When I was younger, I only ever wrote when inspiration struck. I typically wrote poetry or song lyrics (song lyrics included a melody in my head and usually included more repetition and yeahs). My notebook would collect dust between emotional outpourings. And the first page often read something kind yet firm “If you are picking this notebook up and your name is not Jodi Moore, it does not belong to you. Please put it back down and walk away. Thanks ☺” People in my family were not particularly snoopy, so I figured this did the trick. Back then, I didn’t do much revision work. I was convinced that the initial metaphors and sounds were pure gold. I didn’t know how to revise. I didn’t know what made good modern poetry; I had only been taught much older poetry in school.
The summer before I took my first poetry class, as a graduate student at SDSU, I read Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor. In this book she argues that writers should write for a certain period of time each day (she suggests 15 minutes). This enables people to maintain a consistent writing practice. She writes, “The fifteen-minute write makes the difference between being a writer and wishing to be a writer” (14). For a certain period, I took this advice seriously. I knew waiting for inspiration would not yield the amount of writing I wanted to produce.
When I was consistently writing each day, I remember frustration. I would sit there with a blank page and a pen. I would tap the pen on the page. I would pick at my fingernails. I would make myself a cup of tea. I would take a shower. I wanted the words to be interesting. I wanted them to be profound. I use a notebook without lines like Kim Addonizio suggests in Ordinary Genius. And the notebook costs $7 or so, and I wanted words that were worth it. I didn’t want to waste pages and therefore money on incoherent ramblings. (I know this makes me sound incredibly cheap, but this is what I genuinely thought. I didn’t want to waste money on meaningless scribblings.)
So I would think about the events of my day: any interesting conversations? Ideas? Images? I eventually started writing something—a paragraph of ideas and in between ideas “what else what else what else.” I kept writing like Long suggests. I kept putting words on the page. And I realized that this initial frustration opened my eyes, at other times in the day, to the world around me. I wanted to have something to write about when I sat down. So, I would walk instead of drive to my job at Papa Murphy’s, trying to slow down and really see the world, looking for an image, a metaphor, anything. And some days I found them. Some days, words would repeat in my head until I typed them in my notes app, to work with later.
I let this practice slip while I was writing my thesis, and now when my head hits the pillow at night and I haven’t written that day and the weeks start to slip by, while I wait for inspiration to strike, I know I have let myself down. I know I need to put in the hard work.
I know I can find 15 minutes each day to write. I want to write. I want to know myself better. I want to stumble on a sound, an image, a cracked robin’s egg in the gutter, a truth about myself, about something. So, lately, to avoid the pain of the first few minutes of “what do I write? What do I even have to say? Will these words matter? Are these ideas worth the paper they’re written on?” I have been going to the Art Museum and writing descriptions of paintings for a half hour, or I have been writing from a prompt, which has been enjoyable in creating poems I would have never otherwise written. So, I wanted to provide a prompt for anyone who wants a new poem idea.
I have recently been reading through Kim Addonizio’s book Ordinary Genius. In chapter 22 titled “Metaphor 1: The Shimmer,” Addonizio discusses waking up clichés, making them new. She writes “Life is complicated. Clichés fail because they don’t reflect truth. They’re easy, and so they lie. As you’ve seen, poets lie in many ways, but good poets don’t mess with life’s complexity” (183). She provides examples of “waking up clichés:” Instead of writing “I cried a river of tears,” she writes “When you left I cried the Ganges, I cried the Amazon, I cried the entire Mississippi. / I cried the Mononghela, polluted with chemical runoff and old condoms. / I cried until the levees broke and the city of my heart was ruined” (184). By including these specific rivers and images, she livens up this cliché, and she encourages other writers to do the same. To practice this work, Addonizio suggests that writers consider what clichés they often reach for: how could freshen these up?
Shortly after this prompt suggestion, Addonizio urges writers to record a concrete image and then include an unexpected turn. E.g. “I shelved my books alphabetically” turns to “I shelved my humiliations alphabetically” or “I shelved my nightmares alphabetically.” She combines concrete images with abstractions for endless combinations and starting points.
When I was reading this chapter, I looked around my living room for a concrete image to start with. I wrote a few: “My backpack leans against the wall,” “A painting hangs on the wall,” and “A cardboard box filled with books sits near the couch.” I changed the last line to “I carry my cardboard box of hope” and I was off. I wrote a poem based on this image combined with an abstraction. It made me think of cardboard boxes and hope in new ways. This prompt holds endless possibilities. It encourages writers to collect concrete images and then to consider possible engaging changes.
When you want to learn more about writing poetry or when you want a refresher or a new idea, I highly encourage books like the Writer’s Portable Mentor by Priscilla Long, Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio, The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, and The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets by Ted Kooser. It feels intimidating to me to just sit down and write for 15 minutes each day, but when I have some possible ways of mixing up ideas, that enlivens my practice. And I hope it can enliven yours, too.
Addonizio, Kim. Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within. W.W. Norton and Company Inc, 2009.
Long, Priscilla. The Writer’s Portable mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life. Wallingford Press, 2010.
Photo by Kim Love, sourced under a Creative Commons license via Flicker. Post by Jodilyn Andrews.