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 Scientists Brand names for cereals Dead presidents Types of cars Diseases 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 sparrow falls through the gray sky above the river I can’t help But think of you. Remember? That night we walked The streets Till dawn. I closed My eyes. To keep Myself From Morning.
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!