Chapter One: Getting Started: The Nine Muses
Throughout history, humans have credited poems and other forms of art as coming from somewhere mystical, mysterious, and divine. We’ve envisioned angels, muses, embodiments of inspiration who have been gracious enough to bestow upon us the moments of clarity and imagination from which our poems have crystalized. In Greek mythology, the god Apollo was recognized as the God of poetry and music. In Norse mythology, Bragi fills this role. Aengus is the Irish god of poetry to whom William Butler Yeats devotes his poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” And if you had a very specific type of poem you wished to write, you could call upon the Nine Greek Muses (Calliope for epic poetry, Clio for history, Erato for music, and so on) for inspiration. In his 1933 essay “Theory and Function of the Duende,” poet Federico Garcia Lorca articulated the source of poetry as coming not from without, as from angels and muses, but from within—it “has to be roused in the very cells of the blood.” He called this force duende, “an Andalusian word used to describe the particular quality of deep song,” as Michelle Kwansy explains. Throughout the essay, Lorca describes duende as a power, “the spirit of the earth,” as a force that breaks old structures, as “authentic emotion,” and he describes her, as she is linked so closely with surrealist images, death, and passion, as “dragging her wings of rusty knives along the ground.”
Should you ever call out to one of these gods and receive no answer or struggle to tap into duende, however, I’d like to introduce you to nine alternative muses who have been known to grant poems:
- Keeping a Writing Routine
- Creating a Ritual
For many of us, a poem starts with an idea, a memory, a sound, an image. Or it starts when we finally take a pen to paper or sit at our computers and begin to type. But, actually, a poem begins way before we begin to compose that first line. As we move through our day, our mind sorts through experiences, sensations, feelings, images, and ideas and files them in our memory. And as time passes, we forget many of the memories we hold onto in the short term. Something we experience today and remember tomorrow may be lost in a year. It is one of the many reasons writers keep journals—to take notes, pay attention and observe, collect images, sounds, ideas, and experiences as they happen before they are stowed away in the basement of our brains.
Although we only remember a small percentage with our conscious minds, research shows amazingly that our brains retain every single thing we do, say, hear, taste, touch, and feel. There are some people, in fact, who have what’s called hyperthymesia who consciously retain a much higher percentage of memories than is normal, and for whom the condition poses difficulties. These people are able to recall specific details of a day in their life by simply looking at or hearing a date. They cannot forget even the minutest detail. Imagine being able to tell me what you ate for lunch on a random day, say February 8, 2002. Or what you wore on July 23, 2011. Our brain is an amazing organ. But it is not perfect. And it is not under our control. We cannot always make it do what we want.
Perhaps when you were younger you kept a diary. One with a tiny gold key or an attached ribbon to tie around it. I remember writing in one first when I was in fifth grade. It was blue and came with a tiny lock. I used to keep a record of the weather and what I did every day. Then I formed a crush on an eighth-grader and I began to record our encounters in the cafeteria and in the hallway. I became an observer, and began to feel desire. Later, maybe in seventh grade, the purpose of my diary grew. I began to record not only my observations, but also my feelings and thoughts, and eventually I wrote my first poem. Who knows how this happens. We begin to indulge in writing and expression and soon we fine-tune our ears to the music, to the prosody, of language. We become ever more aware of the sensual power of language and tighten the connection between how we feel and how we place these feelings in words; between what we see in our mind’s eye and what we describe through words on a page; between what words on a page describe and what we see in our mind’s eye.
As we grow into adulthood, journaling takes on different uses than tracking weather and crushes—especially if we are writers, thinkers, creators. We might start our day writing as the poet William Heyen has done for decades; it is such a necessary habit, he has said to me, that he cannot go a day without it. We might write down our dreams or initial thoughts for the day, our plans. We might reflect on yesterday’s events or expound on our ideas for our next series of poems.
Keeping a personal journal is a basic practice encouraged in all sorts of writing and art classes. Why do you think that is? Have you ever kept a journal? For what purpose? Did it have an effect on your creative writing?
Keeping a journal works to encourage poems in mainly two ways. First, it provides us time to practice writing and to play with words, while at the same time it uncovers potential material to bring to our poems. The poet William Wordsworth famously defined poetry as “a spontaneous overflow of feelings” recollected in tranquility. Keeping a journal encourages time for the second half of this equation. When we make time to sit with and explore our thoughts and feelings in writing, we edge closer to those memories created during intense moments of experience. The practice, and I’d venture so far as to say learned skill, of making time to write can sometimes be the hardest obstacle to overcome in our daily lives of work, school, and family responsibilities. Keeping a journal produces a routine that becomes easier to keep the more we do it, and it gives us a way to uncover material to write about.
Secondly, in many circumstances, keeping a journal can clear our heads of everyday concerns and frustrations—we can vent in our journals, unload our thoughts and memories that may be standing in the way of our imagination’s flow. If we use the journal to essentially dump the itty-bitty concerns eating away at us, we clear the path for new thoughts and relax enough to forget our worries and play.
If you are a lover of objects, one of the joys of keeping a journal is being able to purchase an attractive book in which to write. I find the feel of the journal, the smell of its cover and its colors to be enjoyable. It makes me feel special. Perhaps it’s the ten-year-old me still dazzled by my first diary, but perhaps you, too, will discover this pleasure as you begin to keep your own. Of course, today, it may be more practical for you to type on a screen. And if that works for you, then by all means let it. I have actually experimented with both and found each to have its own advantages.
Purchase a journal or notebook and commit to writing in it every day for one week. It might help to schedule this activity for the same time each day. If you would like to experiment with typing a journal instead, create a document folder for your journal and save your writing there. Either way, try to write in a place that is quiet and pleasing—a coffee shop, a library, a comfy chair on the front porch. At the end of the week assess how your journal is working for you. Are you writing with the intention to create poems? Or are you venting? Either way, how has journaling affected your imaginative flow? Your thoughts? Your actions?
A journal can be very useful in helping us to collect material for when we have time to and are ready to actually write. But collecting does not only come in the form of prose writing. Remember, the brain works in fragmented and non-sensible ways. Memories are subjective and often unreliable. In our contemporary technological world of multi-tasking, our attention spans have been shortened. Sometimes, in order to maintain a writing lifestyle, it is more practical to work in bursts. And this is where we can remain attentive and we can, like fishing, catch moments—images, ideas, phrases—that we come across and write them down. Keeping a “collection notebook” helps us to remember the gems of images and sounds that spark poetry before we forget them. When you hear, see, or think something that sings, write it down.
As mentioned earlier, many writers keep notebooks or scraps of paper on their night tables, in their cars, in pockets and purses. As long as you have a pen and some form of paper—oh how many poets are surprised by pockets of words they find on napkins and pieces of envelopes!—you are equipped and can consider yourself to be a writer in the act of hunting. Then, when you sit down to write, you will not start from nothing; you can flip through what you’ve collected and build from there.
If carrying around a pen and paper is awkward, another way to collect ideas and tidbits is to send yourself text messages or emails. I have found recording myself on my iPod or cell phone also handy.
Carry around a small notebook and jot down musical or odd phrases or pieces of conversation you overhear throughout your day. Write down a new word you learn in biology class, or a funny sentence out of context you overhear while waiting in line at the dining hall. Write down a phrase you like from a poem or a story you read, or capture an image you see while you’re driving or on a walk: a bird’s shattered blue egg, the greasy fingerprints of a child in a display window, a squirrel towing an apple down a neighbor’s porch stairs. If you remember a strong memory write it down: a hawk that screamed then dove into a river for a fish, the first time you met your significant other. While having coffee, take your earbuds out and engage the world, mine it for language and images. When you write, pull out your collection and begin a poem from one of the phrases or images, or insert one into a revision.
Many beginning writers make the mistake of trying to compose poems entirely in their heads, forgetting that as soon as we actually start writing the direction our words take are guaranteed to change. Keeping a collection notebook helps with these obstacles. Therefore, I encourage you to write little things down and to not think too much about them. Do not try to write poems in your head—this is not writing poems; it is thinking poems. Allow your full imaginative process to come forth when you can actually write.
For many, the act of writing is wed to the act of reading. When I can’t seem to get a groove on while writing, I read. Reading poetry re-patterns the rhythms in my mind and refocuses my attention on the craft of poetry. There are poets I turn to again and again, but I also read literary journals, magazines, new books of poetry, and essays on craft—anything to engage me in the contemplation of writing or inspire me to write. Usually it doesn’t take long for me to be moved to write. Sometimes it does, and that’s okay, too.
The poet Richard Hugo and I differ on the matter of reading. In his introduction to The Triggering Town he writes:
Many writers and many writing teachers believe reading and writing have a close and important relationship. Over the years I have come to doubt this. Like many others, I once believed that by study one could discover and ingest some secret ingredient of literature that later would find its way into one’s own work. I’ve come to believe that one learns to write only by writing.
I do grant him the point that that one cannot simply become a good writer by reading and not writing. But, of course, one wouldn’t be much of a writer if one wasn’t writing. He continues:
I’m not trying to undermine the study and teaching of literature. Far from it. I think literature should be studied for the most serious of all reasons: it is fun. For a young writer it should be exciting as well.
I believe that a writer learns from reading possibilities of technique, ways of execution, phrasing, rhythm, tonality, pace. Otherwise, reading is important if it excites the imagination, but what excites the imagination may be found in any number of experiences (or in a lack of them). Reading may or may not be one.
Oh, pshaw, Mr. Hugo. I am here to tell you, dear students, that reading is, in fact, important to learning to become a good poet. It introduces you to approaches and moves that you otherwise would not have imagined or made. It introduces you to a wider world of the poetic imagination. And it introduces you to the standards of good writing. It saves you time by giving you your predecessors’ experiences to build upon. Imagine trying to learn any art with no knowledge of what came before. Imagine playing the drums or piano and aiming to compose a symphony, or being handed a pot and fork with the aspirations of cooking a soufflé but without ever having seen or tasted a soufflé before. We build upon the achievements of our predecessors and when you write poetry, you write on the shoulders of such poets as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Shakespeare and you add pages to our BIG BOOK. You, of course, will not necessarily enjoy all the poets you read, or agree with their writing philosophies, but it certainly helps you as a writer to be aware of them and to consider them. It helps you to learn to know your poetic self.
Begin to assemble your own anthology of poems that interest you. Either poems you enjoy or ones that puzzle you. Anything that stimulates your capacity to think, feel, or inspires you to write. You may include poems you do not like, too—it all adds up to your own poetic persona. How can you tell someone who you are as a poet and imaginative individual by simply allowing them to read your anthology? What poems will you pick to represent you?
As an added more in-depth assignment, write a 100-300 word response to each poem explaining what it is about the poem that represents you. What have you learned about writing from these poems?
When we read in this way, we say we are “reading like a writer.” What does it mean to read like a writer? Well, for starters, it means we are actively reading, paying close attention to the decisions the poet made when composing and revising the poem as though we ourselves were the poet who wrote it. We consider the choices made concerning line, tone, image, diction, metaphor, form. We ask questions about its composition:
- Why did the poet choose this word instead of another synonym?
- Why is this written in quatrains instead of couplets?
- Why choose to end on an image rather than a statement?
- Why choose to write this in third person rather than first?
- What does this title do for the reader’s experience of the poem?
Asking questions such as these makes us think like writers rather than just readers. The hope is that we will learn some tricks to bring back to our own poems.
An exercise that can help us to delve even deeper into the processes of other writers is to write an imitation poem in which you mimic a poem’s form and moves to create a new poem. The purpose of the exercise is to immerse yourself deeply and attentively into a poem and, following its style, produce a poem modeled after its characteristics. By unfolding a poem step by step and repeating its poetic moves you will see what it is like to actually make the mental decisions and leaps that the poet did. Some of the elements you will want to pay attention to include the following:
- Form and line length
- Syntax and sentence structure
- Tone, voice, and mood
- Frequency of metaphor and images
- Use of punctuation
After the beheading, they found
the one gold tooth in Custer’s mouth.
They propped open his jaws,
cut away his upper lip,
& looked into the tooth in firelight.
It was like a small television
tuned to the news, & a white man
in a white suit was already
stepping down onto the moon.
Copyright ©William Heyen. “The Tooth” is licensed CC-BY-NC-SA.
After the hanging, they felt
a hard object in John Brown’s arm.
They sliced open his shoulder,
dug into his flesh,
& looked at the bullet under torchlight.
It was like a zeppelin
crashing into the earth, & a black man
dressed as a King was already
rising from the flames.
Using the above poem by William Heyen and my imitation as an example, browse the Academy of American Poets online collection for a poem you like and compose your own imitation of it. Moving line by line, note the syntax of each one—perhaps take notes in the margins—and then transcribe these moves into your own poem.
Now, reading need not be limited to poetry or literature. In fact, it must not be. When we write poetry we don’t write about poetry (usually). We write from experiences either real or imagined and, therefore, reading books of all kinds benefits you by expanding the possibility of the experience and knowledge you bring to a poem. Personally, in addition to poetry and literature, I read cooking magazines, National Geographic, books about gardening, non-fiction books about many, many things—insects, salt, American history, mythology, religion, anthropology, crop circles, the topography of Montana. These feed my writing by providing me with new images, words, ideas, metaphors. Knowledge and experiences are the imaginative fuel on which our poems’ engines run.
Go to the library and find a book on a subject that interests you but that you know little about. Horses, the human brain, gemstones, Aborignal Australians, astronomy, coral. Adopt this book into your writing life by committing to write a poem inspired by your new knowledge. Alternatively, you might collect images and words, phrases and ideas into your collection journal as described in the last section and integrate them into your poems.
In Peter Elbow’s classic text on creative writing, Writing Without Teachers, the first chapter opens with an explanation of freewriting. What is freewriting? It is as it sounds. It is writing for a certain amount of time without stopping—it is writing down whatever occurs to you without being charged with having to be correct grammatically or syntactically or factually; it is writing with no barriers or taboos: it is free writing. Sometimes it is referred to as automatic writing and it is incredibly helpful for both loosening the imagination, warming up our writing brains, and as was the case with the Surrealists who loved such activities, capturing what associations our minds are making unconsciously and bringing to light the unknown parts of ourselves.
When we freewrite we do not judge. We simply let what occurs to us in our minds come straight out to the page. If our minds go blank we may write, “I cannot think of anything to write my mind is blank,” and so on until a new direction arises. The main point, however, is to not edit as we write—good advice for whenever we write anything, as writing and editing are two completely different steps in the process. If we edit while we write we set up blockages. Rarely does any good writing take shape on a first try. As Ernest Hemingway so elegantly phrased it, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Instead, we must work our way through ideas and words and ways of explaining and showing, and then revise to find the best words in the best order. But first we must allow the seed to germinate in all that fertile soil to which Hemingway so eloquently refers, and tend to its sprouting and growth.
But I am already ahead of myself. Freewriting does not have to result in a poem. Rather, it is one step in the process of coming to a poem. You may do a freewrite exercise and simply feel more relaxed without any desire to sift back through what you wrote, like writing in a journal. And that’s fine. As Elbow explains:
Practiced regularly, it undoes the ingrained habit of editing at the same time you are trying to produce. It will make writing less blocked because words will come more easily. You will use up more paper, but chew up fewer pencils.
It is, in a sense, an exercise. Like playing scales on the piano or running sprints. Freewriting readies us for writing without judgment, for writing without editing ourselves while in the beginning stages in which wild and raw energy, uncovering connections, and taking risks are more important than properly constructing sentences that are clear and cliché-free. To put it simply, it is a type of play.
I like to think of the results of freewriting as blocks of clay we can shape. A block of clay may become a beautiful sculpture, but much work need be done before it emerges and is smoothed into art. So it is with our writing. You can’t give up or place the pressure of perfection on the beginning stages of creation. Give it time and attention and the poem will naturally evolve.
Choose from one of the following prompts and write for fifteen minutes without stopping or editing yourself. No matter what, do not stop. Do not rest your hands. Do not under any circumstances worry about the subject of your writing changing. Just follow where your thoughts lead. Do not concern yourself with proper spelling or punctuation or even complete sentences. Just keep writing whatever comes to your mind. Just keep going, going, write, write, write.
- If you could spend your day doing anything what would that be?
- Describe your ideal vacation. Where would you go? What does it look like?
- From a dictionary, choose two words randomly and insert them into the following sentence:
- Explaining__________to a _________________.
- Now, explain!
- What did you dream about recently?
- If I were any animal I’d be a ____________.
- Are you more like a river or a lake?
Although writing results in an external object that can be shared, the formation of it depends and arises from a process that takes the inward life of a writer and delivers it outward. Because writing is an internal, solitary process, sometimes it can be frustrating, such as when you cannot seem to make language capture your exact feelings and thoughts. Your blood pressure rises, your body heats. You lose interest and excitement in your project and your patience and attention wane. Meditation can help to quiet the mind and give you the tenacity to keep trying. It can also clear your mind of distractions that may be keeping you from connecting with your poem. Meditation can help you focus and relax so new thoughts come easier into the mind and the body permits the mind to enter a flow state.
In a flow state, time evaporates. You begin to write and everything else falls away. It’s just you and the page. When you stop it feels like you’re returning from another dimension—and, in some sense, you are. Perhaps some of you have experienced this state as an athlete or performer. Some days you’re just “in the zone.” You’re focused, measured, energetic, precise. On the field, on the court, on the stage you are exactly where you are supposed to be, doing exactly what you need to do—and doing it well. Unfortunately, we do not enter these states 100 percent of the time.
So, what can we do to improve our chances of finding flow? If you are a runner, you train daily. You run sprints, lift weights. You keep an encouraging voice in your head and a positive attitude. Not only do you prepare your body when you are exercising on the trail or at the gym, but you also prepare at rest, at home, at work. You regulate your diet watching what you eat and drink. You monitor your stress. You track how long and well you sleep. Well, what if you don’t want to be better runner, but a better writer? How do you train? Like with any sport, instrument, or art, you train not only on the field, but off of it, as well. Meditation, yoga, prayer are all ways that we can quiet our minds and make focusing easier when we write.
In order to meditate, you do not need to join a class or buy a yoga mat. You do not need to join a church. But you can do any and all of these things if you wish. Whatever works for you. In its simplest form, meditation is focused attention. Conscious movement, conscious stillness. Awareness of your thoughts and acceptance of them. It is, according to Wikipedia, “an internal effort to self-regulate the mind in some way.” It may be done sitting, standing, reciting a mantra, practicing silence, or it may include rituals and objects like prayer beads. In short, “there are dozens of specific styles of meditation practice, and many different types of activity commonly referred to as meditative practices.”
Quiet the room and dim the lights. Sit on the floor cross-legged or lie comfortably back on the floor with a pillow under your head and a pillow under your knees. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply in through your nose and into your belly. Your belly should feel relaxed and puff out with your breath. Now, hold the breath in for three seconds, and release the breath slowly as you exhale through your mouth. Repeat five times.
Return to a more relaxed breath: in through your nose, out through your nose. Picture a place of peace you know well. Somewhere where you have felt relaxed and whole. Perhaps it is on top of a mountain or beside a river. Perhaps it is on a towel at a beach. Imagine yourself there. Feel the air, the sun. Smell the water, the trees.
Starting with your forehead, tense your muscles, hold for a count of five, and release. Next, your eyelids. Move down your body like this all the way to your toes. Keep breathing deeply. Move to the cheeks, mouth, neck, shoulders, and so forth. Stay focused on your breath, your body, your peaceful place.
If your mind wanders or nags, it’s fine. Let it, but listen from a distance. You are not attending to that now. Attend to your breath, your body, your peaceful place. Those other thoughts will be there later; you can let them go for now. Only your breath, your body, your place. Stay here for a while, 5-10 minutes.
Then, begin to wiggle your toes, flex your feet. Move your muscles slowly up from the soles of your feet to the crown of your head. Open your eyes. Take your time rising. When you stand, reach your arms to the sky, stretch. Refocus.
You can perform this basic meditation exercise whenever you feel the need to refocus, relax, or you can perform it upon waking. For a more in-depth exploration, I recommend visiting your local bookstore or library, or checking out a site like Wikipedia and surfing the net for meditation web sites that interest you and provide you with ideas for practice.
For some poets, it’s not so much going in that helps them to write; it is going out. Wallace Stevens famously composed poems in his head on his daily two-mile walks to and from work in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was employed at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. It is reported that he liked to match the sounds and rhythms in his poems to his steps. Edward Hirsch shared similar feelings in a 2008 Washington Post article. As he sums up, “Poetry is written from the body as well as the mind, and the rhythm and pace of a walk can get you going and keep you grounded.”
In addition to keeping words in rhythm with your steps, walking is also useful for observing. Simply carry a notebook with you to collect images or ideas. Given the power of rhythm as observed by Stevens and Hirsch, it is no surprise that in my own experience I tend to leave hiking trails with ideas for poems. Surrounded by the trees, mountains, rocks, and mosses, by the river and birdsong, the skitter of small mammals, my mind consistently falls into a writing rhythm on the trail.
I’m not sure if this is due to the new heightened awareness to health in this country, but I know many writers who run 5Ks, 10Ks, half, and even full marathons. Maybe we naturally like to punish ourselves (writing can be so hard!) or maybe all of the oxygen in the brain is good for the imagination. Either way, creating opportunities for your mind and body to speak with one another is a proven way to inspire writing, and it’s good for your health.
Go for a walk around your neighborhood and observe the day. What is happening outside your home? What are the neighbors doing? What is newly sprouted or drooping? Dictate what you are seeing in your mind and imagine it in rhythm with your steps. If you are a runner, do the same when you go for a jog in the park. If you mutter something of interest do not be afraid to stop and jot it down.
Keeping a Writing Routine
In order to be a good writer you should follow these rules:
- Always write at night.
- Always write in the morning.
- Always write in the afternoon.
- Write everyday for 15 minutes.
- Write everyday for three hours.
- Write on weekends all day long.
- Write only with blue pens.
- Write only with black pens.
- Always type your first drafts.
- Use only pencils.
Whatever your preference, whenever you write, it can be helpful to you as a writer to have a routine. Like physically training your quadriceps for a marathon, routine trains us as writers to write well, to be prepared and ready to catch and develop ideas. Routine readies our mind to write.
When it comes to creating a routine, the poet William Stafford and many others will argue that writing in the morning is best. In his Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series essay, Stafford explains that in the early morning hours “something is offering you a guidance available only to those undistracted by anything else.” And he should know, as it is a practice he’s kept for over fifty years.
I remember when I was a graduate student at Eastern Washington University and the poet Jonathan Johnson committed himself to working in the morning. He was a full-time professor with a young daughter and wife. I remember him explaining that it was the only time when he could devote himself fully to the process, before the other things in his life asked for his time and attention. The morning has its advantages. It’s before one is bogged down with responsibilities and also a time when the subconscious mind is closest to the conscious: upon waking. Writing in the morning might offer you deeper images and surreal subject matter.
Like Jonathan Johnson, Henry David Thoreau would also cast a vote for writing in the morning. In his book Walden, Thoreau praises and expounds on the high qualities of mornings and being awake both physically and spiritually.
In 1964, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights published Frank O’Hara’s collection of poems entitled Lunch Poems. Many of the poems were composed during O’Hara’s lunch hour while sitting in Times Square. Many were written in the moment and were focused on events happening in those moments. The tone of the poems is conversational and easy-going. Use this link to read an example of one.
I don’t think O’Hara only wrote during his lunch hour, but here it makes a point—write when you can, regularly. O’Hara built a collection of poems; maybe you can, too.
Another New Yorker who thrived creatively during the afternoon is Walt Whitman. He would extend his own lunch hour, often not returning to the newspapers where he worked (there are multiple because he was frequently fired, perhaps for taking too many lunch breaks). Instead, he took notes for images of things he observed in the busy streets of Manhattan and all of its diversity and bustle.
Write your own series of lunch poems. Every day for a week, break out pen and paper or a keyboard and write a poem or notes toward a poem about what’s happening around you. Describe the people and what they do. Zoom in on the scents and sounds. Recreate what you’re eating on the page through language. Make your readers’ mouths water. Yum!
Still, for others, it is easier to write at night, despite W. H. Auden’s claim that “Only the ‘Hitlers of the world’ work at night; no honest artist does.” And if you choose to give this a try, you will be joining Bob Dylan, Franz Kafka, and Ann Beattie. Similar to morning, the night can be quiet and solitary. The rest of the world asleep, you feel focused on your poetry, your job and responsibilities for the day done. Maybe you collect ideas throughout the day and pour them into your poems at night. It all depends on you and what works best for your schedule and for your senses—people’s bodies are different and run on different schedules. For more on the issue, check out Kathryn Schulz who extrapolates on her own experience as a night owl in her essay “Writing in the Dark” originally published in New York Magazine.
When do you find yourself writing? Are you a night owl, early bird, or neither? What do think the advantages might be to writing at these different times? Include in this discussion your professor’s experience. When does he/she write and how did he/she come to do so?
Create a Ritual
Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work chronicles the habits of 400 writers and their quirky rituals, many of which include partaking in coffee, tea, sherry, wine, and tobacco. It is well-known but not known to what degree that Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote poems while on opium. The poet William Heyen lights a candle before he writes. Whatever the ritual, the purpose of it is to instill a certain mindset that arises from the act. As you may know, many athletes have rituals, too. Boston Red Sox third-basemen Wade Boggs ate chicken before each game. Among his many eccentricities, pitcher Turk Wendell insisted on chewing four pieces of black licorice whenever he started a game. According to David K. Israel, “At the end of each inning, he’d spit them out, return to the dugout, and brush his teeth, but only after taking a flying leap over the baseline.” We need not be that elaborate, but of course, if it works. . .
What type of rituals, if any, have you used for writing, sports, or performing? Do you have any ideas for some you might consider adopting for writing?
Create a writing space, or visit multiple coffee shops, changing what you write by where you write. For example, work on a series of poems about your travels at the kitchen table but write only about your relationships in the student union. Try this for a short period of time and note how the setting and ritual affect your mindset and focus.
Whether it’s staring out a window and daydreaming or keeping a dream journal, exploring the strange images in our mind can also inspire writing, especially, if you’re an avid dreamer, those images we experience at night. When we dream, our brains make connections that our conscious mind does not make while we’re awake. And sometimes these connections lead to eureka moments and new discoveries. For example, did you know that all of the following scientific discoveries were made in dreams: the periodic table; evolution by natural selection; and the scientific method? (You can read about these and others at the website Famous Scientists.) Or did you know that Paul McCartney reportedly composed the melody of “Yesterday” in a dream? According to an article by Jennifer King Lindley, “Stephanie Meyer awoke from sleep with the idea for the Twilight series.” And just imagine what effect dreams had on The Twilight Zone writer Rod Serling?!
Throughout human history, cultures have relied on dreams for knowledge and insight. Some Native Americans, for instance, believed that their ancestors visited them in their dreams. The Greeks and Romans believed that gods and goddesses visited them in their dreams. Many religions connected dreams with supernatural or divine intervention. And Sigmund Freud famously understood dreams to be an expression of our inner-most desires and fears.
In recent times, scientific research and experiments have shown that while our bodies sleep, our dreaming mind sorts through the day’s stimuli not only organizing them, but developing them. In the article “While You Were Sleeping,” Jennifer King Lindley explains how sleeping heals the body, enhances memory, reduces stress, and boosts creativity. Good news for poets!
John Steinbeck was right when he wrote, “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.” That “committee,” explains Dr. Jessica Payne, director of the Sleep, Stress, and Memory Lab at the University of Notre Dame, consists “of billions of busy neurons examining patterns between existing knowledge and new memories to develop innovative solutions.” She continues, “When you dream in REM sleep, the rational control center of the brain is deactivated. This produces an amazingly creative state, and you are able to come up with ideas that you would not be able to when you are awake.”
This knowledge must have been known to the group of French writers and artists who, in the 1920s, began the Surrealist Movement. Interested in turning away from logic and reason, the Surrealists turned toward the subconscious and the inexplicable. They were interested in dreams, freewriting, random selections of images and phrases from various places that when juxtaposed would evoke a strange, unfamiliar sense of knowing that could not be explained rationally. Their work is surprising, startling, captivating and contemporary poetry has been very much influenced by their approaches and aesthetic. The poem “The Painted Couple” by Matthew Rohrer is a good example of a recent use of surrealistic technique:
The Painted Couple
A couple paints themselves like the sky so no one will see them.
In this way they hope to stay in bed all day.
In the evenings, they walk as if invisible.
They are overjoyed.
No eyes to either meet or avoid on the sidewalk,
perhaps perfect solitude at last.
Everyone stares. A couple, naked and painted like the sky,
walk down the street holding hands.
They stop to look in the windows of stores.
They point at the shoes. They point at old beads.
The birds rouse themselves from their roosts
and fly at the couple.
Dozens of drowsy birds moving as one,
diving at the couple painted like the sky.
The postman stares from his left-handed truck
and the tavern proprietor stares from behind his stack of matchbooks
and their friends stare from a passing Volkswagen
and a teacher stares from a copy shop, over the lid of a copier,
and the policeman stares from his flashing car.
The couple who painted themselves like the sky
stand before the magistrate, in clothes.
He is speaking. His mouth opens and closes
under his wig.
Wisps of cirrus clouds slip out from under the man’s cuffs.
the Pleiades rise and fall under her dress.
“The Painted Couple”, from A HUMMOCK IN THE MALOOKAS: Poems by Matthew Rohrer. Copyright ©1995 by Matthew Rohrer. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
A couple painting themselves like the sky is, well, impossible in real life, but not impossible in a poem. It evokes the painting of Rene Magritte, himself a surrealist, and known for painting people who look like the sky. It is easy to imagine this leap of the imagination arising from a dream. Note the strangeness of the image of the magistrate in the penultimate stanza: “He is speaking. His mouth open and closes / under his wig.” This description is strange. The magistrate is described in a mechanical way that makes him feel distant, foreign. Rather than saying he “talks” or “speaks,” we are given the image of his mouth opening and closing like an inanimate object “under his wig,” which adds a further sense of fakeness or artificiality. These details create a surreal image in our mind’s eye and make the magistrate feel cool and far away in the poem. Rohrer is a contemporary writer, but you can learn more about surrealism by researching writers at the roots of the movement such as Andre Breton, Stéphane Mallarme, and Guillaumé Apollinaire.
In addition to examining poems that use surrealistic techniques, you might also consider checking out art. One example of a piece of art, housed at the MOMA in New York, that strikes me personally was crafted by Meret Oppenheim after a conversation she had at a Paris cafe with Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar, when Oppenheim was wearing a bracelet covered with fur. The result was a teacup covered with gazelle fur. The MOMA web site is a great source for viewing surrealist and Modern art.
Keep a dream journal on the side of your bed and write down your dreams every morning before you rise for one week. At the end of the week, read through and select the best material to start a poem. Keep this practice up and when you need images or material, flip through your dream journal for ideas.
Consult a dream dictionary and look up some of the images catalogued in your dream journal. Blending the meaning and the images together, compose a poem in which your dream becomes reality.