Monday, August 8, 2011

Transitioning to the Image Brain: Write a Poem about Your Book

Novelist and short-story writer Stuart Dybek (Coast of Chicago) was interviewed in Novel Voices about unique approaches to writing a book.

A most intriguing idea he presented was this
:  Write a poem about your manuscript.

I was very inspired by this exercise. I don't consider myself a poet, but I wanted to try it.  Maybe it would give me some new insights on my book?

My current novel is in revision stage; it's a struggle and a joy, as all books are, so I grabbed a handful of magnetic poetry words from a bowl in my office.  I spread them out on the table and started arranging the words into three stanzas, each representing one of the Acts of my book-in-progress.

I've been stumbling around Act 3 for weeks, and doing this poem-writing exercise gave my insights into why.  Words came together easily in the stanzas for Acts 1 and 2 of my book, but Act 3 was still full of mystery.  Mostly, my poem shared questions.  What's going to happen in Act 3, to pull all the threads together?  Why does Kate stay, why does Zoe commit, why does Mel come back?

I realized I was telling myself I needed to know these answers, but my book wasn't ready to give them yet.

The poem let us come into some agreement about things unanswered, and we both felt better.  I stopped pushing.  I decided to be content with not knowing answers, because I wasn't ready to implement them.  Yes, I had a plot ending to the story, which seemed to work, but the inner story, the characters' motivations, were still mysterious to me.  Letting the question just be in front of me, as I continue to revise, felt right.

Since then, I've been mulling over the poetry exercise.  I've tried it in my classes, and I've seen it give writers a lot of peace about their books, where they are right now, as well as unexpectedly good ideas about next steps.   

Poetry is image-based, so it clicks the writer into the right brain rather than the more linear left side of the brain.  This exercise takes about 20 minutes, but it can bring breakthroughs.

This past week on Madeline Island, I asked my workshop class to end our five day session with this poetry-making exercise.  I reassured them that they didn't have to be poets to do it, they just needed to be willing to play and explore what they knew about their books.  I passed out small handfuls of magnetic poetry words and let everyone get to it.  Some people are reluctant, of course, because this activity is all about process, not product.  It doesn't seem efficient or logical.  I encourage and cajole, and everyone eventually makes a poem. 

We share the rough poems, and many this year were very moving.  Some of them eloquently described the journey of the past five days of the retreat, where writers learned unexpected new avenues into their books.  Some poems talked about the struggle to find a story, and how it had come to resolution (or not).  Other poems showed a character's journey, and how the writer's own journey mirrored that.

I've expanded the exercise to include the steps below.  Try it this week, just for fun.  It'll sink you back into that wonderful sense of creative play, which is so appropriate for summertime.

This Week's Writing Exercise
 1.  Create one sentence for each of three acts in your book (their peak moments, their external movement, the changes that you're going for).

2.  Create one sentence for each of your main character’s shifts during the story, or your reader's shifts and journey as she reads your material.  These can be internal changes in the character, such as a big realization moment, or an external decision the person makes to do something differently.

3.  Create one sentence for each of three different setting details (with something from the five senses associated with each).  For instance, think about a setting you've chosen for Act 1 and a sentence that describes that setting.

4.  Create one sentence for each of three objects or memories associated with the book.  These can be something a character really loves or remembers.

5.  Find one musical detail in the book (sound or rhythm).

6.  Take all the above musings and write a three-stanza poem about your book, one stanza for each Act. Use one plot point, one character shift, one object or memory in each stanza. Then try to get something rhythmic or musical in each stanza.

Have fun with this!  Don't approach it too seriously; let the book guide you into new insights.


  1. Mary,
    Would you please explain your "poetry words" -- a bowl full of words sounds interesting. Thanks.

  2. Jane,

    I use different versions of magnetic poetry for these bowls. I think I've gotten the "gardener" one, the "cooking" one, and the regular one over the years as gifts. They are quite fun.

    Here's the link if you want to explore the option:

    Thanks for visiting!

  3. so THAT's what those things are! i had a huge pile of them sent to me years ago by one of my friends as part of a care package when i was living in the bush in southeast Alaska. my kids and i used to stick them randomly on the deep-freeze, making up silly "sentences", most of which made no sense.

    i love the idea of making a poem about my book.

    and funny that you have a flying squirrel right here next to the box in which i am typing - one of my nicknames is Squirrel, given to me also by that same friend who sent me the care package. :)

  4. Thanks, Steenybopper, and hope you have fun with the poem-making!