Welcome to the Stories & Soup Creative Writing Workshop!
I. Low-pressure Writing Strategies
II. Writing Warmup & Where to Begin
III. Observation, Juxtaposition, and Complication
IV. Memory & Mapping, and Voice
V. Language, Ekphrasis, Response
VII. Further Resources
I. Low Pressure-Writing Strategies: Notebooks, Free-writing, & List-making
Keeping a Notebook
One of the first major shifts in my writing practice happened when I started keeping a notebook. Joan Didion writes about the effects of note-taking on the brain in “On Keeping A Notebook,” where she points out that the note-taking need not be in the service of accurately remembering every moment, and it need not be seen as a type of diary (but you do you!), rather, it can become a process of knowing and developing the self, and of opening up further possibilities. To my mind, the process of carrying a notebook changes the brain itself, makes your observational skills into a superpower, and it is a kind of daily training regimen which over time coaxes the mind into an observational state, so that you begin to notice even more around you, and you begin to think in terms of composition, of composing your observations. So I heartily encourage the keeping and carrying of a notebook–whatever you notice or think up, write it down! You will become more intuitive and more aware of what is around you, and you will notice that any given moment could provide inspiration or fodder for a story or poem or idea.
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.
Pre-writing, Free-writing, Brainstorming
Pre-writing is the part of the writing process that comes even before drafting, and also a way to warm-up (remember the brain, too, is a muscle!) before you begin writing. A 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.
From Wikipedia, Freewriting is noted to be: “a prewriting technique in which a person writes continuously for a set period of time without regard to spelling, grammar, or topic. … Unlike brainstorming where ideas are simply listed, in freewriting one writes sentences to form a paragraph about whatever comes to mind.”
It’s sometimes difficult to force yourself to write for the entirety of the set time (5 minutes seems like forever when you feel stuck!!), but the more you do this as a practice, as training the muscles of your craft, the easier it will become. You may even start to feel less anxiety toward the blank page–I know I did!
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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!) 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, 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.”
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
- 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
II. Warm-up & Where to Begin
The blank page.
It can be a source of dread, trepidation, or confusion… but fear not! As Flannery O’Connor tells us—”The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”
And as Stephen Koch says in The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, “the only way to begin is to begin, and begin right now.”
So let’s begin.
Group Exercise: Selling Your Childhood Home
This is a free-writing exercise, so set the time (~5 minutes) and try to keep that pen moving!
Think of the home you grew up in, your childhood home, or a home or living space that either meant a great deal to you or really changed or affected you. Now, write a persuasive Craigslist-style advertisement for that dwelling.
Prompts About Beginnings
Starting in the Middle
Here’s one inspired by Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius:
“‘Leda and the Swan‘ by William Butler Yeats [begins]: ‘A sudden blow, the great wings beating still.’ The poem begins in media res, in the middle of things. As in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est,’ there is tension, or trouble, immediately, a sure way to grab the reader’s attention.
Write ten openings that begin in media res. Think about setting up trouble and expectation. After you’ve written them… see if you can make them more specific and/or create more tension. Choose the three you like best, and free-write on each one for five minutes.”
Or, switch with a friend and use theirs. Or, long story short, just try writing a poem or piece from this notion of starting in the middle of the action. 🙂
Starting from Lists
And another from Addonizio, which can maybe build on last week’s idea of lists —
“Choose fifty favorite words, and write a poem using those words. My poem began, ‘The Uzbek floozy burbled on the hurdy-gurdy,” and ended “oh, oh, the olallaberries.” Make your list and then write from it. You might also exchange word lists with someone else.
Now try mixing in a list of your favorite words with words from some other source–a cookbook, a textbook, a billboard ad. Then use those words as a springboard to more writing.”
Starting from the Roots
Thinking about language roots, here’s one more from Addonizio: “My mother also looked up words in the dictionary and told us their Greek and Latin origins. For a while it drove me crazy. I would say something like, ‘I think I’m going to throw up,’ after eating too much Halloween candy, and she would say, ‘Regurgitate. From the Latin re, meaning again, and gurgitare, to engulf, flood. It probably has the same root as gorge.’
Look up a word’s roots, and write a poem that explores or includes that information. Here’s a lyrical prose poem by A. Van Jordan (“Afterglow”) that immediately mixes in the speaker’s own association and memories. In a prose poem, there are no line breaks, but the other elements of poetry can all come into play. Jordan manages to have it both ways: though his piece is written as a block of prose, it creates rhythms not only through the language but through those slashes which makes us pause as though we’re reading lines.
From the roots of a problem, the roots of a leafy, growing ambition, or the roots of a wily, icy creek, (or yes, even the roots of some lovely Leto locks — you’re welcome), what words come, and what kind of piece(s) can you make? Think about roots, family, origins.
III. Observation, Juxtaposition & Complication
How can we use our observations in our work, and further complicate them?
Re-upholstering the Chair
This is a technique I use frequently in my class, and which I got from an exercise shared with me by Laura Kasischke. It centers on juxtaposition of Ideas, or, letting things color or tinge or bleed into each other in terms of influence and subject matter.
You can begin to try it like this:
Think back to your last relationship gone sour, or a similar figure of contention, and free-write for 2-4 minutes. You could even start with a list and narrow it down, and then: write to that person. Confront them for a few moments.
Then: write a how-to/explanation about how to upholster a chair.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to upholster a chair, in fact, it works out pretty great if you don’t), and the whole time you are writing that I want you to hold the previous free-write, that previous figure or relationship or inevitable blow-up or etc, in the back of your mind as you write.
Essentually you can juxtapose multiple ideas in this way, letting them bleed into one another, to get at extended metaphors or new conceits for generating work or honing metaphors of existing work. Sometimes I just refer to this as the “reupholstering the chair technique.” But it really just amounts to establishing a particular framework for your inquiry. Lensing it obliquely through another thing entirely.
(seriously though, who does know how to re-upholster a chair?)
Getting At Metaphor
From The Practice of Poetry (Behn/Twichell), and Roger Mitchell, and you might try each step separately before moving on to the next. “This exercise comes in three parts.
A. Describe an object or scene that particularly interests you without making any comparisons of one thing to another. Re-write it, if necessary, until it is as free of comparisons as possible.
B. Take the same object or scene and use it to describe one of your parents. In other words, indulge yourself in comparisons.
C. Write a [piece] which, though it is a description of the object or scene above, is really about your parent.
Variation: find an object around you (Mitchell’s example is a pinecone), and use that for part A, or, in part B to “get at something [you] are afraid to talk about.”
Visual Metaphor Scavenger Hunt
All day today, carry your notebook with you. Write down things you see or observe, and then right below that, what that thing you see also looks like/sounds like, etc. This is inspired by Kim Addonizio again, as a means of generating solid visual metaphors. Here are some examples a la Ezra Pound’s “In A Station of the Metro,” from Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius:
“Rows of pans hanging from kitchen hooks:
ducks strung feetfirst in a Chinese market.
The clock keeps clicking,
an obsessive conductor tapping a baton.
Laughter from the house next door:
horses whinnying in the field while I stand in my stall.”
The Metaphor Hit-List
Similar to the visual metaphor exercise, take your notebook with you and catalogue various objects, then below them jot down freewriting or notes about what that object could relate to or become an extended metaphor for. An example: a shelf (something that has things left upon it for use later, which must remain stable…), like a “secret girlfriend.” Etc.
Also, make a list of subjects for which you need an extended metaphor or conceit to better illustrate or show through your chosen genre/medium. So, for example, I’m still searching around for a better metaphor to embody some heavy feels about my long-distance relationship. I’ve also written poems that started from frustration about asking my landlord to fix the door of my bedroom (which had started to regularly trap me inside) and that of course ended up also being about feminism. What about representing the self?
Make note of the things you are wrestling with (like TBCRs, but specifically a list of stuff-that-needs-a-solid-extended-image to get the job done), and keep matching it up with the visual and object metaphors you collect. Cultivate relationships between your lists/list items.
And don’t forget to balance abstract and concrete language (gear toward getting the image or feeling into a person’s head by evoking it rather than explaining it! Make them live it :D), show us the thing rather than the principle of the thing, first. And think about: where do words fail? How do we get at grief, situate it in the body of the reader, rather than telling a story of grief which allows them to remain a distant observer? Or maybe, like “Musée des Beaux Arts,” we must display our distancing, to make it real. Whatever the case, don’t let there be too much space between you and the reader. What visual metaphors might take us there, might let us in even further? Crack open like Rafiki’s favorite gourds, paint your growth on the walls with an excited thumb, whoop and holler, because eet is time.
IV. Memory & Mapping, and Voice
Sheila Packa, author of Cloud Birds, writes,
“Writing is built on memory; it preserves and shapes our memories and lives. In the process of making art, a poet can write from memory. No matter if you’re writing poetry, fiction, essay or memoir, the past provides a wealth of material. We use this material in poetry, but as Ted Kooser points out in his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual, an anecdote does not necessarily make a poem. A poem needs something else. Like Mary Oliver says, poetry is writing that casts more than one shadow. The poem needs to mean more than one thing. It needs to convey the ‘is-ness’ of things and it needs to employ sound. The poem is the map where the memory is placed.”
Reading other poets and prose writers allows you to study their maps. Each poem or story is a map of the breath, a map of the encounter. In an introduction to one of his books of poems, Neruda emphasizes the tactile. He aims for: ‘A poetry impure as the clothing we wear, or our bodies, soup-stained, soiled with our shameful behavior, our wrinkles and vigils and dreams, observations and prophecies, declarations of loathing and love, idylls and beasts, the shocks of encounter, political loyalties, denial and doubts, affirmations and taxes.’ Studying these other maps will help you make your own with your own body, out of your own vigils and dreams, observations and prophecies, loathing and love, encounters, doubts and distractions and obsessions.”
Try mapping out your favorite poems or stories, or those you might find challenging, in your own way (in your notebook perhaps?) as you read. What do you identify as their through-line? Their inciting incident, the reason and moment for utterance? Who is speaking, and what is their stake, their relationship to their purported audience and what is said? How does the poet find their way through their own TBCRs, and when does the speaker flit sideways–where does the language surprise you, and why?
Another pre-writing/free-writing exercise (~5-10 minutes): Write about your first memory. Try to include as many concrete details as you can, and remember to also show the reader the surroundings, the setting/place, and what it felt to be there (the sounds, the temperature, the dryness in the air or the feeling of impending rain). Try to evoke the experience in the reader (show, don’t tell).
Dire & Mundane
The fabulous David Mason shared this one with me during my fellowship at the Aspen Summer Words Festival a few years ago. I asked my students to try this one recently and the results were pretty great.
Write something mundane in extreme language. (Example: brushing one’s teeth, written in the language of a shipwreck … or “shipwrecky language”). Write something dire in “mundane” language.
Changing Lanes Without Signaling
This is from The Poetry Gymnasium (Hunley): “In his essay, ‘The Case for Double-Voice Discourse,’ Lad Tobin writes, ‘To avoid accidents–or, sometimes to create them–good essays often need to break without warning, change lanes without signaling, accelerate without conscience.’ Elsewhere in his essay, Tobin contends that double-voiced discourse enables writers to mirror their actual thought process better than more traditional approaches to the essay. He argues that ‘If style is supposed to be an expression of the writer’s ‘natural’ (as opposed to artificial) self, then it should be multidimensional, nonlinear and, to use a term of the Russian critic and philosopher Bakhtin, heteroglossic.’
Write a ‘double-voiced’ [piece] that shifts back and forth between past and present, fact and fancy, dialogue and interior monologue, and/or two different speakers. Or, if you would like, take a draft of a poem[/piece] and add a second voice, whether that voice takes the form of a second narrative, an inner voice commenting on and disputing the lines in the draft, or a second persona who enters into dialogue with the speaker of the draft.”
Or you can take the initial approach outlined by Tobin above and use this strategy of “changing lanes without warning” in a poem or fiction piece or essay when it feels necessary. Tobin writes, “essays should reflect the way we think and experience the world. And the fact is, we often think and experience the world in a multidimensional, multivoiced way.”
The Wonder Years
After those earliest memories come the gangly sugarhaze of childhood and maybe then the maybe that awkward teenage fumbling in the back of a car. These two prompts come from Jude Nutter via The Missouri Review:
Write a poem based on a childhood memory with a natural setting. Interweave ideas of your own physical body and growth of that time by using metaphor of nature surrounding the scene. Fictionalize the memory as much as you’d like and pay attention to consistency of sound, alliteration, etc.or
Recall your first moment of sexual awareness. Consider images or activities that were specific to you at that age. Write a two-part poem, first of your sexual experience or growth or thoughts, then transitioning cleanly into a memory of an unrelated activity. Don’t try to make a connection. While in the writing process or even after the first draft, a connection between the two may become apparent on its own.
V. Language, Ekphrasis, Response
Here we’ll be looking at L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, and we’ll also consider the idea of poetic response, through ekphrasis as well as poems which are in conversation with one another. These are all long-standing traditions in poetry, so like the remaking of an old dish into something modern and with new techniques applied (ala 70’s apricot chicken into… whatever the Top Chef kids are getting up to these days), it helps to know a bit of the backgrounds of these traditions in order to reinvent them in your own work.
See “Techniques & Mediums” portion of the “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” page listed in your readings for examples of several exercises toward Language Poetry. Choose one (or more) and draft a new poem based off of them.
Or, like in “Sleeping With The Dictionary,” (see comments here for further explanation if interested) draft a poem wherein at every other word or every few words, you choose a word that is sonically close (or a close entry in an actual dictionary, as in Mullen’s method) to substitute. Remember — the brain will still attempt to make meaning out of these leaps, so use that.
Read up on the Oulipo movement for even more ways to really get out of the usual mode of writing, by utilizing constraints. Try one or more of the listed constraints to create your own oulipo poem. As ever, you might want to tweak this one (don’t be afraid to edit away from any exercise, often a poem will quickly outstrip its inciting material), in the revision process, but it’s a good generative exercise.
This is a response poem. Or, perhaps, a poetic rebuttal. Find a favourite poem (it must be a published, contemporary poet for this) you want to respond to, or one you feel incensed by. Respond to it, and then take it three steps further into your own agenda. Try to avoid sentimentality, and don’t be afraid to put fire to things, or perhaps, things to the fire.
An example: Charles Harper Webb’s ”Prayer to Tear the Sperm-Dam Down” (in response to Suzanne Paola’s “Prayer to Seal Up the Wombdoor”) from Best American Poetry 2006. Of “Prayer,” Webb writes:
“I read Suzanne Paola’s ‘Prayer to Seal Up the Wombdoor’ soon after the birth of my son. Being a natural contrarian, I began my own Prayer in simple opposition: You want to seal the wombdoor? Fine! I want to open it up. But the poem quickly grew into a celebration of the selfish human drive to reproduce and live on our unconscious, hence indifferent, Earth. As a new parent, I felt a deepened connection with my own parents—who couldn’t easily have sealed up Mom’s womb door even if they’d wanted to—and of their parents, and theirs, and theirs… I found myself saying things that I, while childless by choice, never thought I’d ever say. If the sense of fun, excitement and energy I felt giving birth to this poem comes through to the reader, it may become another argument for the worthiness-to-live of humankind.”
There are many ways to come at this technique/mode (it’s much more than a prompt, really — and remember, it’s not just for poets!), but the simplest is often the best: pick a piece of art, and start writing.
Do a free-write for at least 10-15 minutes. Try out different approaches to the image, different ways of entering and inhabiting and conversing with it. Switch to lists, note down feelings or evocative images or details you want to make sure to go back to later… spend some time being an attentive and collaborative audience member for the image or art piece at hand, writing down what comes to you.
For a(n odd) variation: consider the medium by which you are encountering the art. Visit a museum if you can, or go back to one through memory. Or encounter art out in the world. Or, if you are encountering it via an internet browser, consider the pixels of the screen. Print, for example, is a light-absorbing medium, where LED is a light-emitting medium. Imagine a million tiny windows on the surface of a fly’s eye. How might concepts like resolution and file format shift our relationship with art?
If you are needing more suggestion while you free-write, some options for ekphrasis include:
1. Imagine yourself observing the artist at work.
2. Consider the effect of the artwork on your speaker.
3. Observe someone else observing and responding to the artwork.
4. Focus on a limited aspect of the work, e.g., the bottle of wine on a fully laden table.
5. Enter the artwork and become part of the scene.
6. Consider what is left out of the artwork.
Temptation of St. Anthony by Leonora Carrington
Or (via The Alabama School for Fine Arts):
Write about the scene or subject being depicted in the artwork. Maybe imagine a story behind what you see depicted in the piece. Perhaps relate it to something else it reminds you of.
Write in the voice of a person or object shown in the work of art. The person or object can address the reader or another character/object in the piece.
Speak directly to the artist. Try to speculate about why he or she created the work and/or imagine what was happening while the artist was creating the piece.
PostSecret is community mailing project created by Frank Warren in which people mail hand-made postcards illustrating secrets which are thus shared anonymously.
What would your secret be? Make a short list. What images might illustrate the elements of your secret or your confession? Colors, sounds? There are things a poem or prose piece can capture sometimes even more fully than a two-dimensional paper postcard would. Free-write and then make a poem or prose piece which acts as a kind of PostSecret.
Choose a PostSecret from the site or books which speaks to you (or choose several) as your ekphrastic source, and react to them, or use it as a jumping off point to enter into your own exploration of a particular memory or what has gone untold.
Treat the PostSecrets as potential sources of collaboration, intertextuality/ekphrastic/conceptual sources, and a reminder that there is very little we humans think or do which isn’t shared by someone. <3
VI. Further Resources
To be updated shortly!