In a writing group this week, someone asked me what they should be writing about. They said, “No offense, but I don’t care about poetry or whatever. Writing has been one of the things that’s helped me and I want to do it right.” Well, no offense taken. Poetry is immediate, precise, emotionally honest, and surprising. That’s why I so often use it in my groups. But I think the point of writing, for me personally and creatively and professionally is not what I write about or even what form I write in, but how I approach the writing. By that I mean that if we write with:
1. attention to specific sensory details (observation),
2. emotional honesty (that vulnerability of exposing how you actually felt about it), and
3. space for questions (a willingness to change your mind right there on the page)
it’s bound to be helpful to us, and it’s quite likely it will be helpful and interesting to others (which is a bonus, but still not the point). The point is to know yourself so that you can be at a little more at ease with the mysterious parts of yourself that share your mind and body.
When the amazing poet Brendan Constantine was here, he brought this really simple exercise that I’ve been assigning to everyone since: make a list of six sensory memories from the past 24 hours. Pinpoint moments.
Not a whole dragged out “Well my boyfriend said this and then I was like, Ooookay, but what about the cat? and then he was like, But since when do you care about cats? and I was like, Oh my god, I totally told you that I was a cat in a past life you never listen to me!”
But more like:
The sound of the keys on his keyboard clicking when he asked me to remind him again why I cared about cats.
The expository stuff will come, once you sit down and list the six things, you’ll be able to identify what you need to write about. Then you can expand on those things, for example:
“When my boyfriend asks me again, while only half listening, why cats matter, I don’t know how to explain what I have already explained before. That I have a memory of an arched back, soft belly, of paws on grass, of solitude and strength. That somewhere inside me, I can remember nights awake while the world slept, the power of releasing claws into flesh. I want to scratch his eyes out to remind him.”
So in the above example, we can see that perhaps what the “I” in question needs to write about is maybe a need for more time alone, and perhaps a latent hatred for his or her partner…
Below is a poem by Brendan. Look at all these images linked around a single thing–one particular year in his life. If the six sensory images thing isn’t hitting home, take a year in your life–maybe the year you graduated high school–and list some sensory memories from that time on the precipice.
I learned the word disaster meant against the stars,
learned it did not apply to this world; the sky intended
…………………I watched the boy with no legs draw
pictures of feet for an hour in Study Hall.
……………………………………… ………………In the hall
of my uncle’s rest home I heard the paper voice of a man
so old he’d forgotten he was blind. When a nurse passed
his door, he’d ask “Turn the lights on, would you?”
I learned sadness like a way home from school. I got in
later and later. Some nights I didn’t come back at all
but sat up waiting for myself.
……………………………………… .I passed Geography,
History, & Spanish for the last time. My cat died.
My dog turned grey. My physics teacher was hit
by an ambulance.
But I read a book & understood it.
A woman asked me to touch her body. I did.
……………………………………… ……………………I wrote
my first poem. It said people were like moons. I believed
what I wrote, believed I had done all my writing, wouldn’t
…………………Then I believed a book that said the oleanders
behind our house were poison. All summer I dreamed
of meeting someone I could feed one brutal flower.