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Susan PlettWhatever Gets You to the Page
Copyright©2011 by Susan Plett

This is Susan's eighth column in our "Poet's Classroom" series.

There are certain phrases I’ve penned over and over again, as a workshop leader, instructor, or critique partner. We’ve visited several of these in previous columns: “Your reader is your creative partner,” “Try this in present tense,” “Seek a stronger title.”

But what I print in block letters at the beginning of every assignment or writing prompt is this:


Especially when we are beginning writers, the blank page can be an intimidating thing. Even as an experienced writer, I can click on the word “New” and stare at the blinking cursor for much longer than you’d expect. (Well, much longer than I thought possible, back when I was sure there was some magic trick to flipping the writing switch to “on.”)

I’ve learned that, for every one of us who writes, the relationship with the page is a capricious thing, subject to change without notice. One day we can sit down and be immediately in full-on create mode. Other days, well, for me it looks a bit like:

Open a document.
Knit a few rows of whatever is handy.
Get myself a drink.
Stare at the cursor.
Change two line breaks.
Top up my coffee…

You get the picture. A typical writing session is one in which I buckle down and get something accomplished…except on those days in which I fiddle and fuss and feint and eventually manage to accomplish enough that I can call it quits. Or the kids come home from school.

It’s not easy for most of us to write on demand. When I teach a course, and allow poets five days to “Write a poem about a job,” I know I’m asking them to build a storage shed in the backyard out of homemade bricks in an hour. Do I really want a poem about a job? No, I do not. I want to provide a word to put on the blank page, so the brain, the back-in-behind-the-everyday writer brain, can start to play. This looks different for everyone. One person might start writing freefall:

A poem about a job? What’s poetic about a job? There’s no music in steelwork…okay wait maybe there is…and five days later hand in an intermediate draft of a poem comparing an assembly line to a classical concert.

Other poets might start listing jobs they’ve had, places they’ve worked, and how they felt about being there.

Another person might grab a notebook and a pencil, go sit in a cafe and write, “If I worked here, I’d buy a pair of bright red patent leather boots to wear to work every day,” and hand in a poem about boots.

None of these is wrong, because they all have one thing in common. They have taken the blank page and made a mark on it.

I thought it might be useful to share some of my favourite “Getting to the Page” triggers, writing prompts gathered over the years as I work to free my own creativity from the confines of my workday brain.

1. Start with “I Remember.”
Write until "I Remember" dries up, and then switch to “I Don’t Remember.” When (or if) that dries up without getting you any raw material, try “I don’t want to remember.” When it gets scary—keep going. The scary places are often places that harbour important truth, and while we don’t realize this on any conscious level, a visceral fear is often a clue that God has something to tell us here where we’re headed, with nothing but a pen and a piece of paper.

2. Start with “I want to write about.”
Some people have great success with this one, but I personally have had more success with “I don’t want to write about.” The first one brings me to the page with an agenda in mind, which doesn’t work well for me, whereas the second one brings me to the page with an attitude, and a resistance to be broken down. Again, the places of resistance are often the places truth resides within us.

3. Pick up the book nearest you, flip it open, find a sentence you like. For instance: Glimmer Train, Fall 2008, Issue 68.
          Page 101. “There were two other patients in the room.”
          Page 41. “There was nothing more to be done.”
          The Thirteenth Tale, Page 216. “Even the path was indistinct.”

The trick is not to overthink it, or get lost in the reading (I lost half an hour of column writing time to Glimmer Train just now.) If something strikes a chord, jot it down and start scribbling.

4. Buy yourself a book of poetry writing exercises.
One I use frequently is The Practice of Poetry. Also of note is Natalie Goldberg’s "Writing Down the Bones." I picked up a new one last week, "Ordinary Genius," by Kim Addonizio.

5. Make a list of random nouns—a car, a fruit, a colour, a weapon, a street name. When you have your nouns (Dodge, banana, red, gun, Wellington), write about about your first kiss, or your first time driving a car, or your first pet. The benefit of this exercise is it helps you to stop trying to make sense and/or to be narratively true. The truth comes in accurately evoking the emotion and forcing your brain outside of its usual patterns to describe that emotion can result in some powerful work.

6. Use a template.
I like to use, “I Am From,” because it’s sneaky. It looks like a simple “fill in the blanks” sort of thing, which helps to get the unhelpful Editor half of our brain out of the way, and lets the playful half show up. I’ve had seen some remarkably compelling poems come to be out of the rough drafts of some of my students work with this template.

7. Magnetic poetry.
This is essentially hundreds of magnetic words. You fish out a handful, slap them on something magnetic and start to play. You don’t need the magnetic poetry itself, of course—you can create word pools out of anything. Print off a few dozen pages of nouns or verbs or whatever strikes you as evocative (and maybe a page of things that aren’t, just for balance), cut them into bits and store them in a margerine container. (The down side to this approach is that there will be days that you will bring out “lazy, feather, light, gossamer” and days when—and I am not inventing this—you draw “like, enormous, meat, egg.”)

Those are a few of the tricks I use. Why not try one right now? Remember, "Whatever gets you to the page!"

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Copyright ©2011 by Susan Plett