Cross-pollinate your books
A generative writing practice I shambled my way into that I want you to try.
Edification – Newsletter #99 – December 5, 2021
I have a writing exercise for you to try.
But first, I have a short poem in the new edition of Feral: A Journal of Poetry and Art called “Leaving Cleveland” about breaking up with a place. Another of my Ohio poems; I’d be very honored if you took a minute to read it and admire the lovely illustration by Karen Pierce Gonzalez. Feral is a wonderful home for poetry and visual art. I love the care in their curation.
Second, I wrote a thinly-veiled appeal to my 544 followers over on Medium to give me a sign they are real, reading, and care whether I stay or go. The platform gives me nothing but mild anxiety. I cancelled my membership to avoid the annual re-up charge and it got me thinking about my relationship with the place.
It’s just a weird place. Medium doesn’t want you writing about Medium, as anybody familiar with Medium knows. You’re also not really supposed to pitch a third platform or email newsletter – Medium wants you to stay on their turf. But if there are real readers following me there among the sea of apparent bots and spam accounts, I want to sift them out and hold onto them.
I dunno. I’m feeling the urge to tighten my perimeter lately. I deactivated my author Facebook and it felt like such a weight off. No more email notifications about “237 updates” or “You’ve been tagged with 61 others…” Good gravy.
Maybe it’s the time of year. I can blame this reclusive urge on the solstice, I think.
I’ve been meaning to tell you about a generative writing practice I’ve been doing for the past few months to help me come up with colorful turns of phrase and new ways of looking at familiar themes. This is just a messy little way I play with my books.
All it takes is three things: a “big idea,” old books, and a blank piece of paper. Are you ready?
1. Big Idea
Okay. This is not as philosophically make-or-break as it sounds. By “big idea” I mean an overarching, thematic concept. Grief. Joy. Love. Mortality. Death. Earth. Spring. Courage. Betrayal. Pleasure. There are a lot of universal themes that you could try, but these are some examples of where my mind tends to go with poetry or short stories.
Maybe you have your own themes that you come back to again and again. Or maybe you’re grappling with some right now in your life – loneliness, anxiety, gratitude, unrequited anything.
Write down a list of your own big ideas in your notebook. If you only come up with one or two, that’s enough, too.
2. Old books
Pick a couple of books from your bookshelf or the library. I like physical books more than online reading for this.
What you want are books to kind of “graze” through. Open to random pages and just read a couple paragraphs.
I tend to choose books from the middle of the twentieth century or before because the style of writing even in reference books is distinctly different than modern textbooks. Do you have any nonfiction books with a little flair? My current favorites are old field guides for insect and plant identification. I also have a stack of physics textbooks from my brother including several “atlases of the universe.”
In your notebook, you’re going to write words in two columns: adjectives/nouns, and verbs/adverbs. Any words that stick out to you.
I like to pull nouns from one book and verbs from another on a totally different topic. One list from a book on the building of the railroads and another from a book on twentieth century Egypt. Endless variety is possible.
Okay, are you ready for the magic?
Now write out your word pairs in a new list and go back to your big ideas. See what happens when you try them as metaphors.
Does your grief become a canyon town? Does your happiness become a seeding milkweed? (Mine has.)
It’s not exactly a science, it’s just a way I’ve discovered can get the creative juices flowing. I’d love to know if you give this a try, and what you come up with!
Oh, one other thought on using paper:
In the beginning I was not a very “notebook” type of person. I was using bill envelopes and leaving them on the table to confuse my husband because I’m an international woman of mystery. If I ever die suddenly in mysterious circumstances, my notes will confound forensic experts everywhere (unless they’re reading my newsletter! Detectives! Please subscribe now!)…
But a blank notebook has served me better because I can keep it like a journal full of mix-and-match ideas. I can flip between my railroad and plant identification and astrophysics lists and just keep adding to the potpourri. My “big idea” list keeps expanding, too.
Blank notebooks are things of beauty, and for a long time I had them sitting on shelves or in drawers basically looking pretty because I hated the thought my messy scribbles would ruin them. People think weird things. The truth is, a notebook is ruined by its blankness. It really only becomes a notebook in its use.
Also, now my husband has a gift idea for me any time – more blank books – because he sees me getting so much out of them by putting so much into them. Reminds me of this Beatles’ lyric: “And in the end/ The love you take/ Is equal to the love you make.” (Isn’t that nice how it all works out in “the end”?)
Love is a blank book filled.