“I don’t know why I spend my time/writing songs I can’t believe/with words that tear and strain to rhyme.” –Paul Simon, “Kathy’s Song”
I’m going to tell you a secret. I’m going to share a piece of writing advice and a part of my practice that I’ve never shared with anyone else before. Okay, maybe I talked about it to my students once or twice (and some of them are almost like people), but you, after all, are my Scrib family and my students weren’t listening, anyway. So I hold out some hope that you might actually benefit from this and some of the more intrepid among you might actually try to make some use out of it.
In the old days of being a purist, when I thought of myself as primarily a poet, I burned notebook after notebook writing scads of free verse. I wrote, typed up, and often submitted poem after poem–usually about some young lady I fancied at the time. But this doesn’t mean that the well never ran dry. In fact, sometimes I was just plan stuck. I couldn’t come up with another line, didn’t know where to go, couldn’t figure out what to write.
Over time, I developed a list of possibilities. A collection of tools, if you will (and even if you won’t). Elements that I could look at, choose from, and experiment with when I was stuck. And it helped. Before long, that list was glue-sticked inside the front cover of my poetry notebook and when I would transfer it to each new successive notebook.
For the first time in public, I present you with “The List”:
8. Time of Day
10. Concrete Objects
11. Literary References
12. Figures of Speech
14. Historical References
15. Mythological References
26. Actions (verbs)
27. Foreign Language
Stuck in the middle of a poem? Look at this list. Maybe your poem needs a mythological reference. Add the time of day (“in the evening when the twilight is a blanket for the willows. . .”). Consider Consonance. Use the list to enhance the poetic qualities of your poem and get you past that, certainly brief, moment when you’re not sure where to go.
As an added bonus, I will also give you a short list of themes. These work particularly well when you have some borrowed time with which to write, but you don’t know what to write about. Since I’ve had these in my notebook for over twenty years, I don’t recall the original source, so forgive me if I’m plagiarizing.
And they are:
1. Beloved and remembered places
2. Old and present times
3. Contingencies that look like destiny
4. City rain
5. Sundry losses, and much love
What I love about this five item list is that pretty much everything in life—so, consequently, everything worth writing about–is contained within it.
Grab a pen or keyboard and start a poem. When you hit a wall (not literally–there’s that pesky figurative language again!), look at the list and choose an element and see if it helps. Use these lists to help you get busy and work off your assonance.
*I see no reason these lists couldn’t work for fiction as well.