Poetic Exercises to Loosen the Joints

One of the most useful lessons I learnt on the writing retreat was to use all sorts of ridiculous rules and constraints to exercise the poetic brain. It’s like using an elastic band to exercise your muscles, making them stretch just a little further than they might normally do. Here are some examples:

Quick Riddle

Flashes of remembrance
your friendly pings
your bossy tone
sole guide and friend on country lanes
until you die

(Mobile phone)

Cinquain – 2-4-6-8-2 syllable lines

It’s May.
Nests are feathered,
Twiglets picked, earth clods primed,
with hasty visitors in mind.
Cuckoo!

Measure
Careful trickle
Weighing, counting, tasting…
Beat and simmer, don’t stir and pour…
Too late!

Invent a list of ten words and give them to the next person to write a short text with it (a poem, prose, textbook, whatever the words inspire).  Here is my text, see if you can spot the made-up words.

The plupracy had already decided to sputify all private property. First, they demoked the fusils (Mairstone, 2082: pp.15-16), but, when this took far longer than expected, they had to add propylate to the mix. The late-Nematic propylate, however, was full of brimstone (Johnson, 2011; Rheinhart, 2059), so the olzeous metaphycitate they had in their makeshift laboratories exploded. The sputified masses tried to caffer, but it was too late. Contemporary eye-witnesses agree that the instare was complete and irrevocable (Mairstone, 2082: pg. 562).

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Developing the Creative Habit

The Creative HabitI am currently reading Twyla Tharp’s ‘The Creative Habit’ and I think of it as my own personal creativity coach.  Twyla Tharp, of course, is a dancer and choreographer, but her principles and suggested exercises are applicable across a wide range of creative disciplines.  And here we have that key word ‘discipline’, which perhaps only a dancer truly understands.  But let me use Ms. Tharp’s own words:

‘It is the perennial debate, born in the Romantic era, between the beliefs that all creative acts are born of (a) some transcendent, inexplicable Dionysian act of inspiration, a kiss from God on  your brow that allow you to give the world The Magic Flute, or (b) hard work.  … I come down on the side of hard work…. Creativity is a habit and the best creativity is a result of good work habits…. In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare to be creative.’

In other words, in order to reach the highest pinnacles of achievement that you are capable of, you need to do your warming up exercises.  You need to put in the practice and talent will find you (and she gives Mozart as an example, the hours and hours of practice and study that he put in as a child, the 24 symphonies that he wrote almost as a ‘draft’ before he finally wrote a good one).

For a long time, I was of the opposite school of thought.  Because I had moments in my teens when I was suddenly struck by flashes of inspiration, I thought that all I needed was a quiet place and enough time to commune with my Muse.  Inspiration would come again.  Some automatic dictation would occur.  But as I grew up and life got more complicated, the opportunities for introspection became limited, as did the time I could dedicate to creative writing.  I fell silent for far too many years, waiting for that flash of elusive inspiration.

Still, still, I stubbornly clung to the belief that an hour or ten minutes or 500 words or whatever daily routine I would try to establish could have no value.  Me?  Write without being inspired?  Good heavens and all evidence to the contrary, no!  And then I found my teen-age diaries and began to realise that my ‘moments of genius’ (as I thought of them back then, no matter how my overblown poetry makes me cringe now) were surrounded by utmost focus on literature.  I was reading huge amounts daily (and really analysing texts, too), I was writing for hours in my diary, letters, book reviews, prose and poetry.  I was learning new things every day and exploring them through my writing.  I am astonished at just how productive and hard-working the 15 year old Marina was.

So I have now converted to Twyla Tharp’s school of thought about hard work.  Yes, I now have a lot more obligations and preoccupations than a fifteen year old, but I still have to do a vast amount of practice, whether I like the results of those training sessions or not.  I have to make creativity a daily habit.

Or, as Pablo Picasso put it even more succinctly: ‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’