes her way in—one spindly leg and then the other. For the hundredth time this summer I think that she looks exactly like a girl version of Archie. Not that I would ever mention that. Probably.
    I budge over and Cody squinches in next to me without saying a word while she waits for the song to finish. One of the scabs on her knee had come loose and a corner pokes up. She pulls a mashed baggie of Froot Loops out of her pocket and holds it out. I shake my head no and hand over the binoculars. I try not to think how to spell onomatopoeia as she starts crunching. For the life of me, I don’t know why we’re hiding in the bushes—it’s not like Ted Bundy lives in the neighborhood. Cody’s scanning the neighborhood with the binoculars, one blue glitter nail polished finger scrolling the focuser back and forth. “Holy William Henry Harrison! He’s on the move. I think Mr. Atwater is actually going to try to fix that carburetor.”

  9. I am not entirely sure it makes sense, but I had fun writing this. It was like trying to put a puzzle together.

    A cuckoo sings
    Er – my cell phone rings
    Guilt attacks
    like an elephant.

    Breadcrumbs could
    lead me home, but
    not where I want to be.

    I have my toothbrush
    and my pudgie-pie irons.
    I’m not turning back.
    …..I think.

  10. Laurel, I know it’s now Wednesday, but I also wanted you know I loved this quick write and didn’t have time to do it yesterday.
    This morning I thought about what categories I would be unlikely to write about & took some of the categories I liked from your list. Then I thought about a poem the main character from my WIP might write when she returns to school the summer after her mother commits suicide. She’s going into 6th or 7th grade. I thought this would be a useful way for me to get to know her better.

    Here is the first version of her poem:

    My heart is torn in two
    because of you
    to leave me here alone
    without a mother of my own
    I want to scream and shout
    when people tiptoe about,
    afraid they might upset me.
    Can’t they see?
    My heart is torn in two.

    Here’s the second version:

    My heart is in pieces,
    a china tea cup
    smashed to smithereens
    on the rocks of your selfishness.
    You left me all alone,
    The other kids avoid me
    like the plague.
    Grown-ups tiptoe about me
    like snakes silently approaching
    their prey;
    not wanting to alert me to their good
    I want to scream,
    hurl every curse word
    I know at them,
    just so they’ll leave me alone
    while I molt
    and shed the skin of the old me,
    the one with a mother,
    and discover who the new me
    will be.

    Thanks again!

  11. What a fun exercise- here is a quick short poem I brainstormed out of your list:
    Summers in Connecticut

    Playing Monopoly over cocktails

    one summer evening you

    drenched yourself in a jaded mood. I talked

    about traveling to Seattle and you spoke

    in onomatopoeia. Like a superman here

    to save my life, you leapt buildings and brought me the moon

    in a Poison song playing on the radio.