The following is based on a talk and exercise led by poet Susan Sink in June 2017 at Lauren Winner’s summer 2017 writing workshop Revision, Christian Spirituality and the Writing Life.
We all have those days in our writing practice, especially if we’re working on a long article or a book. We’re stuck. Or bored. Or just can’t stand the sound of our own “voice” one more day. It’s a slog. We dread opening the document or, worse yet, a blank page.
Many fiction and nonfiction writers take that opportunity to outline. Or to journal (though there’s the problem of that voice again). If those things are helpful, great. But I’d like to suggest a different activity to help get out of a rut: poetry. Why not get a poetry prompt and write on that for a few minutes? You can even revisit it over several days, as long as you want to keep generating or shaping material.
Since most people think poetry is hard, even harder than prose, you might have just rejected that suggestion outright. But poetry doesn’t have to be hard. You’re not trying to win a Pulitzer Prize here. Poetry can be a way to access our subconscious mind, to make new paths in the brain, and even to play. (The opposite of hard.)
As a poet, I am constantly attentive to language and situations that could be fashioned into poetry. And I see poetry as a way first and foremost to get connected with language and secondly, no less importantly, to activate my imagination. The two are connected, as I want to write with vivid language and use figurative language in all my writing where it can activate reader’s senses to experience what I’m describing.
A prompt I’ve enjoyed is to try to answer an ordinary question in an unexpected way. The question I ask myself can be philosophical or simple. Then I answer it in a draft of a poem that generates as much text as I can in a short time. My answer can be “literal” to a question meant to provoke a more metaphysical exploration: “What was the darkest night?” “When were you loved best?” I try to be as concrete as possible with these. Hopefully at the end I spot a double meaning: a dark night that was also a time of emptiness or loneliness—or its opposite. Hopefully in a concrete gesture by a loved one I also see a deeper pattern or sign of the relationship’s value.
Alternatively, I might ask a common, vague, or really open ended question and answer it as outrageously as possible. One I discovered this summer was from the poem left in James Tate’s typewriter after he died. The question was: “What have I accomplished this year?” From there, I spun out a series of outrageous accomplishments that took me far afield. It was great fun. Here is an example of a question that I get asked all the time (and like being asked): “What are you working on?”
And with that out of my system, I can concentrate on more mundane tasks. I can get back to “writing.”
Maybe there’s a question you’d like to answer—and answer more than once, in multiple ways. In some ways we’re always answering questions when we write, but why not take the task a little less seriously and just see what “answers” we can find in the air, or in our freed up heads?
Here are some other questions for you to consider, or generate your own:
When were you happiest in your body?
Who do you love most?
What are you working on?
How long have you been a writer?
What happens when we die? (Emily Dickinson had a good answer.)
What happened when you were born?
What is the meaning of life?
Or ask yourself about the origins of things:
What is the grass? (see Walt Whitman, here, in section 6.)
What is a mountain?
What is the sea?
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke famously said that we should not seek answers but instead “live the questions.” For the writer, a writing exercise generating and answering questions is doing just that. It is opening up, shaking out, and inviting in the Spirit to breathe new life into musty rooms. It is opening windows and doors and letting our imaginations romp in the wild. There is nothing boring about that.