I finished writing a 6-line, 26 syllable poem (a Spanish poetic structure called shadorma) in response to a passage from Cheryl Strayed about being alone. I’d never heard of the form before, never even read one. However, a publication I treasure laid down the prompt and I went for it to see what would happen.
It was a fun challenge. The subject intrigued me. Immediately, a memory came to me and I struggled to fit it into the tight structure. The struggle was sweet and before long, I had a piece that read well, felt good.
Last spring, I accepted a challenge to blog every day laid down by a smart woman enrolled in a tough MFA program who did it herself, grew immensely as a result, and who encourages other writers to do it for themselves. The first day or two were easy enough, but within a week, I was parched, word-emptied, desperate for something, anything to meet the daily post requirement. I knew to expect this, but that didn’t write the blog for me.
That’s when I remembered haiku. From grade school through high school, we were dragged through poetry with occasional pauses to write our own. We paused at haiku and I discovered I loved it. At eight years old, I could riff with the lightest and most irreverent of them. This was poetry for real people. Class moved on, I got older, forgot all about it until that day when I sat in mute, wordless despair.
I remembered haiku, lay down some verse. I looked at it, added a few sentences, published. The next day and a long line of days after that, I sprawled a contemporary, real-world experience in haiku and my perspective on this slice of life. It’s not classical haiku other than in form, but it’s what came to me and I ran with it.
What happened next was magical. I discovered that there were thousands of writers working in short verse, fantastically clever, sometimes diabolical, poignant observations on life, love, meaning. I dove in head first, delighted to play in a wondrous new sandbox. What’s more, there were contemporary riffs, individual takes on classical form for today’s world of readers.
I’m writing poetry.
But I’m a novelist.
They’re both words, but aren’t at all the same.
I write novels, lay down essays sometimes. While I might lapse into rhythm, distill setting into poetic language, for the most part I write stories about real people living messy, real lives. Poetry does not come into it — unless a character is a poet or the little kids have a poetry assignment or it is the prelude to the story and sets the mood and expectation of the reader. Overall, poetry does not contribute substantial value to the novel and sure doesn’t get me closer to my writing goal.
Except when it does.
Writing the poetry makes me a better writer.
Poetry encourages elegance, describing in simple, powerful image. There is rhythm, surging flow of words useful in setting a mood, moving the plot forward. The best poetry requires you to cut out superflous, distill essence, share it purely. The discipline, the practice develop your skills — and you can use those skills whenever, however you choose.
Responding to a writing prompt makes me a more professional writer.
- First, I take an assignment and do my utmost to fulfill it. I think about a topic that is not my own, that I probably would never come up with on my own (such as the shadorma adventure described earlier). I mull how to solve the creative challenge.
- Second, I respond as requested, in the form and to specification, meeting the deadline with a generous margin of time (learned the hard way to do that), facing east, yearning for coffee, saluting the morning star.
- Third, I learn to be efficient and effective in how I use my time and work on both the challenge of the prompt and the challenge of my novel.
Most times, the challenges and requirements I take up are open for how to respond. It can be poetry. It can be recorded song with musical accompaniment. It can be fiction, nonfiction, long or short, whatever form the writer prefers. What results from the prompt is a rich, wildly diverse, textured collection of work that delights us all.
A friend who specializes in short-form fantasy recently answered a writing challenge with her first contemporary short story, set in a place with people that you and I would recognize if we ran into them in real life. She called it silly and light, but I know that she is pleased with what she did, expanded her ideas about what she writes and how she does it. It enabled her to expand her skills, try on a different genre and see how it worked for her. For her lucky readers, it was rollicking fun, tight, logical joy.
In my current novel in progress, I have played with mystery, thriller, suspense. (I don’t write in these genres, barely read them — unless J.K. Rowling wrote the book.) In my first draft, there was no mystery. In the second draft, I played with mystery, thriller, and suspense. Playing with different genres enlivened the story and showed me ways to craft a robust, well-paced, fascinating story. While these streaks of visiting genres are now winnowed down to mere suggestion, they did contribute mightily to the ultimate story.
For me, changing perspective and altering point of view are terrifying playgrounds. The story nugget is so tight, shining, golden that I am afraid of messing with it. I might break it or get lost, wandering further and further from home.
My first serious novel draft was decent, however it did not become its own free-spirited self until I played with point of view. I refused to change perspective as an early reader suggested — she works in a genre where multiple points of view are expected, anticipated, celebrated. This story had to be told from this point of view.
However, the way that I told the story could change. I started with distant third person — distant by awkward inexperience, not by design. Next I wrote a draft in first person, useful for learning, but not a very good story. After that, I returned to third person point of view, only super close in, nearly first person and in the voice that I write for myself and for my blog posts. This approach works, for me and for the story — but I never would have found it if I hadn’t been willing to play in a different playground.
Writing sustained work in a new, unfamiliar way is not for everyone. However, you can create small forays into new playgrounds. These little efforts can be for your eyes only — in fact, it’s sometimes better that way because you are free of trying to entertain, amaze, do anything other than develop your craft. Draft them in crayon, shred them, scatter them to the wind, but do them.
A writing instructor advocated starting a writing session by making art. Her recommendation was water color painting, something loose, colorful, freeing. She loved using small pieces of water color paper cut the size of business cards, would scribble on her art with pen or marker.
I tried this and it worked for me for awhile. Now, I occasionally paint on an absorbent stone surface. With a small paintbrush, I paint a picture using water. The picture lasts for a minute or two, the stone fades blank, and I write. My set of small wooden magnetic blocks activates a writing session effectively. There is also listening to classical music, lighting a candle, rubbing my dog’s head — all ways of playing, of entering the sacred space of creative work.
Exploring other playgrounds improves your work. Whether you make the playground a regular stomping ground or visit and never return, you are richer for adopting, adapting, enjoying the unfamiliar, the unknown.
Try a new sandbox.
Play with all you’ve got.
See what happens.
This post is part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop–a collection of great blogs to keep hopping through, focused on writing and all things writer. Click here to enjoy other writing tips in this month’s edition.
Do you have favorite forms, approaches to playing with your writing? Any stories you would like to share? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!