A Poem Before You Write

Dashing off a poem as a writing exercise as a means to not only get some words down on paper, but to provide a sense of order and meaning to the words you write down.

I always struggle to stick with my writing plan. I know — just shut up and write. If it was only that easy. The truth is, I don’t mind playing around with different tips and tricks, because I need them. Things that work don’t keep on working. Mixing it up with new ideas helps me find the flow.

Lately, it’s been poetry that has been helping me. Not reading it. Writing it.

I’ve been dashing off poems as soon as I sit down to write. This helps get the writing going, from thought in my head to the tapping of keys on the laptop. But it does more than this — it helps me set a tone, as well as establish an order of things. Each line in the poem is like the building block of a chapter, or an element to a short story. A natural arc begins to show itself.

Here’s the poem I wrote to help me get started with this short essay:

There you are again
blank screen
staring back at me
as if I am nothing

It feels right, your assessment.
I should just walk over to the fridge
crack open a beer
and watch another episode of whatever the fuck is on

Instead, I recall a line from my favorite show
that’ll be the day
at least on this day
there I am again
staring back at the screen
as if it’s nothing.

I don’t pretend to be a good poet. Perhaps it’s better to say that I wish I was good at poetry. Can I also admit that sometimes I write a poem and I think to myself: Man, that is really good.

Don’t worry. I am not fooling myself.

Regardless of whether the poetry is any good or not, I can say definitively that it is helping me get some words down in a way that moves my stories along in, at the very least, some semblance of a decent direction. That is a good thing.

I’ve used the poetry writing exercise not just to get started, but to help me get unstuck when I’ve got myself stuck somewhere in the morass of what might or might not be the middle, and I’ve used poetry to help me find a way to finish up a piece of writing.

With regard to the actual poems: I certainly don’t think anyone would get what I am trying to convey in the poem, or perhaps it’s the other way around — that it’s all too surface and easy to decipher. Perhaps “decipher” is too heavy a word. Maybe it just reads like one big cliche. And yet, I understand the poem. It’s helping me to better understand how to get my point across with the words I am putting to “paper.”

The gut check here is that I’m a sucker for poetry, especially all the poems that most people are suckers for. A Pablo Neruda poem can stir it all up each and every time. And how wonderful it is to not get a poem. I’ll keep trying to figure it out, whether I want to or not. The meaningfulness of not comprehending, but continuing to search for meaning, in the waking hour, but also, in dreams, is what makes poetry so wondrous and beautiful.

Perhaps what I love most about poetry is how easy it seems — like it’s right there, for the taking. And yet, deep down, you know it’s not easy at all, to even get close to adequate. It’s fun to make a run at it. Finding that it helps my writing efforts across the board has been an added bonus to the joy I’ve always felt about poetry.

12 Minutes of Writing Before You Have to Go

A simple exercise that leverages the urgency of a buzzer-beater deadline to help you get a flurry of words into the processor, leaving little time for all the usual distractions.

If you have 12 minutes before you have to get out the door but you wanted to get some writing done before you depart, that is a good thing, You are immediately up against a deadline. All other matters can slip away. Just you and your typing and the second hand clicking away.

There is no time to get up and get yet another cup of coffee, certainly not enough to make a fresh cup.

Have to take a leak? You can hold it. It’s only 12 minutes. The fact is, you’ll be typing so fast and focusing so hard, given the limited amount of time, that even if you have to go to the bathroom, the urgency of the matter will slip to the way side.

The same would go for those pangs of hunger that seem to creep into writing time and lead to all manner of creative cooking with the various ingredients you were able to cobble together by looking through all the cupboards and the back of the fridge, which looks so dirty that you also usually decide you have to do a thorough cleaning before you even think about getting started on your cooking, let alone writing.

Most importantly, there isn’t time to let thoughts of writers block, or the fact that your project sucks, or that it has hit a wall, or that you don’t know how to transition that one section to the next, or that your opening falls flat or that you don’t even know how it’s going to end. You just don’t have the time to let any of those thoughts filter into your process. You’ve got 12 fucking minutes and so you aren’t going to sort anything out or finish anything completely, but you are going to get a good number of words down on paper.

Nevermind all the spelling errors. You can fix those later.

Again, it’s not even going to occur to you that what you are writing is bad, or good. You’re able to set that completely aside. This is about 12 minutes of writing before the bomb goes off. 12 minutes before the end of the game. 3… 2… 1…

Laptop screen down over the keyboard. Slam.

When the 12 minute buzzer goes off, you are fired up. You grab your keys and wallet, throw on your jacket, and walk out the door, off to have some fun, hopefully, but possibly to get to work on time. Either way, you get to go wherever it is you are headed riding atop a glorious wave of pounding out some words — in the most focused and driven of ways — for 12 solid minutes of uninterrupted writing time.

Finding the Way to Write Every Day

Yes, I know it takes discipline. But what is the regimen that helps cultivate the necessary discipline?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been trying to “write every day.” Easy to say, but not so easy to do. Miss one day, then another, and yet another, and all of the sudden it’s Sunday and I might as well just sleep in and then go out to brunch and give in to the whole day-of-rest mentality, because what’s another day of no writing? The demoralization factor has now kicked in, making it even harder to stick with what has essentially become just the intention of writing. Forget about any actual words down on paper.

This “what’s another day?” mentality has a way of extending itself indefinitely. I’m way short on word count, maxed out on feeling like shit.

Obviously, it takes discipline to write every day. I know this. We all know this. The mystery I am trying to solve is what is the regimen that I should put in place that will firmly establish and strengthen the discipline it takes to write every day?

The tactics, those are endless:

  • Use an old computer that is not connected to the internet and can only be used for writing.
  • Wake up early and take advantage of the quiet household and the rested mind.
  • Write during the lunch hour.
  • Write for 30 minutes after the workday is over, not leaving your desk until you’ve put in that solid 30 minutes of writing.
  • Stay up late, and have a session of writing be the last thing you do each night.
  • Join a writers group, thereby forcing you to deliver something to your fellow group members on a cycle.
  • Take classes that enforce deadlines.
  • Take advantage of spare moments, or 12 minutes, as it were.

I’ve tried all of those, and they work — as tactics — but they lack a regimen that helps cultivate the necessary discipline to write every day.

The good news is, I have found a regimen that has been cultivating my discipline: Writing 500 words a day, no matter what.

This allows me to leverage any of the above tactics to find the TIME to write in a focused and meaningful way, and the word count gives me a very specific GOAL to meet every day. Hence, I am writing every day.

This was actually inspired by some writing advice from Peter Heller, author of one of my favorite books, The Dog Stars. He shared the advice in a video that was part of a “Writers on Writing” series I put together when I was working at the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. The video is worth watching — Heller took his lead from Graham Greene’s writing process, and explains how the word count limit helps cultivate momentum in his writing efforts — reach your specified word count, stop wherever you are, and then be excited to jump back in the next day. Don’t always put yourself in a position to be facing the blank page of a new chapter.

Next up, finding a solid method to weave together these 500 word exercises into a narrative that makes sense.

NOTE: This essay is just over 500 words (505, to be exact) — the regimen in action!