If Emily Dickinson Can Do It—So, Can We!

I’ve used “ephemera,” the fancy word for pieces of trash, for years to dash off a note, line, or poem. What I did not know was that it wasn’t my clever idea. Or my generation’s…or the generation’s before them. I write on napkins and receipts when in a hurry. Emily Dickinson appears to have used envelopes and scraps from notes. Imagine though…Emily Dickinson, the queen, the reason I use the dash—and she writes like me. *dramatic sigh*

Now, this matters because of shape and form. Dickinson’s “Letter Poems” as scholars call them, must have been thought out beforehand and/or the shape must have influenced the brevity and form of the verse. Below, is the picture of “In this short life.” It is a triangular shape that seems to be the flap of an envelope. So—if you do not have a bill from which you can spare the envelope flap—I will provide a form that you can fit in your poem.

Manuscript View for Amherst – Amherst Manuscript # 252 – In this short life – asc:612 – p. 1 (edickinson.org)

J1287 – In this short Life

In this short Life
That  only lasts an hour
How much — how little — is
Within our power

  

Now, what does this form cause? It brings a funnel effect and for a killer poem, the poem must end with a killer word. Think of the most pressing image or question on your mind. Mine is trying to fit everything in a day—sunrise to sunset—how do I do it? That right there will not fit the space. And let’s not even count if I get all “poetic.” 

So, take your first thoughts, write them down, and then cut unnecessary words. This is an excellent lesson in revision in one of the most visual ways possible. When your poem/question fits, what word does it land on? Is it vibrant and echoing? That is precisely what you want. One long line funneling into a powerful word.

The Second Example is “One note from one Bird.”

Manuscript View for Amherst – F1478A (edickinson.org)

One note from
One Bird
Is better than
a Million Word –
A scabbard
holds need has –
but one
sword

Another triangle, but at a different angle. What does this version hold for form? It seems in Dickinson’s there is still a very powerful end word and one that resounds with history. This shape allows for a longer line almost directly in the middle. Arguably, this is the turn, so it was most likely partially planned. For our purposes, let’s devise our longest line first and our last word and build backward.

What word did you end on and what was your middle line? Was it a turn in the poem, flipping back what came before? The comments are burning for you to type in!

Elysian

Keep a journal of words—just for words—you are either inspired by, learned recently, how an author used a word within a sentence that made the word stand out, prompts you want to someday write about, or words that have an interesting meaning, like elysian. 

You can use this journal for inspiration and writing prompts when you need it. If I am stuck, I will flip through mine and an idea usually sparks from the pages to my fingertips and from my fingertips to the keyboard and from the keyboard to the creation of a story being unfolded. And this is what I call magic. Letters are the pixie and words are the dust, and together they create the story built from its magical pixie dust.

As a writer we are thieves of words, don’t be shy, those beautiful words are meant from someone to take, so have fun filling your journal with words simply made from 26 letters. If you already have one of these journals, share a few words from it in the comments below! 

Image from Pintrest.

Writing With “Personally Hot” Topics

Writing with “hot” topics, and those that I say are “personal” encompass everything from grief to extreme joy. When I say something is “personal,” I define it as something that resonates deeply within us. So deeply, that it is hard to talk about and certainly hard to write about—maybe even to think about! 

For example, I have been writing about loss lately. Sometimes, this brings back unwanted memories, repressed memories, little details I did not know would stick with me. And I will give the opposite scenario, joy, I feel an overwhelming connection seeing old friends again—my heart feels near bursting, but my pen is not. And that is perfectly normal. 

If you are struggling with a “hot” topic. If it makes you ill, hurts too much, brings back flashbacks, put it away. Now. Just file it away in a physical drawer or in a file in your memory. You can even promise to get back to it out loud if you need to. I am not saying forget about it. I am saying be good to yourself. You will know in your gut, in your heart, when you are ready to reveal your truth and your emotion. That is both a brave and scary thing to do.

If you are in the new stages of that hot, fierce, topic, you might want to journal. Catalogue your feeling and the events as you perceived them. What you remember, how you felt while holding the chipped cup while you got news of… But journal—do not craft. Ease your mind. The only way to write authentically and to be able to tell your story is to process it. That means talking to a therapist, a grief counselor, a friend, a favorite teddy bear. I am not poking fun—you have to do what you have to do stay whole. Writers in the past have failed to keep up with their mental and emotional health to disastrous results. We are not them. Process those emotions in a healthy manner. Breathe, yoga, journal, paint…do what you need to do. Then, you are ready for the next step.

The next step, after days, weeks, months, years, will be to un-file those emotions and situations and look at them fresh. If they overwhelm you. Chances are it is still too soon. Put them back in the drawer.

If you feel like, yes, they hurt, but I NEED to get this down on paper, be gentle. Do not pick a form or a length. This will be more than freewriting, but it will form itself as to how you can emotionally deal with the subject matter. That means YOU DO NOT JUDGE YOURSELF. That is the hardest part. All of the I should have told him/her/they that I loved them, or I shouldn’t have told him/her/they that I loved them… will bubble up. Ease through it. Do not have a rush of feelings that are uncontrollable. If you do, walk away. Come back in an hour or day. Drink your favorite beverage. This is brave, extremely difficult work.

So, we analyze the facts first, what happened, how do we feel, maybe look at the old journals, maybe not. Then, details, emotional truths, lessons, anything that sort drifts into your mind. This might be where form or genre starts occurring.  

NOW—what if we can’t use “I”—what if that is too close? Then, you might not be creating nonfiction. There is no hate in that. Personas are brilliant tools. I have stand-in characters and narrators that are dealing with MY emotions and situations, but that are certainly not me. I have used Darth Vader and Flick the Fairy. Both sets have been published, so do not worry about the dirty publication fear right now. 

What really resonates with readers, and what will resonate with you as you write and as you hear how you touch others, is authenticity and details. Share that image of the shabby, dirty periwinkle hospital gown—you just do not have to do it as yourself or with the names of others. Share your real, gritty and grimy, feeling. Be messy, that will touch your reader in immeasurable ways.

Always be gentle with yourself. While you are writing and while you are reading the piece after it has been published. Raw emotions will be there. I sometimes cry while I read published work about my losses. That too is normal and okay.

Always remember that your work is important and needed. Your words will help others in similar situations process their ‘hot’ material, their strong emotions that are overwhelming them. Most importantly, your words will give them my favorite word, “balm.” We are writers. Never forget that we change the world one word at a time and one person at a time. Remember, that person can also be you.

How Do We Find Inspiration?

As writers, that is a really broad and terribly needed topic. I can only tell you how I find inspiration and where you might want to look. I don’t garden, terribly allergic to flowers, but somehow, I have a thing for weeds. Words like “thistle” or “thicket” or “dandelion” or “lichen” come up over and over. These are things that usually are meant to be “tamed” or killed. They are “bad” in comparison to the petunia and the daisy. So, then I find inspiration in what people don’t think of and good or beautiful—perfect. That’s where poetry starts!

Exercise:

Think about five things that you like or (don’t) that people think of as good or bad, ugly or beautiful. For example, my father LOVES his flowers, knows every type of flower, loves a very green lawn. I, however, pray for mushrooms. I love mushroom circles and every time one shows up, his grass loses its pristine and I find true love and magic. So, my word would be mushroom, or maybe a specific mushroom.

Where else to find inspiration? We always say to write the unexpected…nice. How do we find the inspiration for that? Well, today in my class, I wrote about my fast-food restaurant not serving the correct brand of ketchup. How unexpected is that? Going small, molecular, digging in with scientific words, or going to ordinary tasks and putting your turn on it. You have a unique perspective. That means that even if we both write about ketchup, you might have an ode to the organic, or to Hunts, while I try to sway you with my love of Heinz. What about writing about cat litter or how your dog tugs you to the scent of skunk or porridge? Is there something you do that’s weird? Write about it. Do you know someone weird? Change their name, features, (and don’t tell them I told you to do this) write about them. 

Exercise:

Write down three things that are “unexpected.” So, remember it can be about you, the road, your pets, it’s all on the table. Then write a line or sentence and play around and see if you feel it becomes “unexpected.” Example: Kim’s List… 1. has two cats that hate her because she gives them medication. 2. Eats mostly tofu and French fries 3. Unlikely writer (she was told she would never be a writer)

Kim’s line: my tofu cries when I chase down my cats, terrified, I will ink them into paper.

“Big” events tend to bring out words for me. At first, I’m overwhelmed, published for the first time, general angst, someone dying, someone being born—these are all big topics. I also call them “hot”—they are emotionally charged. Sometimes in the beginning these thoughts and inspirations just boil over. Usually, that’s good to create the backbones of poems or prose, but when the topic has cooled—that’s when the inspiration gets juicy. When my grandmother died, I had a hard time writing about what I was feeling. It was abstract—what does morose really mean? It means watching the tv show Scorpion and writing in my journal. Which description shows grief better? Morose or binge watching? 

Exercise:

Find a “hot” topic that has cooled. Can you reflect on it and use it either as ammunition or inspiration? 

Example: Kim bought her grandmother miniature roses and kept them in the nursing home until they needed planted. She did this. And after her grandmother died, she tended these roses, loved these roses, and her father, wanting to tame the garden (he didn’t remember) weed wacked and Kim only had memories left.

How to Make Your Writing Dynamic

Dynamic is a big promise! Luckily, it is easy enough to undertake—most writers just need a few examples and a bit of explanation and BAM! It comes down to three major categories: images and imagination, word choice (diction), and placement.

Images and Imagination

You are looking at a tree. What do you associate with it? Green, brown, tall—what if you kept that associative process but got closer—magnifying your images. Rough? The bark would be rough, leaves could be silky—that could create all sorts of possibilities. Silk like linen, clothes, nature could clothe you—maybe? If you follow associations, your mind will lead you down mysterious and wonderous paths. Just daydreaming and free associating can create fresh images. Everyone thinks and daydreams differently, so those associations and descriptions will be vastly different for every writer. THIS is terrific news! It boggles the mind that just from daydreaming words become captivating and paragraphs and lines no longer feel “stale” or “cliché.”

Exercise: Look at something you see every day. Describe it differently this time. That tree is tall and green, but looms like a giant about to enfold you in its arms… etc. Look at the minuscule that is overlooked or the magnitude that gets lost in the everyday. Let your mind just go. Remember in writing, there are no wrong answers, just unwritten ones.

Word Choice (Diction)

Word choice (diction) can create incredible images in any genre. So, diction—now what? What difference does using the word “hazel” instead of “brown” create? It may make your piece sparkle a bit more. But, if the color is not hazel, and it must be brown—how can you get around being flat? I do not like food references and certainly not when describing people. I would say “glistening brown” or “purpling brown” if describing fruit. The other use of diction is using words that are not normally used in that context. So, what if an angry person’s “brow purpled”—that’s not “turned red”—that of course, is a well-used (cliché). 

Kim’s Pro Tip: If you get stuck on finding the “right” word or the “perfect” word—know that there isn’t one. There are just multiple choices for the right word. You can open a physical thesaurus or an online version—they are more exact. But if you want to free-associate and find a “different” word—then go into your document, choose the thesaurus function—and DON’T use those words on the list. Is there one that might work? Hit on it. There are most likely five different branches of what the word could mean as well as the words associated with it. Maybe you will find your “perfect” word here, maybe you won’t. Hit on another—maybe one that is not as similar to your original word that you typed in. I find that it is in this place—maybe five or six clicks through that I find the “perfect” word for the “right now”—because revision might strip the line out completely. Poetry is not permanent, which means you can play with words as many times as you need to.

Exercise:

Write down five words you use a lot. Then, try to find synonyms or substitutes that pop! Remember you can dig for words using Kim’s Pro Tip.

Placement

Placement means everything in a poem. Having a “hard” word (one that has a harsh or biting sound) hit in a soft place draws attention and its opposite does as well. The same technique works in prose. When you read your work, you can hear how some words “flow smoothly” and others might be “jagged” or “rugged.” The key reason is placement. Think about setting a table. It might not matter which side silverware is on, but what if the fork is placed on top of the bowl—would you notice? The same is true of writing. 

Kim fell into darkness spiraling awake.

Well, that might be true—but is “awake” in the right place?

Kim fell into darkness falling awake. Better—a bit speculative if you like that.

Awake, Kim fell into darkness, spiraling. Doesn’t that sound different? 

Each one can be argued to have a different connotation—but we are going on sound.

Exercise:

Take a line or a sentence that has been bothering you. Rearrange the words. Play with them. Keep the necessary ones and see if you can make the sound smooth.

Music as a Writer’s Block Cure

Recently, I’ve felt the heavy weight of “writer’s block” bearing down on me. Between life, preparing for upcoming classes, and working on the print version of hinterlands, I’ve found what little inspiration I’ve managed to scrounge up slinks away. To get back that creative energy, even if it’s only a smidgen, I’ve been listening to music. Have you rolled your eyes yet? This is the part where you’re probably throwing your hands in the air shouting at the screen, “How is that anything new!?” It’s not. We all know it’s not. It might not even be the sound that’s inspiring, maybe it’s the visuals of the music video. Maybe it’s the vibrations of the bass through the floorboards beneath your feet. Maybe it’s just the lyrics. Whatever it is, whatever strikes your fancy and gives you that inspiration—hold on to it. Because I’m about to ask you to write.


Was that all an elaborate, and no doubt inelegant means of shoehorning in a prompt that pertains to music. Yes, yes it was. Doesn’t mean I didn’t mean any of it. I actually have been listening to music—well just one song really…on repeat. And as I do so, I write what I interpret the song as. Then the next day I do it again, only this time I try to interpret it in a different way. I try to see how many stories one song can inspire; and how many different ways I can view one thing. And once I feel I have no more stories for that song, I move onto the next.


So…I’m asking you to do the same. Find that song that really gets you going and write as many different stories about it as you can.

Snow, Snow, Snow

If you live in the US, there’s been a lot of snow lately. A lot of snow. Here are borrowed solace all of us editors live in areas where there’s typically snow this time of year, so we are used to it in some ways (our hearts and prayers are with those in the south and in Texas who aren’t used to these frigid temperatures and are dealing with awful problems from this weather), and in other ways, we’re still a bit…over it, just like many of you.

While we’re dealing with cold and snow, snow, and more snow, it definitely allows for lots of time to think about and work on creative endeavors. The nice thing about writing is that you don’t even have to have electricity to do it (though we sincerely hope all of you have electricity right now!) a pen and paper will do. You can create worlds with just some ink and paper, or a keyboard and a monitor.

So whether you are battling the flakes that have already fallen to the ground or are bracing for another round of the white, fluffy stuff to fall from the sky, don’t fight it–use it to inspire you and spend that extra time bundled up indoors to write. Start a new story about a futuristic universe where snow is as valuable as gold. Think about how settlers during the great westward expansion battled blizzards on the Oregon Trail and create the characters who would have been there. Take your first-hand experiences and write about them creatively, scribbling pages that one day might end up in your memoir.

There’s inspiration all around us, and this snowy weather we’re experiencing is no exception. Even if you simply take advantage of the extra time you might be facing stuck indoors right now to write more words in that novel you’ve been working on, or polish up a poetry collection you’re preparing to send to publishers, snow can serve all of us as writers.

If all you’re thinking about and all you’re dealing with right now is snow, snow, snow, don’t let it go to waste. Find inspiration where you’re at–even if that’s buried under inches (or feet) of powdery white stuff.