Tuesday’s Tip: Breaking Through the White Page
Today’s poetry tip comes from Professor and poet, Elisabeth Whitehead.
My writing process consists mostly of trying to get out of my own way, at least in its initial stages. I ascribe to the Jack Kerouac school of writing which says forget yourself for a while and see what clarity lifts to the surface. Here’s what Kerouac himself has to say in the first four sentences on his list of writing essentials:
- Write on, cant change or go back, involuntary, unrevised, spontaneous, subconscious, pure
- Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for your own joy
- Submissive to everything, open, listening
- Be in love with your life every detail of it
I think of my writing self as consisting of many thin layers stacked on top of the other, like strata. Sometimes I think of it as a pool of water, churning at the surface, but still as stone below. It is the agitated top layer I have to watch out for, consisting of the anxieties surrounding writing: looming deadlines, perfectionism, ego, fear of failure, fear of being stuck in the same patterns of ideas and images. I’ve learned that I have to get through the top layers first before I strike something unexpected, honest, and clear in my writing.
If you don’t work to get beyond that surface layer, it’s as though you’ve stopped yourself before you’ve even started. Stuck in the top layer, you probably won’t write much. And if you do manage to eek something out, the writing will most likely feel rigid, joyless, and lacking your great potential of creativity and depth. So when I write, I don’t sit down to compose a poem. Instead I take out a cheap notebook and a pencil and then I get out of my own way, allowing the initial writing to be messy and quick. The best piece of advice I’ve stumbled upon lately is simply this: “Relax and Write” (Chogyam Trungpa).
Here is an exercise I have my students do early on in the semester, to help break through the white page. Sitting in a circle of four, take out a notebook (or computer) and a square of paper. On the square of paper, write one word, any word that is meaningful to you (e.g. cacophony, love, dinosaur, agile). When you are ready, hand the slip of paper to the person on your right. Write the new word your partner has handed you at the top of your notebook, and using it as a prompt, write quickly for several minutes without pause: no crossing out, no questioning, no judgment. When the time is up, take the square of paper and pass it to the person on your right. Write the new word you’ve been given where you left off in your notebook. Write again, using your new word as a prompt. And so on. After you’ve gone through several rounds of writing in this way, go back and read what you’ve written, underlining any language, ideas, phrases that surprise you. Next, take one of your underlined phrases or ideas, and write it at the top of a piece of paper. Free write again. And so on…and so on…and see what is revealed. “Put your trust in the inexhaustible nature of the murmur,” Andre Breton writes in his book, Manifestos of Surrealism.
Although this exercise works nicely for beginning a poem, it also is effective for academic or professional writing. For example, you could write an idea you’d like to explore in your paper at the top of the page and then allow 10 minutes to write without pause or question.
My writing notebooks look a lot like this: prompt words, freewriting, underlining, and freewriting again. Eventually they turn into poems. It is important to remember that no one is a great writer all of the time. In fact, I produce some pretty terrible writing on a regular basis. The wonderful thing is no one else has to see it. But I write a lot, and edit a lot, and sometimes I move through the layers enough to find something I am excited to work with.
As a writer, I believe in spontaneity and creative wandering. But I also believe as much in careful editing, shaping, whittling, rewriting. Sometimes I’ll get lucky and only need five versions of a poem before I am satisfied. Sometimes it’s forty. I do what it takes, and I ask my students to revise frequently. But approaching writing in stages takes the heat off, giving you the freedom to explore first.