The Writer’s Toolbox, a syllabus

The Writer’s Toolbox

by Kenzie Allen

presented as part of The 2017 Adroit Summer Mentorship Program

Most of these prompts were developed as part of the Apiary Lit 30/30 Workspace event this past April, so I’m grateful to the participants of that project for their energy and feedback.

Hi Tess, I’m so excited to work together! Take this syllabus as a guide, but I feel the best way for us to work might be to discuss things together, as well. 🙂 For the prompts or the background, take what is useful, and chuck the rest!

Keeping a Notebook

We’ve already spoken a bit about this, and I’m excited to see how your notebook is coming along! Remember that the process of carrying a notebook changes the brain itself, makes your observational skills into a superpower, so whatever you notice or think up, write it down! I also keep a version on my phone so I have it with me no matter the size of my purse 😉 I often go back through and make poems from the bits and pieces, or expand upon an idea, and don’t hesitate to make liberal use of lists (see below), while you’re at it.

Preliminary Readings & Exercises (/Tools)

These aren’t meant to be an assignment so much as a tool for you to turn to whenever you get stumped, to take a break from the high-stakes feeling of trying to draft a poem, to get the brain moving, and to organize one’s thoughts. They also come in handy to turn back to, to use in juxtaposition exercises, and to suss out the subconscious. For this section (and any), try whatever seems interesting, and leave the rest for later (or never!). 😉

Do try the TBCR list, though, when you get a chance–that’s a handy one to keep in one of the pages of your notebook, to be added to or referred to at will, and it might be useful in other exercises.

Self-Reflection Assignment (previously assigned by Carly) due June 22, 2017


Pre-writing Exercises: The Mighty List: Pre-writing, Lifeline, Crystal Magic

Lists are my key to low stakes writing — set yourself a parameter, and set a time limit (or just keep going til you get tired of it) and go. It’s so easy. You can switch parameters at will, and generate all kinds of useful things to use in generation–in other prompts or in whatever way occurs to you. I see it as an essential tool in my arsenal. (See also: carrying around a notebook)

Man holds up a reporter style notebook and is taking notes furiously with eyes flipping from notes to off screen

They’re great for pre-writing, and getting into the mental space of writing, so that’s why I wanted to share this today–they’re wonderful for pre-writing work (and also for re-addressing vocabulary in an on-going series — for which you might also use a Wordle tool and check to see what words you tend to rely on the most, hehe, I also try to challenge my vocabulary that way alongside my own lists).

They’re also a lifeline for when I’m totally not sure what to write about, or I get stuck, or I’m not sure where to start. I either turn to a list I’ve generated earlier (check out my TBCR method below), or I generate a new list.

Another vital tool in this mode is free-writing, in which you put your pen to the page and just do it, write for five minutes or more (try setting a timer!) without stopping. Even if you find yourself writing I have no idea what to say oh my god, put it down on paper and keep going! It can be a great warm-up to one’s writing practice, and you’ll often be surprised by what the brain comes up with when you really stretch it as a muscle.

Keep these tools in your toolbox, and draw upon them liberally—they are the building blocks upon which even the most intricate castles can be made. And, they are ways to be kind to yourself, because:

Try one right now — what about the house(s) that you lived in (/or didn’t) when you were growing up? Generate a list based off that idea. Take thirty seconds.

What types of words did you gravitate towards? Was it actual features of a house (awnings? windows?), was it memories or images, names, rooms?

Later, you might revisit and try expanding the types of words you reach for, or change the parameters, etc. You can also let yourself write in notes/semi-sentences where needed, and if some inspiration hits and you have to stop or pause the list and start writing more on a particular item, do it. Always chase what you want to chase 🙂

How are lists “crystal magic“? They also tend to reveal our lenses, our obsessions (our tired phrases, too), and they are things we can turn back to, like good ingredients (or a really solid citrine I keep in my purse), to continue to see the world through and against, to generate to ideas and reveal our fascinations. Try combining lists, or combining items, mashing them up in new and interesting ways — complicate your pieces that you generate from these these by complicating your relationship with the lists. For example, if your list includes the parts of a sewing kit, how could these things also describe the tools one needs for surviving a bad relationship? (Or if your list includes certain memories, how can you use another type of list or concept to reframe them?) These are ideas. But we’ll return to lists again and again in a lot of prompts, too, and so I just want to give some screen time to this incredibly useful tool. (/dark crystal)

A black crystal glows purple

Of course, when you are editing and polishing, you may want to avoid ending up with the type of poem that I refer to as “Listicle” (almost like… a listless popsicle…??), where the list has taken over and the language isn’t necessarily impacting the reader as heavily as the idea of the list does.

From the movie Dark Crystal, Fizgig, a small furry puppet animal opens his mouth wide and stomps his feet
But just be willing to let go of the scaffolding, the original generative exercise, whenever you are at that stage of editing and polishing, follow where the work wants to go rather than forcing yourself to stick to any exercise you see here, and you’ll be set. (Consider this a disclaimer for the rest of the prompts to follow — take what is useful and make off into the night with it. Leave the rest behind. Change things at will. Leave the exercise behind whenever you need to, follow where the work wants to take you. And, you got this.)

Exercise: Lexical Sets

For this prompt you will be generating a list of related words, a ‘lexical set.’ Just a list of words that have something in common. Give yourself a subject, be it a place, activity, or a concept, and spend the next 5-10 minutes writing down every word you can think of (straight out of your head write em down, don’t edit yourself as you do this), a list of words having to do with that subject, etc.

For example:

Flowers: Chrysanthemum, Persimmon, Rose, Tulip, Dandelion, Petal, Stamen, Freesia, lilium parvum, Narcissus

You could also limit to “types of flowers” instead (which would eliminate the “parts of flowers” in the above example). Steer toward words that are exciting, sound interesting, or are very specific.

After you’ve got your lexical set, write a poem or prose piece incorporating as many words as you can, or focus in on one favorite word and generate a new lexical set and write from that. 🙂 You can also trade lexical sets with a friend (a great in-class exercise, or you could try trading with someone here in the Discussion forum!) to force yourself to work with unfamiliar concepts and new vocabulary.

Exercise/Method: To Be Concerned Regarding

TBCR stands for To Be Concerned Regarding. As far as I know this isn’t necessarily a technique that’s widely explained this way — it’s something I’ve come up with in my own process to describe a special kind of list-making.

This is part of one of my exercises from my own creative writing classes (and previous Apiary Lit students might have seen it), but it’s basically also the goods. Really, you could walk away right now and have gotten some really solid tools, as far as things that I use every day. Lists! And, this thing I’ve been calling “TBCRs.”

Tim Gunn puts his hand on his chin and says "this concerns me enormously"
This is a list of things that concern you, things that are on your mind or that you have some stake in, things that are fascinations or obsessions or secrets or recurring images. A collection of your subject matters, marginalia, the things you like to curate and cultivate, guilty pleasures, objects of hate or fixation, what you’re wrestling with, the things that inform or influence you.

Essentially: what do you care about? What concerns you about the world? What’s been on your mind, what memories keep coming up, what are you aware of and want to write toward or are writing toward (or want to be)… major memories, major images, etc, whatever comes to mind or whatever is useful for you to keep around, this is essentially a list of ingredients for your cauldron.

So here were some of mine, from a TBCR list I found in one of my notebooks lately:

  • Global warming – snow in the sugar fields (if an image comes along with an idea, jot that down too)
  • Growing up in the digital age
  • Human’s affinity for animals / the ways we have our pets substitute for live-in girlfriends or babies
  • what the body can handle
  • tattooed vs bare skin
  • the split eardrum
  • the ghost dog
  • absence of mothers
  • Malinowski
  • Data entry, the IRS the numbers of us
  • allegiance (country, people, your people, ideas)
  • marriage as a violence

In general, things you might engage with, conceptually, mentally or emotionally, etc, and, it is often helpful to try to get at what may be universal or expand outward from the self after a while, but, you’re just making a list of concepts (etc) with which you could wrestle. And, when you are generating poems or prose, this kind of list becomes very useful!

Ultimately, it’s whatever will make the list most useful to you, and, you’ll explore different variations as you go along. But somewhere in my notebook or day planner I make a section of a page and write “TO BE CONCERNED REGARDING:” (or “CONCEPTS” or whatever else — it’s your list after all) and start bulleting away underneath it. Keep referring back and adding to it over time, start new ones for new periods of your work, etc.

Really, that’s the goods! These types of lists are so much of my writing practice and so much of what I turn to when things get hairy or when I just need to get in a certain headspace. It’s a way to stretch the limbs, essentially, a way to put energy into the writing “body” and prepare or, again, a way to switch to low stakes writing any time. <3

Anna Kendrick says "Girl don't stress, everything is photoshopped" and mouths "everything"