Thursday, November 22, 2012


Pop Culture Geek

Build-A-Poem Workshop

[To become aware of our discursive thinking around the act of writing, we do a“Build-a-Poem” activity through a series of steps and discuss each stage of the experience.]

Many of us are not aware of the messages with which we bombard ourselves when we’re writing. We’re not aware of how much we try to predetermine our writing experience and outcome.

Discursive thinking refers here to the self-talk we engage in: that constant sorting of experience into good, bad, neutral. It’s a type of inner talk or inner rhetoric that carries tremendous influence, as Jean Nienkamp among others has pointed out. We frequently persuade ourselves through our self-talk without realizing it.

What follows is an activity I’ve used with students and when giving talks to help people become more aware of their own discursive thinking around the act of writing. (I've left quite a bit of page space between each step; try not to scroll ahead beyond the asterisk until you've jotted down the current line.)

Step One: After opening a blank screen or finding a scrap of paper and pen, take a moment to get comfortable. Observe your breathing. In. Out. In. Out.


So you’re about to write a poem. Right now. Within the next 3 minutes.

Step Two: For a minute jot down your reactions to what I just said—to the fact that you’re about to write a poem: any reactions.

I purposefully selected poetry because most people have strong reactions to this genre. (I've heard grown people groan at the prospect of a poem.) The idea of an upcoming experience with poetry arouses a whole gamut of emotions and associations from the past.

The reactions you wrote down constitute your discursive thought about this upcoming act of writing.

Step Three: Watching your breathing, come up with a line for each of the prompts I’ll give you. Write down whatever comes to mind, not worrying about quality or audience. Try not to read ahead to upcoming prompts—just spend 30 seconds on each and move on. Each prompt provides the next line.

First line: Think of an emotion you’ve recently felt and compare it to an object in nature using either a metaphor or a simile.


Second line: Describe that natural object using one of the senses.


Third line: Use a list (you decide what goes in the list).


Fourth line: Zoom-in real close to the natural object and describe something microscopically.


Fifth line: Something in the background to this natural object is pointing to another emotion you experience. What is it?


Sixth line: What’s the weather or climate around this natural object?


Seventh line: Something lies within a few feet of this object. It’s an item you haven’t seen since your childhood. What is it?


Eighth line: Use a simile (you decide what goes in the simile).


Ninth line: There’s a shadow lying on the ground. It belongs to a person you wish you could speak to again. What’s interesting about the shadow?


Tenth line: Something is about to change in the setting around this natural object. What is it?

Read through your poem.
(Feel free to share your poem by commenting to this post or email it to me. I'd love to read it.)
You wrote this poem in a short span of time. You had no concept of this poem ten minutes ago, and the poem has been relatively unaffected by predetermined thinking. It arose in the moment. It is emblematic of all that can arise in each moment. Did you think you could write a poem like this? Who knows what your next idea or sentence will look like? Take a moment to jot down the thoughts which are passing through your mind right now about writing.



Sunday, November 11, 2012

An Experiment with Post-Its and Other Materials

[This post continues conversations about the material dimensions of writing from my October posts.]

Building the Pile:

An exercise I’ve done with students in my writer’s block course involves asking them to bring several different types of paper and writing implements to class.
These materials are heaped on a table.
The heap should include a real variety of paper—be sure to include“marred” paper such as crumbled sheets from the recycling bin--as well as cardboard, fancy paper, a rejection note, the backs of envelopes, newspaper, and, of course, Post-Its. Any type of paper will do. Likewise, the heap should contain a range of writing implements—Magic Markers, crayons, mechanical pencils, cheap pens, fountain pens, red pens, green pens, stubby carpenter pencils, pens you hate to use, pens you love to use.
(I once used this exercise with students who were Industrial Design and Architecture majors, and they contributed an interesting assortment of graph paper and precision drawing pens.)
It’s helpful to do this with other people because an element of chance is introduced. They bring in writing materials that you have to deal with: ones you don’t pick or predetermine.
Next, freewrite for at least 15-20 minutes, picking up new types of paper when one is filled and switching pens and pencils every few minutes.

What Can Happen:
Look out for the moment in which the physical conditions of writing (those variegated materials) make you start to see your writing. When I say "see," I mean literally seeing the writing as an object coming into existence a few inches from your eyes.
Then look out for the moment in which that seeing of your writing brings a certain calm, a certain grounded and whole feeling. It's the feeling of being mindful, of being clicked into place into the Present moment.
You become a watcher—an audience for your own production of words. (You are in essence mindful, watching the words arise and change.) Everything slows down. There’s a sense of calm, peace, even a state of grace when watching one’s writing.

Why This Works:
I have noticed that when I am writing and it’s going well, when I come up with ideas that interest me, I often switch materials (using, for instance, a different colored pen). My handwriting also often changes—big rounded letters that to me are like drawing more than writing become compact and tiny in a sort of sneak attack, an ambush toward a finished document.
Other people might change the appearance of their writing by suddenly using ALL CAPS when they've found an idea.

What's happening in either case is that a person's relation to their words has changed. Rather than treating the material conditions of writing as invisible, the person changes those conditions (typeface, color of pen) to be in-sync with their changed relationship to words. The physical realities of writing in the moment are called upon to express what's going on in that moment.

The FULL SENSORY EXPERIENCE OF WRITING is important (something that I'll discuss in a later post). We should hear and see our writing while it happens.

The point for now is that writing with sundry materials (heap of paper types and pens) basically simulates the experience of finding an idea and wanting the physical language to reflect the fact that we have found something good.
Writing with mixed materials also heightens our awareness of the present circumstances of writing. We can't help but notice more the act of writing in the moment as our pen pressure and color changes and as the paper type forces us to notice how its texture is different than the previous type.

As a result, our attention is drawn to the moment and away from monkey-mind thoughts about the future (such as about imaginary audiences). The effect is similar to drawing one's attention for the first time all day to one's breathing: suddenly, we are Here and Now, and so are our ideas.