A writing exercise

Our brains do strange and wonderful things, like make you forget where the keys are, make you think you’re falling in love with someone you’ve never even talked to and put everything you see, hear, smell, touch and taste at any level of awareness into a category in your mind. Conceivably, we acquired this through our ancestors as they discovered their way around their new world and had to group things along the lines of known, unknown, family, tribe, friend, foe, food, poison, pleasure, pain, pretty, ugly, good, bad and all that binary stuff. Over the years, our natural inclination to group things exploded into the (so-called) science of taxonomic classification, where everything and anything is categorized into a group of something. Seems we are hard-wired that way.

Fast forward from our early ancestors to today it seems our brains continue to group and categorize. No matter how advanced we might seem with our prefrontal cortex and our social complexity and higher-order thinking and vocabulary, we still categorize everything things good/bad/neutral, like/dislike/ambivalent, want/don’t want/dunno, will/won’t/maybe, friend/unfriend/non/friend. Our primitive brain is still quite active in our internal primordial goo and unless we are mindful and aware, that’s the place we tend to act from.

I suppose grouping makes our life somewhat easier, creates community, facilitates a sense of belonging. A category names, gives an identity, a place. And it seems we need this name, identity and place. We need to put things in our world in their place, in order, to know where they fit in the bookshelf and card catalogue of life.

Speaking of internal primordial goo, bookshelves and categories; once upon a time not too long ago, writers could just write: true life stories, fiction, poetry, prose. Today, there are multiple writing genres and sub genres for writers to slot themselves into because it is essential to be slotted into something; a box, pigeon-hole, label. Makes for easy identification, for people to say, oh, you’re one of my kind, you write the kind of stories I like to read.

Since marketing and advertising got into the game, some of these categories and groupings seem, to me, a bit suspect. But I do get the need to hook a work into the marketing machine. Critics get around hard-core categorization by pointing out how hard it is to slot a work into a genre, because the work is so unique as to be in a class all by its lonely self, or rave about a cross-over hit that spans categories.

Still, I wonder about the increasingly segmented, micro grouping of anything: by definition, a group excludes as much as it includes. In evolutionary terms, over-specialization can lead to a closed system that can lead to extinction.

I raise this because in the Kingdom of WordUsers, in the Way of Writing and with the Ways of Writers, there have historically been a few distinct groups. They are phylum: poetry (genus: poet), phylum: plays (genus: playwright) and phylum literature (genus: writer). There is a battle raging whether the groups are phylum, class or order. For now I will go with phylum, since it seems to be winning.

The categories have grown over the last 15 years and today we don’t have enough fingers and toes on our body to count the different phyla of writing and therefore writers: I counted one list that had 27 different and specialized types of writing and that list forgot comic book writers.

In some ways, it’s silly season. The proliferation of writing is wonderful and amazing and scary. Lots of stuff is out there and some of it is actually good. Lots more stuff is out there for wannabe writers, telling people how to write, what to write and how to publish. And of course, writing exercises are also in categories. You can get writing exercises for poetry and writing exercises for fiction, for plays, to comedy.

There was one specific to poetry that stuck in my head called Blackout poetry. It involves taking a paragraph in a newspaper or magazine and using a black marker to black out everything in that paragraph except the words that interest you: when you’re finished, the remaining words are the poem.

I thought it interesting when I read about it but since I don’t write poetry much, I followed my monkey mind to something prettier and more interesting at the time. But I ran across it a few more times and thought if Oxford dictionary has finally done away with the comma before and in a list and hell did not freeze over as a result, the least I can do to stretch myself is try a poetry writing exercise even if I am not a member of the genus known as Poet.

Imagine, playing with words already there on a page. I didn’t have to conjure any. No magic required. I took a magazine ready for recycling, grabbed a black marker, chose two paragraphs in an article I really disliked and went at it.

I noticed that I wasn’t actively trying to create anything: I was just playing. And play, we now know, is an incredibly important part of learning. By the end of the first one I was smiling. In less than 10 minutes I did seven and I was still smiling. It’s so much fun! It might have been different had I purposefully been trying to channel e.e. cummings or Emily Dickinson to create a poem. But I wasn’t.

I don’t like the visual of huge blackout lines. So I scribbled and cross-hatched out the lines I didn’t want. So far, I’ve done this exercise about five times and each time I’ve gone back to my writing refreshed and energized.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but it was good for me to step out of the category I was placed in, that I willingly stepped into but now view with a sharply raised eyebrow.  As a writing exercise, it was easy and fun and it worked. And it got me out of my comfort zone, a thing I continually aim to do in my work.

And in the spirit of sharing the output of that fun exercise, here’s the first one:

my very first ever blackout poem


About FS

Toronto, Canada. Writing about slices of life, the moments and minor details of which come into awareness or out of imagination and the spaces inbetween.
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3 Responses to A writing exercise

  1. Pingback: Cool Writing Exercise « The Nightly Poem

  2. Therunwriter says:

    Sounds like an interesting exercise, I’ll have to try it.

    • fs says:

      Dear RunWriter: It is a lot of fun. I highly recommend it. It’s also an interesting way to recycle ;-).

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