Week One: Tools

This week, in the spirit of expanding your sense of attention to details, I recommend the following tricks to see how they change the way you look at the world around (and inside) you. Start them this week, but keep them going for the whole month. (I’ve kept up the first three for most of my adult life and I find them invaluable tools to keep me sharp.)

Write down your dreams every day. You can do this in a separate notebook or on a file on your computer. Doing some writing by hand every day is a good habit, though, and keeping a notebook beside the bed is one of the best ways to make sure you write down everything you can remember before you start your day. If you have trouble remembering your dreams, just keep trying. You can tell yourself before you go to sleep, “When I wake up, I’m going to remember my dreams.” Eventually you will remember little flashes and, like everything, the more attention you give them, the more those flashes will grow.

Keep a daily notebook that you carry withyou at all times. Use it to write whenever you have a little time on your hands. Think about using your notebook in those moments when you would maybe check your phone. Write down interesting bits of overheard conversation, funny street signs, any striking images you see during the day (a brightly coloured bird, a runaway dog,a balloon stuck on a fence, etc.), as well as certain ideas that pop up. The best ideas tend to pop up unexpectedly when you’re doing something like waiting for the bus to come. Practice observing the world and collecting words and images to use for your poems later.

Create an Inspiration Book. Dedicate a notebook (or file on your computer) for copying down your favourite poems by your favourite poets. You can also write down sentences you really love from novels, magazine articles, dialogue from a play or film — anything that gives you that click of recognition or sense of awe. There is a tremendous power in the act of copying over a piece of writing that speaks to you; as you rewrite it in your own hand, your brain absorbs the author’s decisions, like where she broke a line, or which words he chose and in what order. This book will be a great resource when you’re feeling stuck or uninspired and it will keep you connected to the work that has moved you in some way in the past. It will also start to give you a sense of the range of styles and subjects that you like best.


Writing ideas for this week:


Every night before you go to bed, spend ten minutes or so writing a short poem that begins with the line “I woke up today” and describe what happened to you throughout the day. Try to focus on specific images and moments in time. What stands out? Look at Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died” as a point of inspiration. He uses very natural language, but then there are lovely moments where you hear the music in everyday speech, like the internal rhyme in the line: “it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine.” If you get bored writing about your day, you can also experiment with the voice of the poem. Pretendyou’re someone else, write down what you wished happened that day, etc. Have fun with it.


After a few days or a week of writing down your dreams and/or keeping a daily journal, go back through and read what you’ve compiled. Look for ideas and fragments and images that you may have already forgotten since writing them down. The ones that tug at you, that seem to hold an electrical current inside them now. Write a poem using this material.


If you spend a lot of time on a smartphone, consider using it as a tool to write poetry. All forms of social media are essentially communication systems that use images and language to connect to others — which is to say, you could start thinking of poetry as an adaptable, enduring form of social media. If you keep an Instagram or other image-driven account, look at your feed. What do you tend to document? If you mostly post pictures of your friends, consider writing a poem directly to one of them, like “Hall of Mirrors” by Ted Berrigan. If you’re all about the selfies, consider Robert Creeley’s “Self-Portrait”. And if your feed is full of celebrity shots or film stills, or nature pics, or lots of cats, think about how these images might sound if they were translated into words? You can even use social media as a way to document your own writing by snapping a picture of a poem that you’ve written in your notebook instead of typing it into a Word document. How does that feel? Does a photo of your own handwriting “look” like a poem to you? If you want, you can post it to your feed. Boom — you just self-published.


From the Library

  • There are lots of books about writers’ notebooks and you can even read some poets’ personal journals. See what you can find by writers you like. I really enjoyed Joanne Kyger’s Strange Big Moon and Robert Creeley’s Day Book of a Virtual Poet as well as The Journals of Sylvia Plath, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, and Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso (which is really more a book about keeping a diary that it is a diary itself).
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