10-Word Poems

I’ve been doing my best to organize my stuff (especially papers) before the fall semester begins.  In going through the huge plastic tubs full of notes, documents, writing exercises, random movie ticket stubs, drawings from nephews, etc. in order to categorize everything into folders, I’ve run across a lot of things I’d forgotten about.  Some of the things I’d forgotten I had, I’ve been so happy to rediscover.  Letters from my family from times when we were far apart, comic books my nephew drew and mailed to me, notes from high school classes with my friends…sure have brought a smile to my face and, at times, tears to my eyes in the past few weeks.

One of the really fun things I rediscovered was a set of 10-word poems that my mom and I wrote.  It’s a writer-nerd game that any number of writers can play together:  Each person writes their name on a sheet of paper and passes it to however many other writers there are.  When each sheet has a title from each person (except the person whose name is on it) it gets passed back to the owner.  When you get your titles back, you have to write a 10-word poem for each title.  Sometimes, this gets extremely silly.  Sometimes, it gets unexpectedly deep!  And mind you, these aren’t haiku – you don’t have to count syllables, just words, and you can break the lines up however you want.

Here are a couple of our silly results:

Gluttonous Carnivorous Extravaganza

Meat! Meat! Meat!

What joy!

People everywhere!

Title by Sara Marian, Poem by Marian Allen

 

Penguin

A business suit and

A cheerful disposition —

What excellent company!

Title by Marian Allen, Poem by Sara Marian

 

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Breaking Open the Moment

One of my poet friends, Ernie O’Dell, introduced me to the phrase, “breaking open the moment,” some years ago at a Green River Writer’s Retreat.  I don’t know if it came from elsewhere first, or if it’s an Ernie original, but it certainly has been an excellent exercise in my prose writing, although it was brought up in application to poetry at the workshop.

As I understand it, the point of the exercise is to really dig for the most evocative sensory details present within a scene or a poem – and not just the visual aspects of what occurs, but keeping in mind all the senses.  Mention tactile sensations, scents, sounds, tastes.  Don’t just put in the first or most obvious thing that comes to mind. 

Your characters are on a beach?  Of course there’s going to be the sound of waves and the taste of salt on the air.  But what else?  Is there another taste in the air, maybe a flavor of iron from the seaweed?  How does wet sand smell?  Are there gulls nearby – aren’t they making noise?  Is there a lot of wind?  Grit in the wind from all the sand?  Shells underfoot – how many?  Are they broken and sharp, or weathered smooth?  Are other people making noise – kids playing, a boombox, conversations held loud enough to be heard over the sound of the surf and the wind?  Waves crash coming in, yeah, we all know that.  The water makes a different sound going back out, especially on a beach with a lot of shells – you can hear them rattle as the water pulls away, weird little suction sounds, the hiss of the sand shifting. 

Just to give an example.  That’s the idea behind breaking open a moment.  Just keep going with it.  You don’t have to include everything you come up with in your finished scene, but you can cut through the boring clichés and find some distinctive, original details to work with. 

Nothing kills a reader’s attention like a plain vanilla description full of phrases they’ve read a million times.  Most readers want to feel like they’re really in the book, like they’re there with the characters, and you can’t do that if you don’t give them any sense of the atmosphere, the feel and taste and smell and sound and imagery of the scene.  Do you want to watch a movie where every scene takes place in front of a whitewashed backdrop?  Where there’s no ambient sound?  No extras, even in scenes that should have extras, or where all the extras are the same height, race, weight, hair color, and all dressed the same?  Unless that’s some kind of commentary or we’re dealing with a new kind of zombie in this movie, that just sounds like a total lack of atmosphere to me.

Put your reader there, inside the story world.  Give them things to latch onto that will spark their imaginations – readers will fill a lot in for themselves if you provide a few really stellar, evocative details to get them started.

Images & Words

To be honest, I haven’t been doing much with writing for the past two weeks – aside from poetry, which, for me, is a purely personal medium.  I’ve been picking at my NaNoWriMo novel outline, but not wracking my brain over it.  In times of considerable change, I think in images more than in words.  Art projects have been big these past few weeks.  Poems come out like finger-paintings.  I just express and express and express, without trying to construct anything but my own mindframe, healthier and stronger than ever before.

Primarily, this blog is based in writing fiction (or at least prose), so art projects and expressive and personal poetry hardly seem in my usual line for posting here.  However, imagery is something that transcends the boundaries of each of the arts – it’s vital to writing evocative prose.  Without imagery, we’re “just stating the facts, ma’am,” and it’s dry as an office memo.

Imagery gives prose a tangibility that can make the words more than just words to the reader, that fires the imagination and makes the people and places and events of the story so clear that the real world slips away – and that’s our goal, as writers, really:  to create something that, for a time, is larger than life and more real than reality.  Fiction is hardly about accuracy.  It’s about believability, which has far less to do with how likely something is than how interesting it is.  Sensory perceptions – particularly visuals – are important to us humans (yes, that is grammatically correct) and, obviously, with the written word, description is your only method of communicating those.  Factual description falls short, though.  Comparisons, contrasts, metaphors, connotations, juxtapositions, and even letter sounds (hard consonants or soft, repetition of letters, etc.) are our canvas and our paint, bringing the story world to life for our readers.  One of the most inspiring users of sensory evocation of the story world, for me, was F. Scott Fitzgerald, when I read a collection (and The Great Gatsby, naturally) of his for the first time at seventeen.  I went metaphor-crazy for a few years, and although I went over the top with it sometimes, it was good practise.  Writing exercises that challenge you to think in sensory terms and metaphor are excellent for getting you in the habit of thinking that way – once you form the habit, it’s second nature, and if you find yourself slipping out of it, you can always do a few more writing exercises and get it back.

The other valuable thing that image-based thought does for me as a writer is part of my brainstorming process.  Ideas start to come to me in flash images, and putting them together has frequently yielded rich, intricate storylines for me.  Sometimes it’s just an imagined photograph lying on a kitchen floor in the sunlight, and my brain starts churning out questions like, “Why is it on the floor?  Who dropped it, and why?  Did something bad happen to them?  Or were they upset about something to do with the picture?  Who’s in that picture, anyway?”  Boom.  Characters start to jump out of the woodwork.  A scenario is created out of one simple image, and my brain is off and running full speed.

With writing fantasy, this type of image-thought has been particularly useful in getting ideas and getting unstuck.  I can’t tell you how many characters and plot points have been born of one quick visual popping into my head at random.  My NaNoWriMo project for this November is chock-full of scenes that originated with nothing more than a sudden visual of a character making a choice, struggling with an emotion, reacting to another character, or acting on decisions they feel conflicted about.  Sometimes I hadn’t even thought to have an internal conflict for a particular person over a particular choice, but when I played the idea through in my head, it was there on my character’s face.  And then I’d realize, of course that would bring this or that out in this character.  What I hadn’t considered in words or abstractions was so obvious in images that I felt silly for not realizing it before.  I had stumbled right over it.

Essentially, the more angles you can consider your writing from and the more you can give your readers to hang their imaginations on, the better off you are.  So I’m not regretful that my brain is taking a vacation in the land of symbolism and visual metaphor.  I’m digging in as far as I can to see what I can glean from this unexpected journey.

Haiku as an Exercise For Prose Writers

I am much more of a prose writer than a poet.  It’s pretty rare for me to write a poem these days, and historically my poetry has generally been more for myself than for an audience.  Still, I think it’s good for prose writers to dabble in poetry from time to time – it encourages precision in word choice, concise description, and, often, getting across a mood or emotion without ever directly stating what the mood or emotion is.  That’s excellent practise for a prose writer, because it’s so much more powerful and evocative to show something shifting within a character than to tell us it’s happened.  Everywhere you turn, you hear the phrase, “Show, don’t tell,” and, although I’ve seen instances where breaking that rule works beautifully, for the most part, it is excellent advice. 

With poetry, if you tell, the whole experience is over.  You might as well write down the words, “Trees are pretty and they make me happy,” and get on with doing something else, because you’re not writing poetry at that point.  Journaling, maybe, but not writing poetry.  Again, I’m not really a poet, so I won’t try to define what IS poetry, but I know what isn’t when I see it.  😉 

Occasionally requiring myself to use a limited number of words to try and paint a powerful mental image, preferably while also evoking some sense of mood or tone, is a great exercise for my prose writing muscles.  So, although sometimes I’ll write free verse just for self-expression, I turn to haiku when I want to challenge my brain to be more on the ball with making every word count. 

The rules for haiku are simple:  three lines long, the first line has five syllables (not words, syllables), the second has seven syllables, and the third has five syllables.  Traditionally, it’s supposed to describe a moment in nature, but I don’t always follow that rule with mine.  Sometimes I have titles for them, and sometimes I don’t. 

So there is a writing exercise for you – write some haiku.  See how much you can get across with such a small “word allowance”.  Here are a few of mine, with, I think, varying levels of success at doing more than just describing: 

Jungle Past  

Breathe–thick, wet, and green 

A smooth white twist of a tree 

Stretched in pagan prayer.

 

Slate-blue, the angry 

Sky opens and lets loose sheets 

Of silver bullets.

 

Window 

Broken feathers, blood; 

A small, still bird–believed there 

Were no barriers. 

Morning light through blinds
Paints me with stripes as I wake
Wrapped in potential. 

Green races to fill
The tips of the trees’ fingers,
Settles, and unfurls.