Writer Wednesdays

Memory, Music, & Mapping

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 allows you to study their maps. Each poem 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 some of these poems, 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?

As you read the essay by Greg Orr, consider which “temperament(s)” you gravitate toward. Try on a different one, as an exercise. Then dig deep into that which guides you, be it music, landscape, or what you are chasing.



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.

  1. Write something mundane in extreme language. (Example: brushing one’s teeth, written in the language of a shipwreck … or “shipwrecky language”)
  2. Write something dire in “mundane” language.

Well, crap.

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.

From Tell It Slant, Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Non-fiction (Miller & Paola):

What is your earliest memory? What is the memory that always emerges from the dim reaches of your consciousness as the first one, the beginning to this life you call your own? The first memory becomes the starting point in our own narratives of the self. As writers we naturally return again and again to these beginnings and scrutinize them. By paying attention to the illogical, unexpected details, we just might light upon the odd, yet precise images that help our lives make sense.

In the preface to his anthology The Business of Memory, Charles Baxter writes, ‘What we talk about when we talk about memory is – often – what we have forgotten and what has been lost. The passion and torment and significance seem to lie in that direction.’ What have you forgotten in your life? What are the moments that keep sliding out of reach? Write for twenty minutes using the phrase ‘I can’t remember’ to start off each sentence. Where does this examination lead you?

You may find that by using this exercise you can back into the scenes and images you do remember but never knew how to approach. You can write some very powerful essays based on this prompt, exploring material that seemed to dangerous to examine head-on.

And here are some further thoughts and exercises on memory in writing Creative Non-Fiction.



Mapping & Memory Part II


It’s been proposed, and I’ll say it again: that every poem might be a kind of elegy. If every poem itself enacts a moment in time (when produced, existing, read, or reflected upon), and also represents a moment in time (something recounted), then in many respects the nature of poetry is to commemorate what is already past, and since a poem is the product of the art of poetry and every product somewhat comments on its production, etc etc, thus… all songs are love songs (for something), all poems are elegies (for more somethings). Probably.

What are you attempting to memorialize, what moment is passing and will never be captured again, in any one poem? Think about matching your form to rendering the memory, try different starting or access points, and different frameworks or methods of inquiry.

And think about anti-memory, too — non-truths. Where can you utilize the vividness of memory, and where are the moments to let “truth” go, chase “truthiness” instead — make it up. Fake it real.

Of the balance between that ‘music’ and ‘truth,’ Richard Hugo writes, “When you start to write, you carry to the page one of two attitudes, though you may not be aware of it. One is that all music must conform to truth. The other, that all truth must conform to music. … if you feel truth must conform to music, those of us who find life bewildering and who don’t know what things mean, but love the sounds of words enough to fight through draft after draft of a poem, can go on writing–try to stop us.”

*1st memory – Spend two minutes thinking back to your first memory. Freewrite for a few minutes in as much detail as you possibly can, everything you remember, get it down on paper. After this, go back and try to flesh out the details further, and see if a tone emerges. Use what is useful toward generating new material for a piece. Part II or a variation, juxtaposing a recent memory. Having written for a set amount of time about a first memory, next write for five minutes on a recent memory. This is probably the best prompt to start with if you don’t know where to begin!

Bone to Pick – Write down three men or women (pick gender for all three maybe) you’ve had conflicts with (you can take brief notes on the conflict if helpful). Circle one and write to that person. You might try starting with the line You do not have to be good after Mary Oliver (and as ever, you might remove that inciting line, later). Can also be useful for times when one is pretty complicit (or entirely so) in the conflict, or for seemingly silly conflicts, etc. (Thanks to Laura Kasischke.)

Bone to Pick, pt II – Write down three men or women (see above) with whom you’ve lost touch and still have something to settle. Circle one. Write to it. (Thanks to Laura Kasischke.)

The Triggering Town – In your class site you’ll find a link to three brief chapters from Richard Hugo’s book of craft essays, The Triggering Town. You might return to this selection again more in depth, but the first chapter, “Writing Off The Subject,” can give you insight into the balance of inspiration and manipulation, especially with regards to memory and emotion. The third is about false “assumptions” and is good (quick) general reading. The second and titular chapter contains this passage:

“The poem is always in your hometown, but you have a better chance of finding it in another. The reason for that, I believe, is that the stable set of knowns that the poem needs to anchor on is less stable at home than in the town you’ve just seen for the first time out home, not only do you know that the movie house wasn’t always there, or that the grocer is a newcomer who took over after the former grocer committed suicide, you have complicated emotional responses that defy sorting out. With the strange town, you can assume all knowns are stable, and you owe the details nothing emotionally. However, not just any town will do. Though you’ve never seen it before, it must be a town you’ve lived in all your life.

You must take emotional possession of the town and so the town must be one that, for personal reasons I can’t understand, you feel is your town. In some mysterious way that you need not and probably won’t understand, the relationship is based on fragments of information that are fixed and if you need knowns that the town does not provide, no trivial concerns such as loyalty to truth, a nagging consideration had you stayed home, stand in the way of your introducing them as needed by the poem. It is easy to turn the gas station attendant into a drunk. Back home it would have been difficult because he had a drinking problem.

Once these knowns sit outside the poem, the imagination can take off from them and if necessary can return. You are operating from a base.

That silo, filled with chorus girls and grain

Your hometown often provides so many knowns (grains) that the imagination cannot free itself to seek the unknowns (chorus girls). I just said that line (Reader: don’t get smart. I actually did just write it down in the first draft of this) because I come from a town that has no silos, no grain, and for that matter precious few chorus girls.”

Lots of potential prompts here — *write a piece involving two towns, perhaps the versions known and unknown, or sister cities as foils, or cities of darkness and lightWrite a piece in which the town is a speaker, in which the town is a lover, in which the town is not a town at all.

If, for the modernist writer, the city existed as a space onto which s/he could map their own psychological terrian, for the postmodernist writer the city is experienced as a rapidly changing domain in flight from … rational and official discourse.”
– Paul March-Russell, “The Short Story: An Introduction, Edinburgh UP, 2009, p.159


Mapping is another invaluable technique for the conceptual or literary artist. Consider that like every poem has a speaker (as with any utterance), every poem has a space (including anti-space)(as with any existence) and/or spatial relationships.

Consider the art of notation, and mnemonic devices and figures, and this totally wild yarn:

“The most common account of the creation of the art of memory centers around the story of Simonides of Ceos, a famous Greek poet, who was invited to chant a lyric poem in honor of his host, a nobleman of Thessaly. While praising his host, Simonides also mentioned the twin gods Castor and Pollux. When the recital was complete, the nobleman selfishly told Simonides that he would only pay him half of the agreed upon payment for the panegyric, and that he would have to get the balance of the payment from the two gods he had mentioned. A short time later, Simonides was told that two men were waiting for him outside. He left to meet the visitors but could find no one. Then, while he was outside the banquet hall, it collapsed, crushing everyone within. The bodies were so disfigured that they could not be identified for proper burial. But, Simonides was able to remember where each of the guests had been sitting at the table, and so was able to identify them for burial. This experience suggested to Simonides the principles which were to become central to the later development of the art he reputedly invented.[7]

He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty (of memory) must select places and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those images in the places, so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things, and the images of the things will denote the things themselves, and we shall employ the places and the images respectively as a wax writing-tabletand the letters written upon it.[8]

Make a “place” / memory map. Take a big piece of paper and sketch out, draw, the neighborhood (or the place, wherever it may have been) where you grew up, where you spent your childhood: the beautiful places, the places you weren’t supposed to go, the dark and shadowy places. Alternatively try this exercise with a different sense of “place” — perhaps the body, the cracks between the couch, or imaginary “place,” the spaces all our lost objects vanish to, the rooms we’ve never been in. Write to where it leads. (Thanks in part to The Poetry Place.)

Katey Schultz, author of Flashes of Warmentions, ‘“You’re the only one who has to understand or be able to ‘read’ your map,” I tell them. “Only you have to know what it means and what things stand for.” I can almost hear the sigh of relief in the room when I say this, because inevitably someone will have already moaned under his/her breath, “I’m not an artist” or “My maps going to look horrible.”’

Make a life map. Include the places where you have lived, places on your body, mapping in terms of any system or navigable interrelated space with objects or memories therein–the people who have been important to you, the decisions you have made that have shaped your identity, times you have been hurt that have shown up in the morphology of the body. Make it as an object, a piece, or a meditation, or, choose part of it and write about it in another piece. (Thanks in part to The Poetry Place.)

*Apply the concept of mapping to the work at hand. Take a poem/piece you’re wrestling with, or one you’re working on, and map it out or away, or consider its contents particularly in spatial (/emotional) relation to one another. Pull memory in there, too, and apply mapping to memory.

Write a poem that includes a path, a trail, or a map. (Thanks to PoeWar.)

And, you can always try mind-mapping!

In any case, think about *the space of your poem, or your series’ of pieces. How far does the poem move? Is the territory familiar or foreign (or familiar and foreign)? Who owns it, who passes through it, what is its chemical makeup, what’s not visible from one vantage point but clear in another? — I like to think about those old First Discovery books (anyone else have these as a kid? Okay I’m old, it’s fine.), the ones with the acetate overlay transparency pages — turn the pages and see INSIDE the human body, one layer at a time. If anyone has a set of these lying around I’ll take the whole lot of them.

What’s visible, to whom, and what isn’t? Then go back and think about incorporating sensory details other than sight.

Take it Further.

See if you can find the compelling story in what is seemingly a minor memory. And can you take the edge off a more frightening one, or could super calm language render a powerful memory into one that is more subtle, or eerie? See how to manipulate the psychic distance of your speaker when dealing with various memories to avoid sentimentality or dramatization, and be sure to use concrete, specific language–write choosing individual words, rather than noun phrases (which tend to turn out to be canned phrases or cliches… unless that’s what your going for), where ever possible.

Look at conceptual map art for fun and to inspire your mapping. Also, like the mind-mapping linked above, here’s a concept mapping tutorial from RISD (powerpoint). Here’s a overview of shared vocabulary / application with regards to maps.

When revising, don’t get so attached to the accuracy of the memory or details that you lose sight of where the poem on the page wants to go. Follow its story, now that it has manifested in that mysterious combination of will and stray thought or influence, and don’t wrap things up too neatly. Remember that a poem is, essentially, a moment in time, and ask — why this moment? Where to next, where is this stream heading even after we dock?

Mapping & Memory Part III


How do your surroundings influence your poetry? Do you write in long, sweeping vistas, or are your poems like tall buildings, squat houses, ornate churches? What do your thoughts look like, your feelings? You may find surprising correspondences between your poems and where you live —or you may not yet have let your surroundings into your work.
– The Poet’s Companion, Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux

Let mapping also be a useful tool for rebooting certain seemingly familiar metaphors or canned phrases / clichés (the “metaphorical heart” rather than an actual ventricled organ), or for taking a paraphrased memory or moment and turning it into scene or physical embodiment.

Give dimensions to the objects in your work, the rooms your figures inhabit. Dimensions can either provide a much needed dose of reality to a concept, or, can be the key to getting truly surreal. Let memory play its role in your mapping, and vice versa.

What about mapping ambitionsDesiresTensions in the furniture and the dimensions of the room itself? What about mapping the “landscape” after a fight? What about mapping in terms of society, culture, stratosphere, influence, disaster?



Of poetry of place, Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio write:

The importance of place is also discussed at length by the poet and novelist Margaret Atwood in her book Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. She studied the writing of her native Canada and compared it to that of the United States. She found that the concerns of Canadian writers seemed to arise out of their preoccupation with the landscape of that country, the harsh winters and wild open spaces. Survival, victimization, terror of nature, desolation, solitude, destruction, and courage are a few of the themes Atwood found Canadian writers to hold in common. Compared to American writers, Canadians explored these themes more frequently, reflecting what she calls “a national habit of mind.” For Americans, Atwood says, this habit of mind often involves the idea of “the frontier,” and “the journey.” We tend to see all aspects of our lives this way, even our relationships.

What does your relation to landscape(s) look like? What’s your intimacy with them, or point of entry? (Or, in what ways could you explode traditional notions of landscape or culture’s relationships?)

Start out with what I call Landscapes You Have Loved, one of my favorite exercises (you’ll also end up generating a great list to return to for future work).

From writer Joe Milazzo: Read the provided excerpt from Steve Erickson’s novel Our Ecstatic Days. After Erickson’s “Hotel of the Thirteen Losses”, transform an emotion or a state of mind into a place / landscape. [Proffered in the context of understanding setting not just as time and place but also as “a set of cultural coordinates.”]

Geolocational Writing

Put your writing in situ. Take your writing to a location. As well, consider what happens when you put location to writing you’ve already generated. Does it provide realism? Drama? Form?

Consider the potential of geolocating your writing. From The Writing Platform: “Imagine a narrative woven through a city street. As a reader you can access fragments of story by navigating a physical space using a digital device such as a smartphone or tablet.  As you walk past a library, you might be told about the history of the books inside. Walking part a church might trigger the sound of a congregation singing together. An abandoned building might tell you about all the generations of people who have lived and worked inside. You might even be encouraged to contribute something in response to what you experience.”

Consider geographic features both real and imagined.



The narratives of travelers changed with the advancement of transportation — the narratives are much richer by the individual moment in given the extra viewing time of travel by stagecoach, whereas by the time travel by train was in vogue these narratives had shifted to be much broader in coverage, with each stop representing one aspect of a larger impression of a journey. It’s simply because the type of viewing changed. What about the viewing from your travel? What about the length of the trip compared to its individual memories and parts? What about the length of time spent traveling — does one begin to dissociate from one’s origins, gain closer entry to them? Does one begin to adopt a nomadic mindset?

From LitBridge: Write a poem about your experience in some type of vehicle used for long distance such as a car, airplane or a train. Where were you going? Was it comfortable? Who did you meet or talk to? Did you forget anything or find something? Did you arrive at the right destination?

And: Take a look at a map. Randomly select a town or city you have never been to.Write a poem about what you think it might be like visiting that place for the first time. (Or, as a variation, research obsessively and write whatever emerges from the process.)


Memory Cultivation

Try this as a daily thing for your notebook for a little while: write down three things in the last 24 hour period which you otherwise would forget about if you did not write them down.

What about the loss of memory, or the way it is stored? From Delores Manderelle, If you forgot your beloved, for example, what words would you write to yourself to fall in love all over again? Here’s a writing exercise on memory loss, and exploration of the features of memory. And here are some tips/exercises for how to flesh out memoriesonce you’ve identified a focal period.

How can the body also be a map? What does your body remember?

from a conceptual project mapping a poem onto my body


Triggering Town

Laux and Addonizio mention Richard Hugo’s essay in Poet’s Companion. “Richard Hugo used the word “trigger” to define the thing that happens when we become inspired to write a poem. Hugo was often inspired by a town, especially one he had never seen before and was only passing through. The town would spark his imagination: Who lives here? What do they do all day? Why did they leave that tree growing in the middle of the road? He liked to write as if he knew the answers to those kinds of questions, as if he was born there in fact, or from the viewpoint of the corner grocer or an illegitimate child raised by the minister and his wife… The title of his book of essays and lectures on poetry is The Triggering Town. It’s a pleasure to read, and the title chapter is filled with ideas for ways of looking at a town that can be used as writing exercises.” Go back to “The Triggering Town” and the other exercises from the beginning of our week.

For more on “prioritizing place” in one’s poetry (and life), see Sandra Beasley’s essay here.

TexasDec2013 - 7-2
Shallowater, TX.

Consider your hometown. Do you have one? What aspects of mapping, place, memory, and landscape, overlap, in this rich material for generating work? If you don’t have one, consider that too, and compile your own out of landscapes you have loved, imagine the hometown of you particular problem or the birthplace of an emotion, imagine the city of loss, the backroads of potential.

From LitBridgeThink of at least three people from your hometown that you haven’t talked to in a long time. Write a poem that is aimed to address these people for the first time in years.

Take it Further.

Consider responding to other artists’ landscapesmemoriessecrets, or maps.

Here are some additional Memory Exercises and Place Exercises.

In what ways are you utilizing mapping and memory?