Mark Strand’s poem, The Great Poet Returns, ends with the line:
Tell me, you people out there, what
is poetry anyway?
Can anyone die without even a little?
We desperately need the power of words that form themselves into poetry and creative prose. Too many people pigeon themselves into the passive category of reader-only and never get their feet wet in the wide lake of creative imagination. That is like going to the beach and only watching other people swim. You can do this of course, but on a hot day, wouldn’t you also like to splash around in the water yourself?. The experience can be exhilarating.
The main obstacle to us all being poets and creators of fiction is that, as humans, we have this lifelong struggle going on inside us – between what are referred to as our left brains and our right brains. Your left brain, the practical, no-nonsense side, sees the people swimming in the Wide Lake of Creativity. Then it spots the Olympic style swimmers with the perfect form. And then, wagging an admonishing finger, it whispers to you: ‘You’d better not go into that lake! You’ll get wet and you didn’t even bring a towel. And once you get in there you won’t want to come out. You’re too old for this nonsense. We have productive things that have to be done if you ever expect to amount to anything. And besides, you’ll never learn to swim as well as those Olympians out there. You’ll just be clumsy. Come on, let’s get out of here!’
Your right brain, on the other hand, the fanciful side, is thinking that wading out and splashing and floating around might not be a bad idea at all.
But I’m not a writer, you say?
There’s that left side of your brain talking again. It will have to
aside. It means well, but it just doesn’t know. What you
mean when you say this is simply that you haven’t waded into the
So what do you have to know to get started? Not all that much. Just a few rudiments about inspiration. And then of course a couple of techniques for getting the left brain to step aside and leave the right brain alone to have some fun.
Word combinations become poetry and fine prose when they profoundly jostle our psyches. There is a definite loss of control in creating this kind of work. Day dreaming, not making sense – the stuff that scares the hell out of our left brain sensibilities. Remember Shakespeare’s phrase from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: "the poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling." That passage continues:
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
The words I am talking about, you just write them down and feel them reach back for you, and as they do, like nets thrown into that wide lake for fish you do not see, they bring back some kind of discovery you might have missed along the way. It is a different approach.
Get the words down without being
reasonable and then figure out what it is that you said.
Overcoming our Left Brains
The challenge of creativity-stimulation
(and the work that it yields) is to convince the left side of your
take a nap and let the right side of your brain take over for
right side of your brain is the only part that can get you through to
In creative writing, we have a variety of ways to convince our left brains to step aside. The simplest way is to make a deal with it. Get the words down without being reasonable and then let your left brain help you figure out what it is that you said. Give your right brain the courage to take charge. Say to the left side of your brain: sit down and leave me alone. I will show this to you later, but not now. And I am NOT wasting my time! (This gets easier as you progress into your creativity, because the left brain comes to discover from seeing what your right brain creates, that this whole thing isn’t as crazy as it thought it was after all.)
An Exercise in Creative Discovery
This exercise was inspired by something the singer/songwriter Tom Waits once said – that he really likes: ‘songs that have the names of cities in them, and food, and weather.’ Write a flow of words that contains the names of at least two cities [which will require you to “visit” them in your mind and record some kind of word-snapshots.] and then, in the same piece, talk about the weather at least once, and some kind of food. And never think about the logic. Just do it. Let the words flow. They don’t even have to be sentences. Only break them into lines that signify how you might say them if you were just relaxing and talking. Be aware of the cadences that the words make, and let this help you decide where to end one line and begin another.
Before you begin, notice what has just happened. Your left brain has gotten immediately tricked into going along because the exercise begins with a set of instructions. Your left brain loves instructions. So right away it goes along with the routine. When you follow the instructions, your right brain gets turned loose, and off you swim, making nonsensical juxtapositions of probably unrelated recollections, seeing images and forming them into words, remembering places you have been, traveling mentally to places you may not have visited in your life experiences. And as you follow the instructions, you will immediately cast off the impulse to be sensible, and you will be fascinating yourself with the writing that comes out. You don’t have to swim out to the deep part of the lake. Just wade around and flutter your hands in the ripples, and get yourself wet.
This is what I did with it:
Long way from Snoopy-cactus Phoenix and
those oranges that fall on the ground in the green street median so you
can’t even stop to eat them in the traffic that
is always going by --
long way up to Flagstaff up, yes,
up and up as you drive -- Flagstaff, where it
snows when you don’t want
it to, and lightning and thunder
are always, and the only thing
you ever think about eating when
you get there, is a great big
wedge of that pale-crusted
cherry pie in the silver Diner
with its lights blazing all night,
the one that is filled with tired
tourists making their way back
from the edge of the Grand Canyon. And their eyes -- as they get back to the business of
eating their slices of pie, are still wide and full of the deep wonders they have seen.
What does it all mean? Well
I’m not completely sure. But I do know that it felt good to do
And I didn’t think about where the poem was going as I wrote it, only
had to get me from
The thing is to just do the exercise, or put together a similar one for yourself that gets your left brain working with you but allows your right brain to take charge. Don’t even worry about writing sentences or making sense. Look at what you wrote later and try to find the meaning, and even then, don’t worry if your left brain can’t make complete sense of it. Just remember how satisfying it was to do it.