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How a goal + writing prompts led to a first-place poetry award

Have you ever wanted to elevate the quality of your writing or increase your creative production? Try giving yourself an assignment. It worked for my blogging partner Carol.

Earlier this year, I gave Carol a poetry writing book, The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop, by Diane Lockward. It happened to coincide with her goal to write two or three poems a week for the month of January.

She ended up writing 18 poems. Fast forward to July, and Carol won first place for poetry in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association contest. See the complete list of winners.

For more insight on Carol’s poetry writing practice, read her post Writing advice from a Tasmanian cave spider, or how to get your creative juices flowing, which includes one of her poems, Advice from a Male Tasmanian Cave Spider.

Try writing a poem of your own based on one of these prompts:

  1. Think about a defining moment or incident in your life and write about it.
  2. Write a love letter in the form of a poem.
  3. Write a poem about a common object.
  4. Find a memento or object that has sentimental value to you and write a poem that reveals the reason and emotion it carries.
  5. Write a poem about moving from one place to another. It could be literal or metaphorical.

Congratulations Carol!


Nine ways to get out of your rut and create a blast of writing energy

Habits and routines are good. Ruts are not.

A routine is all about established habits. A rut is about feeling stuck or bored.

People can be creatures of habit. Routines are comforting and comfortable. I used to work with a designer who ate the same lunch every day for the 10 years I worked with him. A turkey and havarti sandwich and a container of yogurt. I know this because when I’d go visit him at his desk, I’d see that sandwich all wrapped up nice and snug in Saran wrap sitting there on the window sill. But I digress.

Routines are good when we find a habit that reinforces our writing practice. If you’ve established a writing routine, stick with it. If you examine the habits of famous and productive writers, you will find they have routines. They show up every day at a specific time to write.

In an interview in the Paris Review, author Haruki Murrakami said, “When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

Mesmerization is a good thing.

But, if you’re bored with life or feeling stuck, mixing things up might give you some new creative energy. As writers, we need all the creative energy we can get.

To think of things in a new way, try doing things in a different way. Cultivate a little disruption in your life.

Here are several ideas:

Change up your eating. If you eat Cheerios for breakfast every day, have pumpkin pie once in awhile. Change where you eat. Sit outside on your porch and observe the outdoors.

Write something in a genre you’ve never written in. If you’re a novelist, write a poem. The structure of a poem might throw your mind in a whole new direction. Who knows, you may even find a poem finds its way into your novel.

Read a magazine you’ve never read before. Do you normally read writing magazines? Try reading Scientific American or Architectural Digest or a yoga magazine. Even better, get a couple supermarket tabloids. Scan the ones that feature stories about alien kidnappings and have headlines like: EARTH HUMAN’S SECRET LOVE AFFAIR EXPOSED and TOP CELEBRITIES AND THEIR TOP SECRET CELLULITE TREATMENTS. While you’re at it, give your brain a jolt by writing some practice tabloid headlines of your own.

Wear something different. I used to work with a guy who wore the same outfit every day. I’m assuming it wasn’t the exact same clothes but basically a uniform he’d created for himself: khaki pants, button down shirt in a small plaid pattern, and navy blue blazer. Every day. I loved it. I wanted to create my own uniform. If you’ve found yourself wearing jeans and a t-shirt every day, go for a week like my friend Jimmy. With him, you never know what he’ll wear on any given day. One day he could be wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and another day he could be decked out in a black suit, black tie and white shirt looking like a Secret Service agent. And then there’s his hair. You never know what color it’s going to be.

Travel the world or even just to another nearby town. This is one of my favorite ways to rev up my idea machine. Different weather, different culture, different energy, different scenery, different language equals sensory inspiration. Once I went from working and living in a small town to a big city. Weirdly, my favorite color before I moved was pink. After moving it became red.

Do something you’ve never done. Go visit  your town’s tourist attractions. How many times do people live in a place and never get around to visiting the museum or the zoo or sculpture gardens?

Take a bath instead of a shower. Throw in bubbles. Authors Ben Franklin, mystery writer Agatha Christie, Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov, and French playwright Edmond Rostand reportedly wrote while soaking in their bathtubs. Take a shower outside. I stayed at a hotel once where when you stepped into the shower, you were outside in a cedar enclosure with open sky above.

Order something different at your favorite restaurant. How many people go to their favorite restaurant and order pretty much the same dish each time? I don’t know if there is a piece of research out there about this, let me know. But just anecdotally speaking, I do it and I know others who do it too. If you do this, next time you eat out, order something new.

Watch the Spanish TV or French or whatever language you don’t speak. See how many words you understand. Watch a foreign language film with subtitles.

The point is to do something that makes you feel different inside. Something that creates an emotional reaction. Shake things up to sharpen your creative edge.

Go out and disrupt yourself, and if you feel like it, report back what you did in the comments below.

For more ideas about how to shake up your creative spirit, read Carol’s post, Four ways to stimulate creativity and cure the writing blahs.

Be a better reader to be a better writer

A simple writing truth is that to be a great writer, you must be a great reader. To fully absorb the author’s artistry, analyze the stories you read to understand how the writers crafted them. How did the author engage you as a reader? What was satisfying about the story? What craft elements stood out for you? What didn’t work?

As I read, I stay alert for sentences or paragraphs that cause a ping in my chest. Then I ask myself why I liked them and make a note.

Watch for these elements of writing craft as you read.

Metaphors. I assigned myself a project this week to make a note of metaphors that stand out in my reading. They don’t even have to be good. We can learn from something we read that doesn’t seem to work quite right. Note the metaphor and why you do or don’t like it. I’ll be doing a blog post in the future where I’ll share a list I’ve collected.

Description. When you read a distinctive description of a character or a setting, take notes about what makes it different so you can apply the ideas to your own work. Look for descriptions that are organic to the story. In the post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, he describes the world his father and son characters inhabit. “Dark of the invisible moon. The nights now only slightly less black. By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.” Read more

Grab your reader with a good beginning

Good beginnings matter, whether you write poetry, memoir, novels, or short stories.

A compelling beginning hooks your reader’s attention, including agents and editors, who may hold the key to publishing. Imagine your readers walking around a bookstore and pulling books off the shelf to read the first page or downloading a sample to read online. Would your book capture their interest?

Check your story’s beginning against these three elements of a good beginning. Good stories should:

Raise a question. Create a sense of curiosity to draw readers into your story. At the heart of every good story is a question that must be answered. A protagonist wants something and the reader must read to the end for the answer.

Hint at what’s to come as your story unfolds. A beginning is an opportunity to set a tone and give clues to what’s in store. One of my favorite books and an example of how the author set a tone is “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger.

Surprise the reader. How often are you surprised by the first paragraphs of a book? This book surprised me in the first line:
“The Winter War” by Philip Teir
“The first mistake that Max and Kateriina made that winter — and they would make many mistakes before their divorce — was to deep-freeze their grandchildren’s hamster.”

Check out these examples and see how they meet the criteria of good beginning.

“The Haunting of Hill House” is a ghost story by Shirley Jackson, who also wrote, “The Lottery.”
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” Read more

The poem I’m carrying in my pocket today: A call to create

Today is Carry a Poem in Your Pocket Day in the United States — the day every April where people select a poem to carry in their pocket and share with others. It’s one more way to celebrate poetry during National Poetry Month.

I’ve been reading the work of Spanish poets recently and found a poem that struck me. “Throw Yourself Like Seed” by Miguel de Unamuno speaks to me about the low points that can affect all of us and the call to return to what makes us feel most alive — our work, which for me means writing.

“Shake off this sadness, and recover your spirit;” de Unamuno writes.

Ultimately, finding purpose through a creative pursuit builds strength and is the way to a full life. And the words we commit to the page will be a legacy long after we are gone.

“But to live is to work, and the only thing which lasts
Is the work; start there, turn to the work.”

Read more

If you want to be a poetic writer, read and write poetry

Part of the pleasure of reading is discovering a word or an arrangement of words that resonate. Like any aspect of writing craft, injecting a poetic influence in your work requires practice. No matter what genre you write, poetry can influence your work.

In honor of National Poetry month, consider adding these reading and writing activities to your creative practice:

Write a poem a day. Several years ago, I decided to do a project where I would write a poem a day. I didn’t put any pressure on myself to write great poetry. I just set the intention. Some days I wrote poems I liked. Other days, I struggled and felt happy if I could write several images or lines that I could work with.

Keep a poem-a-day journal to write your poems and record observations. As you go about your daily life, watch and listen for things that spark your curiosity. My poetry practice had an interesting side effect: I found it enhanced my powers of observation. Read more about it in this post, including tips for starting your own poem-a-day practice.

Read a poem a day. Poetry can help you break through resistance that stalls your writing. If you want to write poetry or anything else poetically, read a poem every day to prime your writing practice. Read poems first all the way through and then read them again to analyze each line. Write in your notebook the lines and images that resonate. Read the poems aloud.

Sign up at to receive a poem-a-day all year in your e-mail. For the month of April, Knopf Poetry will send out a poem a day. Visit the Knopf Doubleday website to sign up. (Click “newsletters” in the left sidebar, check the poetry box, and enter your e-mail.)

Writing poetry is not only a good way to become observant of the world around you. Writing and reading poetry make you conscious of words and their meanings and create a hyper awareness that spills over into all your writing.

For today’s inspiration, read the poem by Mark Strand featured on this year’s National Poetry Month poster, then go write your own poem:

Eating Poetry
Ink runs
from the corners
of my mouth.
there is no happiness
like mine.
I have been eating

From Collected Poems by Mark Strand

Don’t know what to write about? Write about your obsessions

In all the writing classes I teach, this writing lament comes up at least once from a student: “I don’t know where to start.”

Maybe they’ve started something and it didn’t pan out. The story didn’t hold their interest. Or they have this need gnawing at them to write, but they haven’t figured out what to write about.

Most of us have moments of writer’s freeze. Most of us get stuck at some point because we get into a mindset of being too orderly. But the birth of a story or poem or essay is a messy, disorderly act and imposing too much order in the beginning doesn’t work so well when you’re capturing the energy of a first draft.

It begins with letting go of your analytical mind. Ultimately every writer has to find their own way into that well. But identifying your obsessions can be a powerful way to figure out what to write about.

The beauty of writing about your obsessions is that you will fully engage, feel completely alive, and have energy to write to the end. The passionate force of your obsessions turns your writing into a transformative act.

So how do you tap these obsessions? One sure way to open the well of words and ideas is by simply writing. It always starts with moving our fingers on the keys or notebook. And in that act, our deepest fears, desires, and obsessions come to light. Try these ideas: Read more


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