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Getting Started. And Re-Started.

Priming the pump. Booting the disk. Goosing the muse. Overcoming a blank piece of paper before it overcomes you.

How do you get an idea? How do you decide how to tell it? Where do you start?

What do you do when your mind goes dead on you and you are certain you will never write anything more than shopping lists and rent checks for the rest of your barren life?

I'm going to list a number of ways to Start It Going that have worked for me, for friends of mine, and for writers who have at least managed to write whole books about writing (also some excellent poetry and fiction). I will let you play with them. Then I invite you to contribute your own tips for tickling the muse.

Why Do You Write?

This is one of the uses of what you learned in the exercise "Why Write Poetry?" Often just recalling what the reason was that we sat down here with the page is enough to get us started.

   "Why do I want to write?"
    "I want to give a voice to the homeless, to all the invisible
    "There's a man sleeping in the doorway.  What's his story?"

    "Why do I want to write?"
    "I want to create works of beauty."
    "What's the most inspiring sight in front of me?"
    "The sunrise reflected in the glass and steel of the building
across the street.  One white seagull gliding across."
    "Write it."

What Interests You?

Many beginning writers spend a lot of time trying to find something that "people" will be interested in reading about. When they do find a "marketable" idea, they often spend a long time trying to think of something to say about it.

Because they, themselves, really aren't all that interested.

Find one thing going on, one thing that you can see right now, that you are curious about, care strongly about, want to spend some time on. Write about it. Put your passion into it. *Make* other people be interested in it.

What Aren't You Saying?

When a person grows very quiet in a group conversation, sometimes it is because she is holding back something. If she spoke just now, she might say something angry or bitter, and make others mad at her. Or her voice might shake, she may cry, and that would be embarrassing.

It's the same for writers. Many cases of "Writer's Block" are the mind spiralling around between "I have to say that" -- "I can't say that" -- "I have to say that" -- "I can't say that" ...

Say it. You don't have to show it to anyone. Saying the Thing You Can't Say will make all the other sayings easier.

Take a Walk

It may be the rhythm, it may be the change in focus, it may be getting more blood moving to the brain, but a lot of writers find getting out and taking a walk to be a good way to get their words moving.

When I first started writing poetry, a regular exercise I used was walking down the street, describing what I saw. I still use it.

Wordsworth and Coleridge used to hike together and compose, each in his own head, in companionable silence. Some of the resulting poems were Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" and Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner". They were published together, with the rest of the poems from these walks, in The Lyrical Ballads.

Cultivate Crazy Friends

An awful lot of my poems result from late-night goof sessions with my dear © Dr. Wes Browning. And whenever I need a situation for a story, I start bouncing ideas back and forth with Wes until one of them clicks and takes off for me.

I have a large number of correspondents on the web, and I am constantly being stimulated by new ideas - and challenged by posed exercises. In grocery stores, computer cafes, and street corners I meet Australian merchant seamen and students from Switzerland and Pakistani refugees, all sorts of people with delicious lilts to their speech and fascinating stories.

Writing can be an introverted job. Turning our attention out to others refreshes and refuels us. Spending all our attention on conversation and stimulus leaves us no time to write. Sooner or later, we have to turn inward to reflect and digest. And write. Like most things, it's a matter of balance.

But crazy friends can be stimulating. Believe me.

Get a Muse

You usually don't have a choice. Muses seem to adopt you - perhaps on the basis of some dim prehistoric contract, but without any conscious choice you made in the matter. One day a force grabbed the back of your neck and a voice began yelling in your brain, "WRITE!"

"Muse" is a name given to the source of inspirations - usually compelling ones - that seem to come from outside of ourselves. Words that flow so swiftly and smoothly and rightly  that they seem dictated to us.

"Muses" can be personified as everything from the Holy Ghost, felt by someone writing inspiring Christian poetry, to Thalia the Greek Muse of Comedy, whom I invoke for satires and parodies.

Muses certainly get a lot of writing done. Be warned, however -- they are almost impossible to control. Muses will wake you up in the middle of the night and say "Write!" They will grab your attention in the middle of a play or a party and say "Write!" They have been known to blank out the driver's window of your car, project a scene from a novel, and yell, "Write!"

This doesn't have to be explained as literal possession by an external being -- unless you are completely comfortable with such a notion. Many people aren't. Objectively and literally, it is far more likely that the forceful "Write!" messages come from ourselves -- that creative vein that you can call the intuition, the unconscious, the oversoul, of the Itness of Is. What I call myself.

But I do find it useful, if I want to write something spiritual, to pray first; if I want to write something funny, to invoke Thalia; if I want to write something sensual, to invoke her sister Eros; etcetera. Maybe I am just focusing my inner attention on the qualities I want to embody.

But Thalia has such a distinctive voice ...

Something Old

When I can't think of any new ideas, what I do sometimes is think back to an idea I tried to write once, that I want to try again; or a poem I wrote long ago, and lost, that I want to try to re-create.

Something New

Sometimes it helps just to try a different style, or subject, than you are used to. If you always write rhyme, try blank verse; if you always write blank verse, try writing a sonnet; if you always write three-page poems, try haiku for awhile. If you have written about nature for the last five years, take a bus ride downtown and write a poem that duplicates the sound of city traffic and other rhythms of the streets.

Something Borrowed

Pick on a favorite poem that is really distinctive, in form or style. Really pick on it. Mimic it. This can be a loving and respectful mimicry, a parody, or a travesty.

Something Blue

Are you feeling miserable because you can't write? Are you feeling sorry for yourself?

Go for it. Write about how terrible it all is, how lonely and silent you are and your whole life is a wasteland and no-one understands and out there all the happy writers are dashing back and forth chasing bright and flitting words and there are no words left for you.

You may even get a poem out of it. You will, very possibly, eventually start laughing. And living again.

Rant and Rave

This one is from my friend Dr. Wes Browning. He says, when he wants to write something, he picks some one or some thing that he feels very strongly about, and just holds forth, rants and raves and goes on and on and gets it all off his chest, for pages and pages and pages.

Then he puts it aside.

A day or two later, he sits down and writes about the same subject - in the form of a poem, a short story, or one of his satirical columns.

Shitty First Draft

This term comes from Anne Lamott, in her writing book, Bird by Bird. She is talking about prose writing, but it is just as valid for poetry. A friend of mine said, making New Year's resolutions, "I have edited myself silent for too long." When we are too busy critiquing the words even before they get to the paper, we aren't WRITING. Write first. THEN edit.

The Back Burner

I like to give my back mind an idea to chew on, then go on about my business and let it stew. Another friend of mine describes it as putting an image or line in her pocket; when she takes it out at the end of the day, other bits have adhered to it, like lint.

Your creative mind can work wonders with the oddest things. Years ago, I took a phone message for the man I was living with at the time, a carpenter. I didn't have pen and paper handy, and I was in the middle of kneading bread dough at the time, so I tried to just remember the message. Unfortunately, my mind was being very creative that week, and by the time Gary got home, the only thing I could recall for him was, "A dryad called from the woods today. She said she'd call back at three PM Tuesday."

I still have the poem I got from that. However, I no longer live with Gary.


There is an endless and growing number of games you can play, invented by writers to get writers going. Some of the ones I have used:

Six Random Words, or the Sextrain

Pull six words at random - from the dictionary, the newspaper, signs on the street, wherever. Try, as far as humanly possible, to make the completely unconnected.

Now connect them.

This makes a great poet's party game, with each person taking turns throwing out a set of words.


        ) Each line of the resulting poem must contain one, and
          only one, of the six words.
        ) Each line must END with one of the six words.
        ) Each line must BEGIN with one of the six words.

You can invent your own variations.

Found Poems / Collagesque

    This writing game consists of assembling lines taken from other
sources.  No original writing is inserted; only original assembly.

List Poems

    There are many kinds of lists: list all the adorable attributes of 
your lover; list all the annoying attributes of your lover; list many
different things, good and bad, associated with "earth"; list a dozen
great idiots of history, culminating in Mayor Paul Schell  (or figure of your
choice).  The great thing about list poems is, once you get started, they
can go on and on and on ...

First Line Challenges

    This has proved a successful game between writers.  You may each
have a first line that has been rolling around on the back burner for
years without kicking up any sparks -- but if you trade them, whoosh!

Exercise : Getting Started

Finally!  Let's write something!

Step 1:

Pick one of the listed ways of Getting Started and try it.  If it doesn't
work for you, try another.  When you do get a result, post it.

Guidelines for critique

Critique these poems as you would any poem.

Using the critiques

This is general advice on critiques, for writers.  Use as much as you can
of any criticism.  But even when criticism is harsh, do not let it be
discouraging.  You have gotten started.  Don't edit yourself silent.

Step 2:

If you have additional techniques that have worked for you, to start filling up a blank page, please post them.

This exercise is not for critique. If it works for you, use it; if it doesn't, don't.

Write On!