Poking Your Psyche with a Stick: Fun with Writing Exercises!

Today’s guest blog is written by good friend and amazing poet who goes by the moniker “Oh Hells Nah.” We I met in Albuquerque sometime between 2007 and 2009  through a network of mutual friends (a.k.a – our boyfriends).

I love this writer’s wry sense of humor and honest appraisal of the writer’s life – she likes to keep it “real.”  She offers a frank discussion of the writing process as well as several great writing exercises, including some of the dadaist absurd variety (and my personal favorite).

At this very moment I am spraining my arm from patting myself on the back for being smart enough to ask Oh Hells Nah to write something for ZingaraPoet. Watch for future writings from this featured writer and be sure to visit her blog at ohhellsnah.com. In the meantime, enjoy!

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My writing process is messy and somewhat nonsensical. I believe ideas grow in my subconscious like moss (or a fungus, depending on what), and that I must excavate them with a metaphorical scoop. Sometimes I see an image and then feel it nestle in the folds of my memory. They hatch eggs in my brain! I know that I may not know how to respond to it at that moment, but eventually, perhaps many years later, it will manifest itself in a poem. I’ll be peeing or washing my hands or something equally mundane and then suddenly remember. I will run to my journal before it disappears, hopefully without my pants around my ankles.

I’ve felt this way since I was a little girl. There were times the sight of something like a green sunset or a glittering puddle would leave me speechless. I think I always had a keen eye for beauty in surprising places and forms. That ineffable feeling is what made me want to write—the determination to make it effable. Needless to say, I didn’t have many friends, so time to write was plentiful. (Also plentiful were bad haircuts and ill-fitting clothes.)

I wish I still had that kind of time. It’s hard to make myself write after I get home from work exhausted and disgruntled. Sometimes I’m convinced that a lobotomy was performed on me at work when I wasn’t looking. Maybe some sort of corporate gnome stealthily climbed in through my nose and then hacked away at my brain. However, I believe that a major part of being a writer is writing even when you’d rather slow dance with a possum, when you think you have nothing at all to say, when all you wanna do is watch a that nasty show about Brett Michaels.

I admit I have a chip on my shoulder when people I meet tell me they are writers. Many of them say that they write  sometimes when they’re sad or angry or some shit. There is so much I want to say at these moments, i.e. I bet your poems are full of adverbs and crying fairies, but instead, I just keep my mouth shut and smile politely. I suspect this makes me an asshole.

I don’t have a specific writing schedule, but I write, in some form or other, nearly every day. I’ve been writing a lot of prose lately. It’s enjoyable, and in some ways, so much easier for me than poetry. When writing nonfiction, my goal is always to address some sort of timely issue and find a way to make it funny. Poetry, however, requires a different sort of concentration. And poetry is what truly makes my heart flutter.

A major component in writing poetry for me is exploring my subconsciousness and challenging myself to use language unlike my own. I’ve compiled a list of writing exercises that help me exhume the mess in my brain or force me to use words that I rarely use.

Dada

I have taught this one numerous times. It learned it from my zany poetry professor in Madrid. It’s weird, but I promise it works. (If it doesn’t, you can find me and give me a severe noogie.) I have adapted it slightly.

1. Before you go to bed, write the word “fish” on a sheet of paper and leave it nearby.

2. Upon waking, write down whatever comes to mind on that sheet.

3. Later in the day, close your eyes and count to 30. When you open your eyes think of the word “needle.”

4. Write down whatever this word evokes. Do not let reason or rationality limit you. Be as absurd as your subconscious allows.

5. Immediately after, write three lines in iambic pentameter.

6. Then write: “This poem is about” then the first 7 words that come you.

7. Write a word that that references the first word, “needle” then take a word from #4.

8. Join these two words in a long line. The reference to “needle” should be the first word and the word from #4 should be the last.

9. Immediately write 6 lines. Lines 1,3,5 should start with the same word. Lines 2,4,6 should end with the same word.

10. Try to use all this hooha in a poem in some form or other.

100 Things Worth Living For

I got this one from an undergrad professor whose guts I ended up hating. I don’t want to name names, but his very famous book has a bird in the title. Man, he was douche… But  anyway, this exercise worked very well. I came up with all sorts of precise images. You will get very specific and surprise yourself, trust me. All you do is write a list of 100 things worth living for. It may seem easy, but it gets difficult after a while. One of my last ones was Pup-Peroni and I don’t even own a dog.

The Ole Translation Exercise

I’m sure most of you know this one. All you do is take a poem in a different language and translate it to English based only on the way the words look and sound. Don’t try to make sense. Your brain will come up with something strange and compelling. I, for example, came up with “octopus carrot orgy ” in one of them. Jealous? I recommend that you use a language that is really unfamiliar to you. I am fluent in both English and Spanish so I find many of the romance languages too familiar. I often use Gaelic, Welsh, or Irish poem. Those languages look funky!

Language Stealing

I know this is wrong, but I call this one poem raping. (Please don’t send me angry emails.) The point of this one is to force you to use another’s language when your diction becomes predictable. I got this one from Kim Addonizio’s The Poet\’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry. From what I remember, you take a poem you admire and then make three lists—adjectives, nouns, and verbs. In each list, circle five words that stand out. Try to use these words in a poem.

Speech Acts

This one I got from my former professor Dana Levin who I believe got it from Helen Vendler. I wrote a lyric poem that I was quite pleased with (and was later published) as a result of this exercise. The point of this exercise is to try to use several speech acts that you don’t typically use.

Here is a short list of speech acts. For some examples, click here.

apology

complaint

compliment

response

refusal

boast

request

lament

Those are just a few exercises that help me get some creative juices flowing. I hope your writing is fruitful and unsettling. I hope you unearth some nuggets of weirdness.

Love and Squalor,

Oh Hells Nah

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www.ohhellsnah.com is like hot dogs for your brain! I am a small Mexican American woman who likes to bitch, eat good food, and write poems. I cover some of the following topics: writing, hot dogs, feminism, weird fashion, Buddhism, misanthropy, humanism, culture, Chicago, Muppets, race, travel, time travel, manners, and gnomes.

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