Writing Poetry with Warm Ups

writing exerciseThere are many parallels between writing and exercise. With both, it can be challenging to get started. We’ll swear tomorrow’s the day we get going, we’ll do it every day for at least an hour, and we imagine grand results in record time… only to quit after a day or so. We worry we’ll look foolish next to the “experts” out there. It can be hard to find a routine that works for us, especially with the constant demands from work, family, and friends on our time. We hit plateaus, and physical or mental obstacles can set us back or derail us.

It’s no wonder many people who have always wanted to try writing (or exercise) shy away or give up when their first draft (or workout) is less than stellar (hint: almost all first are less than stellar!). In teaching writing, I’ve found one mistake new writers make is diving into composing a piece without doing any pre-writing work. This is the equivalent of setting out to sprint a mile without warming up. Your muscles are cold, your blood flow is slow, and you’re bound to get hurt or, at the very least, you won’t set your best time.

Think of these warm-up exercises as getting the brain ready for the real work by clearing the creative passageways of any junk warm upfloating around. Sometimes the “junk” might actually be precious gems that can be used in finished pieces, and sometimes the junk is just junk. And that’s okay. By getting it out of your system, you have warmed up your brain and can focus on the next thing.  Working through warm-up exercises is also a great way to beat writer’s block.

Here is one quick warm-up routine I sometimes use. You should spend no more than 15 minutes total on the group of exercises – in other words, write and write fast. The trick is to not think before you write. Just write. Let whatever comes to mind come out on the page without worrying about whether or not it’s good or makes sense. No judgments, just the pen moving over paper.

Ready? Let’s go…

brain-exercisesPoetry Warm-up Routine #5 

Required equipment:

  • A timer or clock
  • A pen/pencil and paper (do warm-up exercises by hand!)
  • A space to work in

Exercises:

    1. Spend two minutes writing lines that begin with “I wish…” and keep going until the timer sounds. Write the lines as a list going down the page.
    2. Spend two minutes writing lines that begin with “Once…” and keep going until the timer sounds. Write the lines as a list going down the page.
    3. This two-minute warm up is split: Spend one minute writing lines that begin with “Now…” then spend one minute writing lines that begin with “I remember…” Write the lines as a combined list going down the page.
    4. Spend two minutes writing a list of lies.
    5. Spend no more than six minutes total!
      – For the final warm up, fold your paper in half to create two columns.
      – Next, write a list of five concrete nouns in the right column (30 seconds). (Concrete nouns are nouns that are tangible. To figure out if the noun is concrete, do what I call the “Drop Test.” Ask yourself, could this noun be dropped on my foot? For something like a mug, the answer is yes. For something like love, the answer is no.)
      – Then, write a list of five verbs or adjectives ending in -ing (e.g., biting, singing, dashing) in the left column (30 seconds).
      – Now randomly draw a line from each noun to one -ing word. When you’re done, you should have five word pairs.
      -Finally, write a sentence for each pair. Do not spend more than one minute on each sentence! The sentences do not have to be related, though if you’re looking for an extra challenge you can layer this in.

To help you see what the result of these warm-up exercises look like, here are some excerpts from the last time I used this warm-up routine. Remember – these are warm-up exercises, not polished pieces of writing!

ONE – “I wish…”

  • I wish I could function on four hours of sleep every night.
  • I wish guns had no place in our world.
  • I wish it were easier to find size 10 ballroom shoes.
  • I wish I could answer the question “Why?”
  • I wish my children never had to face loss.
  • I wish I could fall asleep each night watching stars streak across the inky sky.

TWO – “Once…”

  • Once I believed unicorns and dragons were real and leprechauns lived at the end of rainbows.
  • Once I found five dollars at the bottom of a river.
  • Once I laughed until I couldn’t breathe and the black spots burst on the backs of my eyelids.
  • Once I believed love was enough.
  • Once I dropped a pink ribbon into a pot of soup.
  • Once I wanted to be a firetruck with a tall ladder and loud bell.
  • Once I was able to run for miles and miles.

THREE – “Now…” followed by “I remember…”

  • Now she pays for groceries with borrowed pennies.
  • Now I wipe away their tears with my apron strings.
  • Now I know the joy of giving in at the right time.
  • Now I know the only thing at the end of a rainbow is wet grass.
  • I remember the weakness of small people in a large crowd.
  • I remember the slice of a knife through my finger.
  • I remember the taste of being five and the warm rain as it fell on the field.
  • I remember the banter of the geese on the pond in the early hours of November.

FOUR – “Lies”

  • I never to go bed angry.
  • My patience flows from a bottomless well.
  • I’ve never regretted a decision or action.
  • I love my name.
  • I never struggle to find words.

FIVE – “Concrete Nouns & Descriptive Words”

  • cutting eraser – My sketch disappeared without hesitation under the cutting eraser.
  • biting bed skirt – The scratchy fabric burned the tops of her sensitive feet like a biting bed skirt.
  • longing pencils – The blank page called liked a siren to the longing pencils sitting idly in the dusty cup at the edge of the desk.
  • searing wedding band – Her entrapment after his betrayal was like a searing wedding band melding flesh to bone.
  • enveloping coffee – I closed my eyes and allowed my senses to be overwhelmed by the enveloping coffee.

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Prompt No. 10 for Dec 12, 2013

12/12/13. That’s the kind of number that makes me think of my dad.

If you were following me here you might have wondered why there was no 12/12 prompt. Or, if you were following on Facebook, you might have noticed that I explained I was busy at work and I offered you a lovely Persian poet to read instead. In any case, I’m a couple of days late, it’s true, and I’m sorry if you were counting on me. But, I’m guessing you weren’t. Who are you? And I hope you liked Ahmad Shamlou (in Farsi).

The post I planned for Thursday, is a warmup exercise. I call it “Color Warm Up for Writer’s Block.” We all have days when we’re too tired, too cranky, too overwhelmed, too busy. The holidays are busy times, whether you are warming up Hanukkah leftovers or  thinking that you only had 2+ weeks until Christmas. Or maybe you’re planning a Winter Solstice party and there’s just not time to write a poem, for crying out loud! Or, maybe you’re really blocked — the stress has gotten under your skin and even though you have time and want to write, there is nothing there. This prompt is what I turned to this week, because I was overwhelmed, and it made me happy, it made me very nostalgic, and I eventually got a tiny poem.

“Color Warm up for Writer’s Block” is very simple. Pick a color. Write it at the top of a piece of paper. Then list all the things you can think of that are that color. For example: Brown. Sanka brown. Age spots on my hands brown. Picture frame brown. Picture frame around a child’s drawing brown. Picture frame around a child’s drawing of a moth brown. Tree bark brown. Desert rock brown. Desk drawer brown. Wastebasket brown. It doesn’t work if you don’t use the color word in each image. The color becomes part of a breath, or a mantra. It keeps you focused on the color and you are more likely to pick objects speaking from your unconscious. Hence, the block-breaking power!

Notice how the emotion of the color changes as you work your way through the strange list you are making. Bulletin board brown. Cat paw brown. My mother-in-law’s rocking chair brown. Broken compost bin boards brown.

Notice that there is a story in some of the things you name, a story you wouldn’t have seen if you hadn’t been looking at the objects through this artificial lens.

Let a poem drift up through the objects on your list. The color you have been looking at may be in the poem, or not.

Old rocking chair
the coffee in my cup
is the same color as her hands

I hope you’ll find a chance to use this prompt this season. Give yourself a break. Don’t try to write the best poetry of the year; just notice what color the paper is.