Making Spells: The Magic Power of Writing

Making Spells: The Magic Power of Writing

I have been keeping a journal since I was nine years old. And I’ve been writing poems and stories at least as long. I memorized my first poem—“Little Tree” by e.e. cummings—when I was 11 because I wanted to be able to partake of the magic of reciting a poem.

Writing helps me make sense of the world, and keeps me in touch with my feelings, thoughts, desires, and needs. So that I can better flow with my feelings and meet my needs in healthy ways.

Writing helps me uncover my dreams and the path to living them. Next steps and solutions come to me. But, as much as I rely on my daily journal practice as one key to my well-being, writing for me is about far more than just journaling.

Through writing, we can engage in the joyful, challenging, astonishing act of art-making, shaping words on the page to create magic. That act is profoundly healing, life-giving, and life-affirming. And, it can create worlds, not just on the page, but in our lives.

Powerful language can call us to make changes, develop compassion and understanding, inspire us to new visions.

There’s a reason that the word “spell” means both to spell the letters in a word and to cast a spell or create enchantment.

There is magic power in language used artfully and crafted with care.

Writing in this way connects me to my Deep Self and to all of Life. Inner wisdom and guidance flows through me. Wild imagination flows through me. Playful silliness flows through me. Buried emotions flow through me. Brilliant ideas come to me. Healing and mysterious language appears seemingly out of nowhere. I discover realms both within and without that I didn’t know were there.

That’s why I return to writing again and again as a place of solace and healing and connection. And as a place of wonder and astonishment.

Writing and sharing my writing gives me a voice to connect with others. It creates a bridge out of the separation and loneliness and despair that can overtake me in these hard times. It helps me sort through the overwhelm.

And when I hear the words of others, I am reminded of our shared humanity.

For all these reasons and more, I love to write and share my words and hear the imaginative words of others. It is a powerful balm in these times and also a powerful act of rebellion against the life-negating powers that seem to have too much sway in our world.

We aren’t helpless at all. We are powerful beings. One of our greatest powers is the act of creation. We need to call on this power in these changing times, so that we help shape a world we wish to live in. We do this one gentle word at a time.

If you would like to engage in creative play with me and others, I invite you to join me for Freedom to Write. Whether you are an established writer or a beginner, I believe you will find the process deep, rich, surprising, inspiring, and nourishing. A weekly haven for your creative spirit.

Creation and Revision: Letting Your Art Find Its Radiant Form

Creation and Revision: Letting Your Art Find Its Radiant Form

The process of revision or honing, polishing and shaping a work of art is one that often stumps creative people. Where to begin? How to go about making the work stronger, better, truer to itself? Will I ruin it in the process? What to cut, keep, add, change?

Some time ago I published a post on this Creative Sparks blog called “Creating the World We Wish to Inhabit.” That post came about in a surprising way that illustrates something about the mysterious process of creation and revision to allow work of art to blossom. I’ll share that with you here.

This applies whether you are creating a dance piece, a piece of writing or visual art or music or in some other medium.

The Birth of a New Piece

I held a free Write Together! gathering in June of 2020. The purpose of the gathering was to bring people together to use writing as a tool for helping us process the grief, anger and fear arising as a result of all that’s been going on in the world, and also to use our writing to begin to envision and create a more loving world. Words are powerful, after all, and so is gathering together with intention.

I wrote along with the participants, not expecting anything in particular to come from what I was writing, but open to possibilities.

The first prompt I gave was simple, to begin with the words “Right now. . . ” and just let the writing go wherever it wanted to go for five minutes.

As I wrote, I didn’t know whether it might be the start of a new essay or a poem or nothing at all.

One of the key guidelines of freewriting, as Natalie Goldberg says, is that “You are free to write the worst junk in the world.” You agree to suspend judgment in the first draft in order to allow yourself to blow past your inner censors and possibly stumble on something wonderful and surprising. This is wonderfully helpful permission to grant yourself in any art form.

I re-read my little piece more than a month after I wrote it and found that I liked it. So I started considering what it might want to become.

A poem? No, too wordy to be edited down into that. A personal essay? Maybe, but it would need a great deal added and more structure. Then, I had it! Creative Sparks, my blog, is a perfect venue for this soulful, inspiring, short piece, which became the post I mentioned at the start of this one.

Revising for Purpose

I began to revise my piece with that in mind. Knowing that Creative Sparks blog is meant to be a combination of inspiration, invitation, useful information and soul nourishment for creative people of all kinds helps guide decisions about how I structure and revise my posts and what I choose to share here.

First, I considered what the post was fundamentally about and what the key takeaways for the reader would be, and how I might frame it to give context to the reader.

I cut out anything that didn’t serve the basic gist of the piece or that weakened any part or created confusion. I listened to the lines, reading out loud, to make sure they flowed. And I added more paragraph breaks for easier reading online.

I decided to forego the typical blog format of having subheadings (like this post does) and just to let the piece flow. That was more in keeping with its nature.

Sometimes rules of form are helpful, sometimes they impede. Part of being an artist is knowing or guessing which is true for any one particular work.

Finding the Form

One of my favorite quotes about writing—and it applies to all art—comes from Jack Kerouac’s brilliant, weird list called Belief and Technique for Modern Prose: List of Essentials, which I keep on the bulletin board in my studio. The quote is: “Something that you feel will find its own form.”

I have to remind myself of this often when I have created the beginning of something that I don’t yet know what to do with. Many of my writings fall into this category at the outset.

Like this post today. It began as brief update to my patrons on Patreon, and suddenly I found myself creating a post for them on form and revision, which then got furthered revised into this post for you.

Listen to Your Art

Let your pieces speak to you and tell you what they want to be and who your audience might be. If you listen, they will begin to guide you.

Consider the needs and desires of your intended audience. Consider the expectations you are creating at the outset of your piece and how you fulfill these and/or create surprise. You don’t want to frustrate or lose your audience.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with different forms, to move things around, remove and add, and see what feels strongest. You won’t know if you don’t try.

Consider what the essence of the piece is, what it’s really about, how it moves, the tone, feel, world it creates. Strengthen that by removing anything that does not serve that essence.

If you have to take away things you love—”Kill your darlings” is famous advice for writers—you can always save them for another possible piece. Keep some sort of file or reference of these. They may provide the perfect starting point for your next brilliant work of art.

To your own radiant form, Maxima

Create an Ode

Create an Ode

Get your imagination sizzling with this creativity prompt to create an ode.

In this post I walk you through Ellen Bass’ lovely poem Ode to the First Peach. I show you what makes the poem sing and how to create your own ode in any art form you choose.

This prompt is not just for writers. Although I will talk about principles of good writing here, I will also share ideas of how to translate these principles to other art forms.

Whether in writing, painting, dance, sculpture, photography or some other medium, I invite you to craft an ode.

First, let’s look at what an ode is and how we might make one that really shines.

Read Ellen Bass’ Ode to the First Peach here.

The Marriage of Content and Form

Notice how the poem is juicy with language in the way a peach is overabundant in its sweetness and deliciousness. This poem positively spurts with rich, vibrant language. The language matches the subject.

If Ellen Bass were describing a prison cell, the language would need to be colder and harder. Reading this poem provides a rich pleasure like eating a ripe peach.

What Is an Ode?

An ode is an homage, a poem of praise to a specific person, place or thing. Like a letter of appreciation to that thing.

Typically, the ode addresses the thing being praised directly, speaking not just about it but to it. Such as starting with, “O beautiful ____”. Ellen Bass’ poem does not address the peach directly, but it’s still very much an ode.

Let’s look closer at her ode and see what we can discover to inspire and inform our own creations.

By doing this, we will learn how to approach a work of art to glean both information and inspiration. We will gather information about what is strong and effective. We’ll also harvest inspiration to create our own beautiful and true work.

Choose Verbs That Tremble With Aliveness

I start by looking at the verbs, because exciting verbs are so vital to vivid, effective language.

One of the first things you can do to improve a piece of writing is to go back and look at your verbs. See where you might change the verbs to more specific, accurate, alive ones—not speak but whisper, not run but gallop, not laugh but chortle.

Of course, like all things, this can be overdone, and you need to consider the style and tone of the piece when choosing your verbs. However, a well chosen verb can do a great deal of good work for a piece of writing.

Here are all of the verbs in Ellen Bass’ ode:

feasted, plugs, severed, shines, silvered, darken, turn, imagine, be, reflected, becomes, shoots, ravished, were, fallen, dreamed, curried, remaking.

Notice how she only uses the word “to be” twice. Most of the verbs she chooses shiver with life.

If you aren’t a writer: What is the equivalent of a verb in your medium? What propels the action, brings movement and energy? Is it a fast run of notes in music? Is it bright colors in painting? Or perhaps a specific verb like “shiver” instead of “was cold” is equivalent to a subtle blending of colors instead of using a primary hue. You decide and then examine your use of that element.

Use Adjectives (and Adverbs) With Care

Next let’s look at the adjectives.

Adjectives need to be used with care. Too many adjectives begin to cancel each other out. And they can make the writing feel overburdened, cumbersome.

Yet a well-chosen adjective can bring something radiantly to life for the reader.

Notice how sparingly Ellen Bass uses adjectives in this poem, which nonetheless achieves a lushness. Most of the nouns in the poem stand alone without an adjective to define them. They don’t need an adjective because the nouns themselves are so well-chosen and vibrant. We’ll look at them in a moment.

Here are the adjectives in this poem:

one, clear, next, golden, heavier, sudden, dense, first, lustrous, silent, swollen, clefted, flaming.

Look how wonderful and apt the adjectives are for their subject, the peach. And at the same time how vivid they are as words, not just “round” or “orange,” but “clefted” and “lustrous.” The adjectives not only have specificity but also feel good in the mouth to say. And we feel them in our bodies.

If you aren’t a writer: An adjective is something that modifies or describes a noun. If the noun is the subject matter of your piece, what might be the equivalent of an adjective? In a dance piece, it might be a gesture of the hand or a bend of the head that modifies the larger movement and gives it a particular flavor. In music, it might be an ornament, a trill, a bend of a note or distortion.

Be Specific With Your Nouns

Now let’s consider the nouns.

Here they are:

insect, stub, resin, scar, hollow, stem, juice, fur, caul, minute, hairs, palm, flesh, weight, newborn, marriage, citron, blush, planet, hall, mirrors, swan, fairy, sky, dawn, beginning, world, pith, stars, coins, pockets, night, chaos, scent, morning, sugar, bruise, hunger, life, remnant, ripeness.

What an extraordinary collection of nouns!

Some of them are concrete descriptions of aspects of a peach, such as stem, scar, juice, scent.

But many of them are imaginative metaphors to help us appreciate the peach in a new light. Metaphors can work magic in a poem.

If you aren’t a writer: The nouns are the nuts and bolts of your piece, its subject matter or foundational elements—a key phrase in a dance piece, perhaps, or a musical theme.

You might think of the nouns as the building blocks of the piece, the verbs as what connects and gives momentum to those building blocks, and the adjectives as flourishes or ornaments that add nuance.

In whatever medium you are working in, make sure your “nouns” are strong and apt, as vivid and right as they can be for the piece.

And what about using metaphor, likening one thing to another to help us experience your subject in a richer or new way?

Create Your Own Ode

Now that we have gathered this information about what makes this poem come alive, let’s use it for inspiration to create our own ode.

1. Choose a subject for your ode, something you wish to praise. It could be something you love, but it could also be something difficult, which you will use your ode to learn to appreciate. For instance, I recently wrote an ode to frustration.

2. Start by free-associating a list of lively verbs, nouns and adjectives, or phrases combining them, to describe the subject of your ode. Include startling, original metaphors.

You might also make notes of memories of your subject, details of the specific pleasures it has brought to you.

3. Now choose the best of these to begin making a first draft of an ode. Or start by just allowing yourself to play freely with the subject and see what arises.

Let yourself experiment. Be wild, inventive, playful. Odes often are. Or be melodramatic, over-the-top in your exaltation of this thing. Discover the voice that is suited to your subject.

Don’t try to be perfect in the first draft. That kills creativity. Just get some ideas on paper or in your medium-of-choice.

If you aren’t a writer: Even if you are working in a non-verbal medium, such as dance or painting, you can still begin by writing out images, associations and metaphors to more fully delve into your subject. You can also begin by deciding key elements of your piece—musical or dance phrases, color palette and so on.

Refine and Revise

Then, go back, refine, revise, hone.

If you are writing, look at every verb. Can any be strengthened?

Look at every adjective. Can any be removed and the line will be as strong or stronger? Can any adjectives be replaced by using a more vital, specific noun instead?

Look at your nouns. Are they the most dynamic and apt ones to meet your subject? Have you used metaphor to bring your subject more vividly to life and to bring delight and surprise to the reader?

If you are making an ode with dance, how could you use non-representational movement to create an ode to a peach, for instance? Instead of showing someone eating a peach, how could you suggest the ecstasy, sweetness, surprise of biting into a ripe peach? How could you metaphorically depict the juice running down your face or the slow ripening to colors of sunset?

If you are writing music, how could the notes reflect the burnished quality of a peach, the lushness?

If you are painting, what in the painting, in the background perhaps or the colors or textures, leads us to experience the subject in a new and deeper way? What is it you most wish to communicate about this subject to the viewer? Perhaps the painting is non-representational but takes us to a place of feeling the subject.

Let yourself have fun with making an ode.

Perhaps you would like to give yourself the project of making a series of odes on different subjects. Odes engage our senses, our gratitude, our imagination.

To get more ideas about wild and wonderful odes, check out Pablo Neruda’s odes. Here’s my favorite of those: Ode to My Socks

What are you inspired to make an ode about now? Begin making some notes.

Entering the Word Temple of Poetry

Entering the Word Temple of Poetry

The Chinese character for poetry is made up of two parts, “word” and “temple.”*

Let us enter the sacred word temple of poetry. Let us be housed by holy words.

What makes a poem holy?

The care it took to select each word like a stone, carve it to a perfect fit with other word-stones.

The mastery to shape phrases, images, metaphors that strike, move, tantalize, challenge, even confound.

The precision to stack these carved words into a poem, so that it stands as a singular temple.

The attention to calculate the architecture of the poem—its line breaks, line lengths, stanza breaks, form, its flow through the rooms—“stanza” means room in Italian. To hollow out with words a hallowed space.

In all this care and careful craft, we are invited into sanctuary, the breathing presence, awe.

Each poem that is made with true care is a word temple, a temple made of words and a temple to language, expression, communication, art.

Poetry invites our wonder, deep feeling, delight, recognition, pain.

Poetry gifts us with beauty, the grace of a carefully-made thing, unique expression, honesty, reflection. It gifts us with art, and that is, or at least can be, sacred.

Let us enter the word temple of poetry.

Let us approach the poem with reverence, inner quiet, our senses alert for the Presence of the Beyond.

In some poems we may be disappointed, as in some churches, we are left without a feeling of the Sacred. But let us come with that hope and yearning with which we approach God or a sacred grove.

Let us let ourselves be permeated by the poem, each cell absorbing the words, images, sounds, feelings, ideas.

Let us let ourselves be wounded by poetry and also healed, approaching with such open hearts, minds and bodies that we can be pierced by the poem’s clear seeing and deep feeling.

We can be upset by its provocations. We can be lifted by its hot-air-balloon joy or rent open by its pure grief. We can be dissolved by its truth.

Let us enter the word temple of poetry and worship there together.

To your poetic heart,

Maxima

*I learned this inspiring fact from Copper Canyon Press, a leading publisher of exceptional poetry in the United States, whose logo is the Chinese character for poetry.

P.S. If you liked this post, please share it.

P.P.S. If you would like to engage in one-on-one mentorship with me to craft extraordinary poems or other writing/creations of your own, my creativity mentoring may be for you. In April, for National Poetry Month, I’m offering 20% off on my mentoring packages.

 

To read more about poetry and writing, check out these posts: Scenes from the Past: A Creativity Prompt and Give Voice to Your Own Astonishment

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