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.

Embracing Failure as a Necessary Step in Art

Embracing Failure as a Necessary Step in Art

Dancing near the edge

For over a month now I have been working on a poem called “Tango Near the Edge,” and in the end, it might not be any good.

I am writing it in response to a very complex prompt I found in a book of difficult writing prompts called Challenges for the Delusional. (Who can resist a title like that?)

To follow the prompt, I have to meet a series of difficult and bizarre creative hurdles all within one poem.

One of the hurdles is to use dance terminology in a poem that touches on death.

So, to make this poem I looked up terms used in tango. The terminology for tango is very rich and full of double entendres I hope to play on in my poem, which features a lover near the end of a troubling relationship.

I continue to be interested in this poem because it poses such a difficult creative challenge that it forces me to abandon most, if not all, of my usual strategies, to get out of ruts, and learn something new.

In fact, I have also chosen to impose a fixed form on the poem, in addition to the list of other challenges I have to meet. The form I have chosen is a poem of 24 lines made up of lines of six words each. I learned this form from Brenda Hillman, who in turn learned it from another poet.

This form forces a kind of economy and care on me that is helpful to corral my tendency to ramble. And something about the form has captured my imagination. I’ve used it for several poems already.

After all this time tinkering with the poem, rewriting lines, researching more tango terms and trying to weave them into the poem in a way that adds richness and doesn’t stop the reader because they don’t understand the meanings, I still don’t know if I have a poem that is good.

I have done so many revisions and still, probably the whole thing is too contrived to be successful as a piece of art.

In other words, I may have spent a good deal of my precious creative time on a dead end.

Be willing to go down dead ends

As artists, we have to be willing to go down dead ends for our art. Because in this way we grow, we stretch beyond our habits and safe zones. Art is not about playing safe and small.

Making art is a radical act that calls on all of who we are. Our art, our creativity, asks us to rise to the best we have to give, to who we are becoming, and to keep learning and honing our art.

To get there we often have to go back to being a beginner, over and over. We have to be willing to fall, to fail, to not look good or competent. Only in this way do we learn new skills, add new colors to our palette, discover voices within waiting to be sung.

“Preconceptions about what is and is not possible are as dangerous in the crafts as they are in other areas of human behavior. Meanwhile it is fun to play, and most discoveries are made by accident. Or an inspiration. But it is really an organic principle trying to find a soft spot to sprout in.

It takes a long time to learn that nothing is wasted. It takes a long time, and a lot of suffering usually, to understand that there is more to life and to poetry than our conscious purposes.”

– M.C. Richards, Centering

Be willing to be a beginner again

Years ago I attended a three-week-long residential workshop in Contact Improvisation, the dance form I have been engaging in for over thirty years.

In the workshop we had to break down core skills and try on exercises that felt awkward and hard. Even though at the time I was a fairly skilled Contact Improviser, I found myself suddenly unable to dance well at all. It was painful and embarrassing.

It wasn’t until I returned from the workshop and had some weeks to integrate the learning into my body that suddenly my dancing blossomed to a whole new level.

But I had to be willing to go through the awkwardness of new learning, to step out of my comfort zone, to go down what felt like dead ends and appear terrible as a dancer, in order to emerge from the chrysalis in a new form.

Embrace the awkwardness

Martin Keogh, a wonderful teacher of Contact Improvisation, once said in a workshop, “Embrace the awkward moments. Don’t try to rush through them in the dance.”

I encourage you not only to embrace the awkwardness and be a beginner again and again, but also to embrace challenge in your art, embrace your “failures,” your ruined canvasses, your awful poems, your embarrassing performances, your dead ends.

You never know where these might lead.

Know that you are doing this in service to your art. And celebrate yourself for being brave, for trying something new, and for making art at all.

If you’d like to read my poem “Tango Near the Edge” and see how I’ve met the challenges, join me on Patreon. I’ll share it this week with my patrons. (That’s where I share a lot of juicy insider stuff.)

Pam Houston on Writing and Creative Process

Pam Houston on Writing and Creative Process

A couple of weeks ago I went to a talk and reading by much-loved author Pam Houston and then took her writing workshop the next day.

I came away inspired, with her latest memoir, Deep Creek, under my arm, and new tools to use and teach, but I was also troubled.

Houston is an engaging storyteller, a riveting writer, and a warm, vulnerable human being. I’m thoroughly enjoying Deep Creek, which tells remarkable stories of her 26-years on a high-mountain ranch in Colorado, of her often-harrowing childhood, and how she holds onto hope while loving this Earth and watching so much of it die.

Houston’s prime creative technique

In her writing workshop, Houston shared with us the method she used to write Deep Creek and all of her books. It is a technique that is adaptable to many art forms, and there is much to be learned from it about creative process.

Houston collects what she calls glimmers from her life, moments that capture her attention, details from the physical world that brought up some resonance in her.

A glimmer might be a conversation she overheard or the experience of painting the UV protector on the logs of her cabin. It might be a mother hitting her child in the supermarket or seeing 300 elk cross her land in the snow or the time her father was so drunk, he rolled the car and the police had to cut her out of the passenger seat with a chainsaw.

Or, as she shared, a glimmer might be the centerpiece at a cocktail party that she couldn’t take her eyes off and didn’t know why, until much later she realized the bottle of vodka frozen in a mound of ice and surrounded by roses was a perfect metaphor for her mother.

She writes these glimmers down on her computer, describing the scenes in vivid sensory detail and eschewing, as much as possible, any commentary on the meaning of the events. In other words, she practices the time-honored creative writing maxim “Show don’t tell.”

Making a collage of moments

Later, she begins piecing together various glimmers that she intuitively senses belong together. In the process, she avoids the logical mind or trying to figure out or explain what the glimmers mean or why they belong together. Rather she approaches the process like collage, trusting her instincts and trusting her reader to draw connections to seemingly disparate events that may be far apart in time.

If she comes to a place in the writing where she needs a particular type of glimmer, she’ll do a word search on her computer for “ice” or “mother” or “inadequacy” or whatever it is she feels might fit with what she’s working on.

She lets the glimmers play off of and illuminate one another in surprising and interesting ways.

Giving the work a shape

For a book-length work, Houston chooses a form as a way to bring structure and coherence to her intuitive creative process.

For Deep Creek, the form she chose was a 12-sided Rubik’s cube.

The book is in 12 sections divided by short “Ranch Almanac” entries that follow the seasons in order. Each section, like the side of a Rubik’s cube, is made up of multiple glimmers pieced together like a quilt.

The glimmers are not chronological, but jump from her childhood to various points in her life to tales of ranch life. The pairings have intuitive, emotional resonance and also provide welcome contrasts and variety in the narrative.

Sensory detail for empaths and dreamers

Specific sensory details of smell, sound, taste, touch, sight, when vividly described, are what bring writing alive and draw the reader into a piece. They are a vital part of the art and craft of writing. Houston stressed this point in her workshop.

I know this. I teach this. But, as someone who experiences life through my inner experience, my feelings and intuitions, as someone who has always found the imaginal world and the unseen world, the world of spirits and dreams, to be more real and vibrant than the physical world, I struggle mightily with this in my writing.

So I practice. I practice waking up to the sensory world, noticing, paying attention, and describing. And it’s hard work for me.

As artists, we need to practice to strengthen our weaknesses, especially when those weak areas are vital to our art form. We need to keep learning and growing and expanding our capacities and our palette of possibilities.

But we also want to keep the process feeling good and build on our unique strengths. In this way, we find our unique voice and will keep wanting to return to our art. And our joy in making will infuse our art.

So, when I get tired or discouraged from practicing describing the physical world, I go back to my strengths as a writer. I describe my interior landscape. I practice capturing the ineffable. I let myself muse on the philosophical. I make unusual, musical pairings of words, summon beauty and wonder with language, create a kind of word magic, spell-casting.

What troubled me

What troubled me in Pam Houston’s workshop was not her methods, which were fascinating and useful. And noteworthy too because, if you study the methods of writers as I have, you will find an astonishing variety of approaches. There is no one right way to write a story, poem, essay or book.

What bothered me was that she emphasized what hard work writing is, how painful it is. She even said, if it isn’t painful, you aren’t doing it right.

I understand that she was pointing to being willing to delve into what’s uncomfortable and vulnerable and to bring that to the page. I agree this is important.

I understand, too, the importance of revising one’s work over and over to make it the best it can be, and how hard that process of revision can be at times, though I love revising.

The missing piece

But, I make my living teaching writers and artists of all kinds how to have more ease, grace and wonder in the process of creation, to step into that inspired state known as flow, and to enjoy it!

I get so tired of how writers, in particular, love to complain about how hard and painful it is to write.

Do dancers and musicians do this too? I haven’t heard it nearly as much in those realms. More often, I hear musicians and dancers talk about our love of the art form, our love of doing it. Why should it be any different for writers?

Yes, parts of the creative process are incredibly hard. They require us to stretch, to meet our fears, our doubts, our pain and insecurity, to be vulnerable and risk, to work hard to get something right that isn’t coming out.

At times, we meet disappointments and rejections. We come up against our own maddening limitations again and again.

But that isn’t the whole process.

Remember the joy and play

I left Pam Houston’s workshop wondering why writers have this habit of complaining about how hard writing is. I think part of it is because the dominant culture values work, not play. If we make it sound like hard work—and it is that too—then we can validate it.

Writing—all creating—is a tremendous gift. It is sacred play. We are blessed to be able to do it. Let’s not forget that, why we came to it in the first place.

You don’t see young children who are given paint and paper, agonizing over their work. They are at play, in delight, creating, exploring, experimenting. To me, that is the heart of art-making, the way it is meant to be.

And although there are days we sweat and bleed and gnash our teeth over it, we can love and enjoy the process overall. We can learn how to preserve the innate wonder and joy, surprise and magic that is creating.

That is my prayer for you.

To your joyful creative life,

Maxima

How I Got Past Fear and Started to Write a Book

How I Got Past Fear and Started to Write a Book

Do you have any projects in the closet waiting to be born?

I have set out to write a book that I have been wanting to write for a few years. And, I am running into a lot of fear and diversionary tactics. Sound familiar?

Here’s what I’m doing to get myself started (and keep going!). I hope you may find it helpful in jump-starting your own scary, wonderful, creative projects.

First, a little background.

My New Book Project

My new book is based on my years of teaching. It is to be a book about how to ignite and sustain the fires of a creative life, what you need to know, be and do in order to thrive as an artist.

I don’t mean thrive financially, because I don’t know diddly about that. I mean thrive internally, have a joyful, inspired, sustainable, healthy creative life, which I know a great deal about.

This book will debunk the lies, myths and mistaken approaches we are taught about artists and creativity, and replaces them with powerful truths that work. It comes from my own hard-won experiences as a creative person, from my struggles, painful crashes, lost chances and also my healing, successes and growth.

I aim to share my story and my discoveries, my knowledge and wisdom, and also inspiration and encouragement. I aim to share practical, vital tools and perspectives, as well as a kind of magical potion for those who are called to the creative life.

But where and how do I begin? Ack!

The First Hurdle: Which Project Do I Choose?

When I finally finished the umpteenth edit of my manuscript of poems last Autumn, I kept waffling about which book to write next.

I wanted to dive into a new collection of poems. And I want to write an inspiring primer on writing poetry. I also have a neglected novel I cannot face.

But this Creative Sparks book has been knocking at my door, and I have had a few encouraging signs that it is the one to start now.

I pay attention to signs in my creative life. I recommend that you do too.

We are not alone in the creative projects that are ours to birth. They come through us. And they bring with them all manner of support and guidance, if we pay attention.

I’ve been terrified to start this book. I feel overwhelmed by the project, totally unsure how to do it, inadequate to the undertaking.

Fear is one sign you are on the right track. That kind of fear often signals that we are onto something big and meaningful for us.

Choose the project you are most scared to begin.

Step Two: Research and Planning

Next, I began by researching.

I am re-reading and analyzing the structure of several classics in the creativity world. If you want to know some of what I think are classic creativity guides, read my post: Five Fantastic Books to Foster Your Creativity.

Each of the books I admire in this arena are completely different, completely one-of-a-kind, in structure, form, style, approach. That is encouraging and scary too.

I have been binge-reading posts on The Story Grid, particularly on “Big Idea” non-fiction, which may be the genre of this book. I’ve been making notes about the “obligatory scenes and conventions” of both Big Idea non-fiction and How To. And then making notes about how I might fulfill those.

I have been writing the answers to a host of questions about my book to help me understand it better.

I have made multiple possible outlines.

In other words, I have been stalling.

The Hardest Part: Time To Dive In

All of this research and thinking and structuring and note-taking has been helpful and important, especially for a non-fiction book. I continue to do it.

But at the same time, I saw that I was terrified to begin. I had no idea how to begin or what voice to write this book in, or what it really should be, even after all this note-taking and thinking.

The only antidote to this kind of fear and stalling is to dive in. No more excuses. No more wading in the shallow end.

Once I saw these diversionary tactics for what they were, I made myself start writing.

Set Clear, Do-Able Goals

I set myself a firm goal, a task: 500 words a day or more on my four writing days. For me, this is a very do-able goal.

Do-able goals are a good way to get started. We can wrap our brains around them a whole lot better than trying to write a whole book.

Because I am a fluid writer, it doesn’t usually take me long to write 500 words. I sit down and just begin anywhere. That might be where I left off the day before or somewhere unrelated. Usually I go for a lot longer than 500 words.

Create a (Very) Rough Draft

My job right now is to get the pen moving, get past the paralyzing fear and indecision, get into the water. My job is to generate a “shitty first draft,” as Anne Lamott calls it in her brilliant book on writing, Bird by Bird.

The voice is all over the place. The subject matter is all over the place. Some of the writing is good. Some is not. It doesn’t matter.

This is a rough draft. I need to have words on the page in order to have something to work with, to have any idea what this book actually wants to be.

The book will show me the way, but only once I am well in it.

So, I write.

And I keep gathering inspiration, ideas, reading other books, making notes.

So far, I am still uncertain and nervous.

But I am also immensely relieved to be actually writing. I always feel better when I am writing than not writing, creating than not creating. This is the unswerving law of my being, my inner directive, as the I Ching calls it. So I write.

What project have you been putting off, that you are truly scared to begin?

What mentorship, support, guidance or clear goals do you need to begin?

When will you start?


I am sharing my artistic process and journey on Patreon. If you want more posts like this, please join me on Patreon.

How to Deal With Creative Advice & Become a Better Artist

How to Deal With Creative Advice & Become a Better Artist

Creative advice for writers and artists abounds. Much of it is useful, helping us create stronger art. But it can also block our best work. In today’s post I discuss how to navigate that slippery terrain.

Write as if your words were a fire bringing warmth to a freezing cold room. Waste no words, just provide heat.

– Sir Tim Smit, writer and founder of the Eden Project

I don’t remember how it started.

Several editors told me that my poems had too much abstraction. I needed to focus more on concrete imagery.

This is a popular concept in writing circles: Avoid abstraction. Rely on physical images to communicate.

“Go in fear of abstractions,” The famous poet Ezra Pound wrote.

I teach my own students to bring their writing alive with concrete images, images we can see, hear, feel in our bodies, taste, smell. We experience life through the body first and foremost.

In order for writing to be vivid, evoke emotions and draw readers in, writers need strong, specific, sense images.

Not “I felt sad,” but “Tears streamed down my face.” OK, that’s a cliché, so you need to find a better way to describe sadness, but you get the idea.

I started to get very self-conscious about my lack of concrete imagery. (Don’t use “very”—that’s another common piece of writing advice. Ack! I just did.)

Here’s the thing about creative advice, like any advice:

It’s good up to a point. And then it can really mess you up.

The Benefits of Creative Advice

There is wisdom and helpfulness in the oft-repeated maxims for good writing. “Show, don’t tell” or “Avoid adverbs.”

It behooves an artist who is learning her craft to study the guidelines, learn the trade, the tools, before subverting them. To ignore centuries of practice in your art is arrogant foolishness. To snub new advances could be costly to your best art.

So, begin by applying the commonly-accepted rules. See where and how they strengthen your art.

In receiving that feedback about my writing, I started practicing describing things in concrete detail. I went for walks and looked around my room and practiced the art of description on the things I saw, heard, perceived with one of my five senses.

It is wise as an artist, who wishes to grow, to practice what might not come naturally, to strengthen where we are weak, to keep developing our craft.

I often give myself assignments to write outside of what’s easy or familiar, to stretch my capacities as a writer and expand my palette. If I always write poems in short lines, I’ll try writing in extended lines, discovering what it takes to create a strong, long-lined poem. Or I’ll write without using the word “I”.

But be attentive to how creative advice may be holding you back from creating your best work.

The Pitfalls of Creative Advice

There are exceptions to every rule.

Ezra Pound wrote: “To begin with, consider the three rules [of Imagist poetics], not as dogma—never consider anything as dogma—but as the result of long contemplation, which, even if it is some one else’s contemplation, may be worth consideration.”

Notice that Pound says never to consider anything as dogma, even his own rules. The rules won’t always apply.

There are places in a good story where you need to tell instead of show to move the pace along. There are places for abstraction. You’ll find it used powerfully in the poems of Emily Dickinson, for instance.

What I Discovered

What happened as I practiced describing things in concrete detail?

I got very (there’s that “very” again!) bored by the writing. It wasn’t me, wasn’t my style, wasn’t what fascinates and inspires me. It was tedious to do and tedious to read.

I also realized three things:

1) There are many beautiful sense images throughout my poems. I do know how to use concrete imagery.

Consider this poem of mine recently published in a wonderful literary journal called Sweet: https://sweetlit.wordpress.com/issue-10-3/poet-maxima-kahn/

If you receive critical feedback, check to see where it is true and accurate, but also where it is not.

2) My gifts and voice as a poet lie in a realm of complexity. The swirl of emotions, the abodes of Spirit and soul, the interplay between our physical world and the unseen, whether that be our feeling life or spiritual life or intellectual life—these things are in my “wheelhouse.”

My poems include ideas and so-called “abstractions,” intensely-lived questions and deeply-held values. This is who I am.

Consider what your unique strengths as an artist are, what makes you you. And don’t sacrifice these.

3) I will continue to be alert to the balance of the concrete and abstract in my writing. But without stymieing my flow.

Because the other thing that happened, when I listened to that feedback and got self-conscious about it, was I got writer’s block for two weeks, until I sorted out what had happened.

Keep what you have learned from the advice that strengthens your art. Be alert for your weaknesses. Jettison the rest.

And if you find yourself blocked, check to see if you received some piece of criticism that you took too much to heart or that is gumming up the works. And let it go. Get back to what you do well.

What Does This Mean for You?

You have to get to know which pieces of advice are for you and which are not. You need to develop discernment about when to use that advice and when to ignore it.

The best way to develop that discernment is to:

  • Try out the advice in your art.
  • See if the art is now stronger or less strong.

You may want to test out different versions (with and without the advice) on a handful of trusted readers/viewers/listeners.

Ultimately, you are seeking to develop your internal compass to the point that you know when your work is more powerful and more radiantly yours, and when it is weaker and/or no longer true to you. But we always have blind spots.

Guard your unique brilliance, but be open to seeing your blind spots and growing as an artist. Learn to hone your skills and strengthen where you are weak.

Most importantly, protect your ability to create, to stay inspired and share your singular vision with the world.


To read the 3 tenets if Imagism plus Pound’s list of “Don’ts” for writers, go here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/58900/a-few-donts-by-an-imagiste

To read some other sets of rules (read: advice) for writers, check out these:

From Stephen King: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/03/13/stephen-king-on-adverbs/

From Amitava Kumar: https://lithub.com/ten-rules-of-writing/

And from a host of authors: https://www.buzzfeed.com/chelseypippin/33-essential-tips-for-aspiring-writers?utm_term=.bwXeAZ4Yz#.tnxAglRok


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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

Get Back On The Horse: Dealing with Setbacks on the Artistic Path

Get Back On The Horse: Dealing with Setbacks on the Artistic Path

I “finished” a collection of my poems last summer after eight years of working on it, off and on, most recently with the help of professional editors. At that point I committed to sending it to four publication contests or open reading periods a month until I find a publisher.

The Path to Publication

books on shelf

by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

For a poetry book, especially a first book, publication contests and open reading periods (which are really a kind of contest) are the main path to publication. This is a time-consuming, highly competitive and slow process.

The first step is research.

Make a list of presses with upcoming deadlines (On PW.org the Small Presses and Contests and Awards databases are great).

Research which of those presses seems like a good match for your poetry.

Send your manuscript out! Submitting a manuscript typically costs $25-30 per submission. In other words, I’m currently spending upwards of $100 plus quite a few hours each month to do meet my goal.

Why Not Self-Publish?

Poetry is not like non-fiction. With non-fiction, self-publishing can be a great route to take.

With poetry, if you are happy to sell or give your book to friends, family and people who attend your readings, self-publishing is great. However, if you want to reach a large audience and garner recognition, as I do, you need a reputable press.

Dealing With Rejection

I started sending to four presses per month back in July. Usually it takes 4-6 months to hear back.

Recently, I have started to receive “rejections.” At first this didn’t matter, because the presses I was hearing from weren’t at the top of my list. I know it’s a long process, there’s a ton of good poets out there, and it’s all a matter of time.

More recently I started hearing from contests and presses I really wanted to be chosen by. They chose someone else’s book. This is hard. I get sad and doubt creeps in.

The Antidote to Disappointment

by Luis Davila

The antidote is to “get back on the horse,” which is what you are taught to do in horse-back riding when a horse throws you.

I get back to writing new poems, revising recent poems, and sending out my beloved book to more contests. Having it out there in the world in many places gives me hope and keeps my hand in the game. Doing new writing keeps me connected to my love of the form and the spark of creativity.

And something has changed in me. I feel genuinely glad for the winners. I know they’ve been working as hard as I have and how much it means to each of us. I feel envy too, sometimes painfully, but it feels good to be happy for them.

Now It’s Your Turn

If you’ve had a set-back of any kind: from receiving criticism, not getting accepted into a show, publication or program you wanted, attending a workshop or conference that discouraged you, or comparing yourself negatively, get back on the horse.

Start making art for the love of it. Do it as often as you can. Reconnecting to the joy of art-making is the best antidote there is. And you’ll be improving as an artist at the same time.

When you’re up for it, send your work out into the world. Send it to a whole bunch of places, large and small. It’s only a matter of time until it will find its way.

One way to magnetize your creativity is to be kind and generous to other artists. You can do an act of kindness now by sharing this post, using the buttons below. Thank you!

 

How do I find my authentic voice?

How do I find my authentic voice?

How do I find my most authentic voice? Many writers and artists ask this question. Yet, perhaps there really isn’t just one voice.

Questions of voice trouble writers and artists throughout their creative lives, as each creative project may ask for a new voice, a new expression, and as we grow in our creative desires and pursuits.

In my own writing I am grappling with questions of voice these days. I thought I’d share what’s coming up for me.

The Questions That Won’t Let Me Be

How can I merge the voice of the poet, mystic, priestess, firekeeper in me, the daring, inventive artist who loves brilliance, dazzle and leaps of imagination, with the voice of the teacher, guide, muse, friend I have used so often in this Creative Sparks blog/e-news?

How can I speak from all of who I am here and all of what I have to share—my questions and my answers, my fear and my courage, my doubt and my faith?

How do I honor the mystery, the not knowing, that fertile darkness I love so much? Could I write from not knowing instead of from authority and would anyone want to hear? Can you be an “author” without “authority”?

Can I write from the mystery and be met there?

Where are the sisters and brothers of soul who long for poetry, magic, spell-casting and how do I find them?

What if I no longer tried to prove, persuade, convince, be liked, be acceptable? What if I no longer sought to please or to hide or be so darn useful? In my poems I don’t do any of this.

The Voice of My Poems vs. The Voice of Creative Sparks

In my poems (and poetic essays) I write from the deepest parts of myself and my connection with Life. I write the truest words I know. I write the most beautiful, eloquent, finely-crafted words I can find to meet what I am writing about. I work to make a piece of art. In my poems I am challenging, raw, metaphorical, mystical, imaginative, and most of all, lyrical. 

But something different happens when I sit down to impart some knowledge or experience that I believe to be helpful in these Creative Sparks essays. My focus is on clarity, helpfulness, brevity, a certain simplicity, inspiration, encouragement. My focus is on you.

Now I begin to question that voice as I seek to find a voice that is closer to my poet self, closer to home, and yet still in service to what I perceive the needs and desires of my readers here to be. Creative Sparks is a different endeavor than my poems, so the voices will never be identical. Even in my poems, there are different voices. Yet. . .

Can I share my poetry, artistry and self more and still be in service to the “how” and “why” and “what” of the creative life, the path of heart, the process of bringing our heart’s dreams to life?

The Sanctuary of a Notebook

writing in journal

by miller mountain man c 123rf

I sit in my studio on a rainy morning and write in my notebook, one of so many I have filled over the years. My notebooks are sanctuary, a place of wholeness and welcome where I can say and be anything.

In my notebooks I stand in the open space and try on my hats, my selves, my wounds and wholeness, my fear and rage and wisdom. And I don’t have to shelter or protect, hide or dumb down, any of it. I can scream and cry, rend my clothes, be crazy, wild, dance on the page. I can be messy, be brilliant, experiment, fail, succeed gloriously.

And when I’m done, I close the covers on a privacy absolute, unless I choose to share from it. This is profound sanity and blessing for me. In the sacred aloneness of my notebooks I find release, healing, self-knowing, wisdom, beauty, freedom, grace.

How can I share more of that with you? Honoring my privacy yet also willing to show up whole and multi-dimensional, shadow and light, complex and real.

My Questions For You

Would you want to read that?

This essay is an example of bringing my poet self more to the fore and I’ve been experimenting with that some lately here. It is written more from that place of heart, honesty, vulnerability, lyricism.

Is it welcome? Do you want more of this?

  • What is it you are longing for, most hungry for, most in need of as a reader?
  • What do you come to Creative Sparks for?
  • What do you desire more or less of?
  • What have you enjoyed most, found most valuable in my posts?

I’d really love to hear because this is all new for me and quite vulnerable. Would you post your responses here, or if you are too shy to do that, email me?

To your own true voice,

Maxima

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