Students ask, “How do I shake up my writing?”
Occasionally, some writing teachers give you advice that you need to shake up your life to impact your writing. Go for a walk in a different part of town. Experiment with different foods. Take up rollerblading, or white water rafting. Make a new friend. Have a child. Move to Tennessee and learn to play the blues harmonica. Marry a man named Jeff.
But I say, nonsense! The thing about changing your writing, unlike changing your life, is that it is much easier. You don’t have to max out your credit cards on a trip to Italy, find a guru in India, or go to Bali to fall head over heels. (#EatPrayLove.) All you have to do is change your words. Words are the building blocks of poems, and hence, the building blocks of your ideas; your style; your substance. If you change the words, and the way you use them, you change everything – and that means both inside and out.
Eschew the writing rut. Stop using the same words!
For example, back in the year of our lord 2010, eight years before I moved to Los Angeles, I was caught in a spin cycle with my poetry. Maybe some of you can identify with this particular problem – I couldn’t stop writing about whales. Blue whales, specifically, which, in my mind, were a symbol of loneliness. Blue whales swimming in the ocean at night. Blue whales floating in space. Blue whales in my soup. Soaking in my bathtub, eating the food in my fridge. No matter what exercise I had to do, somehow a blue whale was always lurking in the blue ink of my ball point pen, waiting to breach into any poem and squirt water all over the page.
As fates go, I’ve sufferance worse ones. I liked blue whales, and I liked turning my loneliness into poems. I wrote a lot of poems about them which ended up as a running theme in my first chapbook, Take This Longing, published by Finishing Line Press. The only problem was, after the chapbook, I still found myself writing about blue whales. I had formed a habit. Whenever I sat down, I’d start to write about flowers and a blue whale would show up between the petunias and roses. I’d try to scribble a few nonchalant words about the sky and, of course, a thousand blue whales would fall out of the stars like rain.
Eventually I got sick of the poems about blue whales. I also, thankfully, got sick of the heartbreak and the self-pity, so I decided to give myself a “game” to play. The rules of this game were to stop writing about blue whales. To stop writing about water point blank. To stop writing about anything that contained the color blue. I needed a new subject. I needed a new obsession, and a new way of seeing the world. And, I needed to stop being so lonely and get out of my self-imposed shell at the bottom of the blue whale-infested ocean.
I forced myself to stare at things that were yellow – desert sands, a patch of daffodils in the park, freeways at the height of noon (the freeway is gray; the noon is yellow). I found new words from the dictionary to incorporate. I turned toward form. I made myself write in a way that would stretch my imagination and get me out of my funk. It was hard at first. I didn’t know what I felt about daffodils, or sand, or the gray/yellow highway. I didn’t know how to feel when I didn’t feel lonely. Was I happy? Tired? Hungry? Defensive? For a while my writing really suffered as I tried to wrestle with these non-whale entities and find new things to say about myself and my world besides, “I’m so lonely, won’t you come visit me?”
Take control of your lexicon.
Not only did I forbid myself from using blue and whale and lonely, I gave myself the assignment of finding new words I hadn’t used before. Google is loaded with great resources for unusual words, like “The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English” and “50 Strange Things You Never Knew There Was a Word For.” Every day, I combed a new page in the dictionary. I wrote poems shot through with tungsten, poems about flapdoodles and politicians’ falsiloquence. Flulffy flapjacks and orange frappes. (An added bonus, I really improved my scrabble game!)
Now when poets come to me asking, “How do I write more like someone else and less like my old self?” I say, “Change the words you use.” And while we’re at it, change the style, the subject matter, the syntax. A sampling from Yoda, you might try. Cookie Monster like write good poem! Salon classes are riven with experiments in dialect, speech pattern, point of view and a poem’s formal aspects in an attempt to shake loose a writer’s forward movement. Just read how mixing and matching words and unusual sentence structures enhance Robin Coste Lewis’ famous poem Verga (reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database)
Before leaving her they put stones in her vagina
The men will only be raped but the stones will be killed
The bush caught many men to go into the stones
The stones will be killed by several trees before leaving
The bush tied the men to the trees in their vaginas
Before bush go to trees they kill many stones
Many men will be caught by the trees in the bush
Several trees will be raped by the bush and killed
Only the caught men will be stoned and bushed by the trees
Several men were caught by the trees before leaving
The men will be killed but the stones will only be treed
The stones put many trees into the men’s killed vaginas
By the bush, the trees were raped only several times
Before leaving, the vaginas were seen standing in the stones
Write like a surrealist.
One of my favorites though is the infinite creativity generator known as surrealism. Surrealism is all about seeing old things in a new light, taking used up, trite, tired notions and reviving them through changing the context. Think about dreams. Think about nightmares. Think about your favorite childhood story, retold by an alien lifeform describing the myth on a different planet, backwards and in high heels. When you work with surrealism, you start to see both poetry and your own themes as a writer in a new and compelling ways. Birds are swimming under the sea. Fish are twinkling up in the sky, and your old friend, The Virgin Mary is serving you cocktails on the flight from Dallas to Los Angeles, three thousand miles in the air.
There are dozens of surrealist games that are about reprogramming your mind by scattering your language. Pull random words out of a hat. Rearrange the words in your poem so the sentences make no sense. Use Google Translate to mangle your use of English into Swahili and back again. Do crazy things with the words themselves until the meanings are strange and new. You have freedom not just to write about what is, but to write about what isn’t. To write until a different sense, a different voice, a whole new way of writing introduces itself into your repertoire.
Names and meanings can ossify in the mind until your tool box is dusty and dinged up, with outdated instruments and faded stickers you’ve forgotten the meaning of. Giving your words a dose of metaphorical LSD (if you’ve no access to the real kind) can blast out the cobwebs with a flame thrower and experience a shift in how your synapses create and communicate meaning. It’s a powerful step toward the loftiest goal of any writer or artist – an original thought.