Archives For Writing Down the Bones

o8tJIE8Natalie Goldberg in her book Writing Down the Bones has a great way to think about your daily writing process: working the compost pile. It doesn’t matter if what you are working on feels like junk; it will all become part of the fertile soil to feed your future efforts.

If you are running short on ideas, the Modern American and Contemporary Poetry course I took through Coursera.org listed some good prompts for generating new work from U.S. poet Bernadette Mayer (look for this free course to be offered again in the fall of 2014). Here are a few of her prompts:

* Write a poem that reflects another poem, as in a mirror.

* Take an already written work of your own and insert, at random or by choice, a paragraph or section from, for example, a psychology book or a seed catalog. Then study the possibilities of rearranging this work or rewriting the “source.”

* Explore the possibilities of lists, puzzles, riddles, dictionaries, almanacs, etc. Consult the thesaurus where categories for the word “word” include: word as news, word as message, word as information, word as story, word as order or command, word as vocable, word as instruction, promise, vow, contract.

* Structure a poem or prose writing according to city streets, miles, walks, drives. For example: Take a fourteen-block walk, writing one line per block to create a sonnet; choose a city street familiar to you, walk it, make notes and use them to create a work; take a long walk with a group of writers, observe, make notes and create works, then compare them; take a long walk or drive-write one line or sentence per mile. Variations on this.

* Write a bestiary (a poem about real and mythical animals).

* Write what is secret. Then write what is shared. Experiment with writing each in two different ways: veiled language, direct language.

* Write household poems-about cooking, shopping, eating and sleeping.

* Write while being read to from science texts, or, write while being read to by one’s lover from any text.

* The uses of journals. Keep a journal that is restricted to one set of ideas, for instance, a food or dream journal, a journal that is only written in when it is raining, a journal of ideas about writing, a weather journal. Remember that journals do not have to involve “good” writing-they are to be made use of. Simple one-line entries like “No snow today” can be inspiring later. Have 3 or 4 journals going at once, each with a different purpose. Create a journal that is meant to be shared and commented on by another writer–leave half of each page blank for the comments of the other.

These are only a few of the great ideas from Mayer’s lists. Click here for more from the University of Pennsylvania website. Not all of the ideas are related to poetry.

ghost town nvIt’s close to Halloween, and I’ve had this nagging thought on my mind; it has to do with allowing myself to evolve as a writer without being hemmed in by past accomplishments, writing styles, etc. I think of this dilemma as being haunted by the ghost of poems past. One particular poem is both an anchor and a problem for me. It is, in many ways, one of the more successful poems I’ve written (according to editors), which sets up pressure to have all other poems follow in its path, to conform to the style of writing that worked so well this one time. This expectation becomes a weight that keeps me from moving forward. I just found a copy of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (embarrassingly, I have so many books double and triple-stacked in rows on my bookcases, I didn’t realize that I even owned it), and she wisely points out what a huge mistake it is to try and control your material before it is even written down. That’s what these hauntings are, a gordian knot of expectations that encourage you to control the material or shape it in ways that are preconceived (actually limiting you).

I used to write narrative and image-based poems, and that has been a difficult pattern to break. The newer poems have a different style and subject matter, and will likely be taken by a new group of journals, which means wading into unknown waters and facing a steep learning curve with new editors. I’m excited about the prospect, but it’s tempting to go back to the writing style I know and the journals I am most familiar with. I’m using an old English proverb as my mantra these days, sticking to what’s elemental and not chasing after what’s not important:

Catch not at the shadow and lose the substance.

I’m using Writing Down the Bones to keep me anchored to the substance of writing. More on Natalie Goldberg’s books in the related content.

Twyla Tharp, choreographer, says “If you only do what you know and do it very, very well, chances are that you won’t fail. You’ll just stagnate, and your work will get less and less interesting, and that’s failure by erosion.” Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit, is one of my favorites.