From the Archives: Deb Vanasse on Push-ups and Poses

The limitations that any writer imposes on his work will grow out of the necessities that lie in the material itself – Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners
Isn’t it wonderful, being a writer? The joy! The freedom!  Anywhere, anytime, inspiration may strike.  And we’re ready, with our notepads and laptops and smart phones, ready to spin our ideas in whichever direction they want to go.  That snippet of dialogue, that flash of insight, that exquisite image – from any of these, an entire poem or essay or novel can grow.  We just have to run with it.
But run where?  So many possibilities. So many directions. Freedom, it seems, is also a curse. What is a novel, after all, but what UAA’s David Stevenson once described as a million ways to go wrong?
If brain research is any indicator, poets have the right idea when they work within forms.  While the rest of us run freely, poets quietly and mindfully hold the writer’s equivalent of a yoga pose, enjoying the broader creative perspective that paradoxically comes from constraint.
“We break out of the box by stepping into shackles,” Jonah Lehrer says, citing a study led by Janina Marguc at the University of Amsterdam which shows that obstacles of form force us to think in a broader, more interesting ways. Want to broaden your perception? Open up new ways of thinking? Find the connections between ideas that seem unrelated?  Find a roadblock, or as poets call it, a form.
Calling the brain “a neural tangle of near infinite possibility,” Lehrer explains that without constraints, our brains zero in on what not to notice, and as a result creativity suffers.  “The artificial requirements of the sonnet are just another cognitive obstacle,” he says, “a hurdle that compels the mind to think in a more holistic fashion. Unless poets are stumped by their art, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they’ll never invent an original line. They’ll be stuck with clichés and banalities, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this helps explain the stubborn endurance of poetic forms: because poets need to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables, or an adjective that fits the iambic scheme, they end up uncovering all sorts of unexpected associations.”
This is why writing exercises can be so effective, even for experienced writers.  Cognitive push-ups, mindful poses – these actually nudge us toward originality, not away from it.  Plus the stakes are low, and that never hurts.
Blocked? In a rut? Stuck in the forever-middle?  Indulge in an exercise, ten or fifteen minutes of writing push-ups and poses, and see what creative ways of thinking you unleash. Then as O’Connor suggests, start looking for the limitations imposed by your work as it unfolds.
Try This:  Start by describing a fingernail – its shape, color, size, texture.  Include a metaphor in your description.  Now give this fingernail to a character and write a scene in which you mention the fingernail. The character must start out either angry or happy and by the end of the scene begin to move the other direction without the words angry or happy or their synonyms being used. Also include in the scene an object that has meaning for the character and some dialogue.
Check This Out:  In Now Write!, Sherry Ellis gathers writing exercises from dozens of authors, including Jayne Anne Phillips, Amy Bloom, and Steve Almond.  Point of view, character development, dialogue, plot and pacing, setting and description, craft, and revision are among the topics covered.  There’s also a large selection of generative writing exercises.  Though the emphasis is on fiction, poets and essayists will find good workouts here too.

Deb cross-posts at
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