A Poem’s Delight, A Poem’s Wisdom

Here’s a really short bit of advice about writing poetry . . . that holds a lot inside its tiny sentence.

A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.
– Robert Frost

Robert Frost (1874–1963) was one of our most famous American poets. He lived in New England, and was famous for simple but brilliant poems like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which ends:

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The thing about writing a poem (or song lyrics, or anything you write for fun, because you want to) is this. You begin with something interesting. Maybe you see something curious (a butterfly on a cold day, or a crushed tin can in the gutter . . . or . . . ), something sticks in your brain like a burr. Or someone says something that’s kind of cool or surprising. Or some words just combine into an odd phrase that seems like the beginning of something.

That’s the delight. That’s how poems start. Something catches your fancy.

But by the end, your job is to organize the poem so it holds a little bit of meaning. That’s the wisdom.

Okay, maybe not a lot. But a little! By the end of the poem, it holds something that’s worth sharing.

Here’s another Frost poem:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.

Notice how Frost starts with some pretty simple description: two roads split off from one, in a yellow woods . . . nothing special, just surrounded by some trees, undergrowth, grasses, leaves.

But by the end, this poem holds a lot: the idea of choosing one way, and not the other. With that scary thought . . . that we may never get a chance to come back and try the other “path.” Life goes forward. (And the person in this poem took the path “less traveled by.” Would you have done that?)

Okay, your poems may not be as brilliant as those of a master poet like Front. But this is one idea you can use.

A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.

Start with something simple that excites & delights you.

And then . . . stretch your mind . . . look for some little bit of wisdom. A poem might start with nothing more than a couple of grassy, leaf-covered paths (or whatever) . . . but can lead to something we really care about.

Need Ideas for Stories? Here’s Brainstorming Help!

This is a link to a wonderful set of tips on brainstorming a story idea.

They are from Jane Yolen (and Scholastic Books). Yolen is an amazing author, having published over 300 books! You probably have read some of her books — the Young Merlin trilogy, or the Pit Dragon trilogy, or stand-alones like The Devil’s Arithmetic, etc.

Here are some of Jane Yolen’s tips for brainstorming warm-ups . . . as you start to plan a story.

These tips are especially for writing myths (stories about something natural, like how once upon a time the moon got up in the sky).

But, of course, you can use the same tips for writing stories about characters, or situations! These are great steps for brainstorming some fresh ideas for your next story, whatever it is.

Jane Yolen’s five simple steps:
1. Pick out what you want to write about.
2. Observe carefully.
3. Write down some facts about that thing (or situation or person).
4. Write down a few key words from your research.
5. Now . . . ask . . . “What If . . . ???”

That’s just a short outline of the steps. Read Yolen’s article. (It will just take a minute or two. You might want to print it out for your writing binder. It’s a keeper.)

And then, next time you’re in the library, check out some of Yolen’s books. Maybe now you can better understand how she writes so creatively . . . she’s clearly a gifted professional brainstormer!

Follow her advice . . . and you can become one, too!

Let Others Read Your Writing (for Feedback)

Let other read your work.

As a famous person (good ol’ Ben Franklin) once said: What’s the use of a sundial in the shade? (Think about that for a minute.)

It means if you have talents, don’t hide them away. Get them out in the sunlight!

As a writer, this means letting a few other people read what you write. Maybe sharing a story or a poem with a friend. Maybe with a teacher.

For some shy writers, yes, it’s hard to do. Especially the first few times. Maybe you’re thinking, you want it to be perfect first, right?

(Or you’re be afraid you’ll be criticized. OMG, what a horrible thought – they don’t like it! Scream of terror!)

But guess what? If a work isn’t perfect yet (maybe it’s in okay shape – not a first draft! – but isn’t “perfect” yet) that’s an ideal time to show it to a good, trusted reader for feedback.

How do you choose a good reader? Pick someone who likes to read, maybe likes to write. But mostly, find someone you think might be good at seeing both the good and the bad . . . and helping you see it, too.

You don’t want flattery (“Oh, it’s so perfect! I LOVED every word!”). Maybe you do want that, but it is really helpful?

And you don’t want just: “Why’d you write something that stupid!!” (Not really helpful, either.)

A good reader talks about specifics: what worked (in their opinion) and what didn’t.

And maybe you need to prompt them.
Ask what specific things that person liked (and why!).
Ask what specific things they didn’t like (and why!).

Then . . . take whatever is useful. For you and your writing. And forget the rest.

You’re not looking for a grade, or a prize. You’re looking for something you can use.

Useful feedback will point to something specific that maybe could be handled differently. Or asks why you chose to do something? in a way that makes you think twice: Hmmm. . . Why did I do that? Did I do it on purpose? Is it doing what I want? Or is it working in my head . . . but not when it’s read by someone else . . . who doesn’t get what I was trying to say?

When you hear criticism or suggestions:

THREE OPTIONS

  1. Accept the feedback. Fix it. Make it better.
  2. Ignore the feedback. Stick with what you think is best.
  3. Put that story or poem aside and turn to something else for a while.

All these are normal. All are part of being a writer.

So think about sharing a bit of your favorite work. It will make you better. Don’t hide in the shade. Sure, it’s safer.

But that’s not why you write, I’m guessing. It’s because you have interesting ideas and your own voice!

Find that right person for feedback. Let them read a bit of your writing. And if they don’t give helpful feedback, find someone else. Try again. Because learning how to get – and use – feedback from others is part of the path to becoming a better writer.

“Hide not your talents. They for use were made. What’s a sundial in the shade?” – Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)

Close the Door and Write!

Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder.

Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say.

It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.
– Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver is an American novelist, whose novels (The Bean Trees, Animal Dreams, Pigs in Heaven, The Poisonwood Bible) have been bestsellers.

Her advice is sound. But for a young writer . . . you can’t always close an actual door.

Let’s face it, sometimes there are other people around!

But what she means, then, is to close an imaginary door.

Create a “room” – even if it is an imaginary one that just creates an invisible shield around you. Inside, you can tune out the distractions. Inside, it’s okay to write, and explore thoughts, without someone looking over your shoulder. Without you worrying about that . . . without trying to write to please them.

“Closing the door” might just be the act of opening your writing notebook. When you do, let the world fade away. Even if everyone is still right there – your friends, your parents, your annoying kid sister or brother – ignore them.

And learn to write for yourself first.

Later, you can choose which parts of it to share. What to turn in for an assignment, or what might even be worthy to be published.

First, close the door. And write.

It’s part of figuring out what you really want to say.

Situation or Story? Ask Dr. Seuss.

What’s the difference between an idea (or a situation) and a story.

For the answer, let’s turn to one of my favorite authors: Dr. Seuss! He knew how to take ridiculous situations . . .

. . . like a moose with great antlers that allows a bug, then a spider, then a bird, a few squirrels, a bobcat, a turtle, to nest in his horns . . .

and turn it all into a story about something. (That story, Thidwick, the Big-Hearted Moose, turns out to be about friendship & generosity, and being taken advantage of, and how to get out of awkward situations . . . .)

In teaching about storytelling, Dr. Seuss (real name, Theodore Geisel) once offered this example: consider a man with two heads.

That’s not a story yet. It’s a situation.

It becomes a story only if you spin it out.

Think about, Seuss suggested, what could come out of that situation? Where’s the drama?

How about, he suggested, the “problem of getting two haircuts, two hats, two neckties, two toothbrushes”?

This is how stories grow from situations . . . you think about what might happen after that starting point. And especially . . . what problems might occur?

What if the two heads of the two-headed man don’t agree about which barber to go to? What if they start to argue about it?

That’s what makes a story. Things happen. And problems pop up.

That’s what makes a story out of a two-headed man . . . or whatever is the starting idea of your story.

Idea or Story? (Five Great Questions to Ask Your Story)

Idea or Story?
Guest Post by Bruce Black

(This piece comes directly from Bruce’s great Wordswimmer Blog, March 1, 2009, reprinted here by permission.)

How many times have you thought of a great idea, only to discover that the idea just doesn’t translate into a story?

That’s because an idea isn’t the same as a story.

You might have a terrific setting in mind, or a fabulous character, or an interesting problem or premise. But unless you know how to combine setting, character, and problem, your idea will remain just an idea, and the story will elude you.

What’s the difference between a story and an idea?

Unlike an idea, a story needs a beginning, middle, and end.

A story also needs a character struggling to reach a goal.

That means the character must want something . . . and want it badly. He or she must want something deeply enough to struggle past often overwhelming (and frequently dangerous) obstacles in order to get what he or she wants.

Your character has to feel the goal is worth the struggle, and your reader must believe in the goal as worth struggling for, too, or else the struggle itself will seem meaningless, and, hence, irrelevant.

The next time that you find yourself with a terrific idea but don’t understand why it hasn’t translated into a compelling story, why not test your idea to see if it meets the requirement of a story.

Ask yourself these basic questions:

1) When does the story start?
2) What does my character want?
3) Who or what keeps him or her from getting it?
4) How does my character overcome these obstacles?
5) When does the story end?

If you have trouble answering any of these questions, you may have a great idea . . . but you probably don’t yet have a story.

Only when you can answer these basic questions will you be on your way to shaping your idea into a story.

For more on developing ideas into stories, visit:

http://www.lightningbug.com.au/develop%20a%20story%20idea/develop%20a%20story.htm

http://children.fictionfactor.com/articles/turningideas.html

http://www.youthlearn.org/learning/activities/language/developing.html

P.S. from Bruce: Thanks to Adam Rapp for sharing these basic questions in a slightly different form (The Five Blanks Exercise).

[And thanks from the Blue Zoo team to Bruce Black for his Wordswimmer blog. It’s for writers of all ages, and has an excellent sidebar list of helpful sites for Young Writers. Plus a ton of imaginative insight into the writing process. “Come dive in. . . .”]

Does a Poem Need to Make Sense?

Does poetry need to make sense?

Maybe, but not always to every reader. As a great American poet said, don’t worry about what a reader understands. A poem is an experience, and it starts with you and the magic of words.

“Never worry about . . . what the reader can understand. . . .
Just you and the page.”
– Richard Hugo

It means a poem can contain a few mysteries. You don’t have to explain everything! Writing a poem is as much about sounds and word-play and emotions you can’t put into exact words.

It’s like playing or dancing . . .

It doesn’t need to make sense. (It just flows.)

Here are some more poets that agree!

“The best [poet] always leaves holes and gaps . . . so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.
– Dylan Thomas

“A poem should not mean
But be.
– Archibald MacLeish

“I’ve written some poetry I don’t understand myself.”
– Carl Sandburg

“Poetry, like the moon, does not advertise anything.
– William Blissett

Like a good dance, a good poem plays and flows. Somehow, even if it doesn’t make sense, it makes the reader enjoy it . . . the fun or mystery of it all.

Here’s a start of a poem for little kids, called “Skate Canada,” from See Saw Saskatchewan, by Robert Heidbreder (Kids Can Press) that is just goofy:

See saw Saskatchewan
bumping up and down.
Swing Manitoba
high off the ground.
Hide-and-seek Ontario
peeking in and out.
Skateboard New Brunswick
whirring all about.

Or there’s that nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll, Jabberrwocky, from Through the Looking-Glass:

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

Playful poetry . . . fun with words . . . why not?

More Poetry Tips (Imaginary Gardens, Real Toads)

Wondering how to write a poem about spring?

(Hey, did you know we’re sponsoring a spring poem contest for young writers, ages 8 to 14?)

Here are some poetry writing tips:

“Imaginary gardens with real toads in them.
– Marianne Moore

I love this simple bit of advice from an American poet! Your poem is an imaginary place . . . but it helps to have specific things in it. Describe something real: a door, a person, a path, a tree . . .

“I am writing in the garden. To write as one should of a garden one must write not outside it or merely somewhere near it, but in the garden.”
– Frances Hodgson Burnett

The author of The Secret Garden, she knows it helps to actually look at what you are writing about . . . whether it is a flower or a bush or a bird.

Look over your poem and check the specific words you’ve chosen. Can you be more specific?

Did you say flower? So . . . what kind of flower? A tulip or a rose?

What color? Ruby red or soft pink? Red like a fire engine or soft like a sunset or . . .

Is the flower fresh or old and faded? It is standing straight up or leaning or . . . ? Details make your poem come to life.

And you can find those details by looking at things . . . really, really closely.

Mary Oliver, one of our finest American poets, said it like this:

Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

– Mary Oliver

Here’s a little bit of a Mary Oliver poem:

Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down –
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Look closely . . . have fun seeing the details . . . and write about it.

That’s the path to a spring poem.

Forget the Title: A Tip for Writing Poems

Here’s a great tip for writing a poem.

It comes from a great American poet, Richard Hugo, who passed away in 1982, but not before writing a good book on writing poetry, The Triggering Town. In the first chapter, he tries to explain why a good poem often ends up in a different place than it starts.

The problem with beginning poets?

Young poets find it difficult to free themselves from the [kick-off] subject. The poet puts down the title: “Autumn Rain.”

Then, the poet writes a few lines on that topic. “Then,” says Hugo, “things start to break down.” The poet goes on . . . and on . . . about the subject that he/she started the poem with.

But isn’t that the point of writing a poem? To write about a particular subject?

No, say Hugo! Don’t make the mistake of thinking a poem needs to be 100% about the starting subject.

You don’t [really] know what the subject is, and the moment you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain, start talking about something else.

. . . There are [very] few people who become more interesting the longer they stay on a single subject.  . . .  The longer [most people] talk about one subject, the duller they get.

A poem isn’t an essay. It’s an exploration. A wandering. You follow the images you find along the way . .  and the sounds of words . . . discovering what you think of next . . . till you end up in a place that might have some surprises.

So a poem that starts with, say, autumn rain . . . might make you remember visiting your aunt’s house on a rainy day . . . and having tea with her. So the poem turn out to be really about the tea, and your aunt, and how you felt that day.

Not just about the rain! Even thought it was the subject that launched the poem!

Don’t get fooled, Hugo suggests, by writing down the title of a poem. Let the words lead you . . . to anyplace your creative mind turns to.

That’s how poetry sometimes works!

Skipping Stones, a Great Multicultural Magazine

Interview with Arun Toké
Founder and Executive Editor
Skipping Stones Magazine

Skipping Stones is an award-winning magazine that comes out every two months, five times during the school year. It publishes work by writers of all ages. In a typical issue, you’ll find stories, articles, and photos from all over the world, including pieces in other languages, with translations.

For an online sample issue, click here.

Here’s an interview with the founder about how to get your writing published in Skipping Stones. As with all magazines, the key step is simple: send in your best work!

INTERVIEW WITH ARUN TOKÉ, EDITOR

1. Any particular types of writing you are interested in currently?
We sponsor an annual honor award contest, for ages 7 to 17. The two themes are always: Multicultural Awareness and Nature Appreciation. We invite students to write on themes such as: Traditions and Celebrations; Diversity and Tolerance; Your Dreams and Visions; Youth Activism; Family and Society; Nature and Environment; Peace, Justice and Equality.

The entries are due by June 25th. Everyone who enters receives a copy of the issue featuring the ten winners and noteworthy excerpts from other entries.

2. Any tips for improving my writing, making it more likely to get published?
Make it more interesting! Write from your experiences, in first person. Be genuine. Avoid stereotypes. Make it short and concise; if you can make a point in 100 words, don’t drag it for 500 words.

Revise. Read it to yourself aloud; that might help you improve it. Sleep over it, then rewrite it if it seems to need it. Like any exercise, the more you write, the better you will become. Let your classmates, friends, or siblings read your finished draft and ask them for an honest feedback. This might help you in editing your writing. (But don’t let their criticism make you feel upset or stop writing.)

If editors ask you to revise, do it and send it back to them on time, or your work won’t get published.

A good idea: read an issue or two of Skipping Stones to get acquainted with us – our format, themes, style, etc. (or any other magazine for that matter where you want to submit) – before you send something to us. You will know better what kind of writing we publish. That will cut down on the rejection letters you might get.

A short and insightful cover letter that explains where you are coming from will help improve your chances of getting published.

3. As an editor . . . why did you get inspired to do this?
It was my international experiences that led me to begin Skipping Stones – to promote international understanding, multicultural awareness, learning of other languages, and appreciating nature.

I came from India to study in the United States. And I’ve spent six months biking in Northern Europe, and almost a year traveling in Mexico and Central America – we walked for Peace in Central America. I saw that in many countries around the world, students learn two or three languages. In 1986, I attended an international peace conference in a Gandhian Ashram in Western India. When I came to the United States, I knew I wanted to provide a forum for youth where they can share their truth, their opinions, and their life with each others.

I think it is very important to encourage young writers to continue writing and sharing their experiences. When a child is published, it boosts their self-esteem and encourages them to carry on in their life, no matter what the odds.

What I like the most is when I get letters of thanks and appreciation from kids and their parents/teachers. I know then that we are helping make a difference in their lives.

We publish 25 or even 30 young writers in each issue.

4. What about Skipping Stones is unique?
Over the years, Skipping Stones has become the leading multicultural magazine for children and youth. There are only a few magazines that welcome student writing to the extent we do. Our poetry is almost exclusively by children and teens. And we publish bilingual stories and articles. We have received many national awards and just celebrated our 20th year! As a small, non-commercial, and ecologically-aware magazine, that is an important milestone.

5. How can I submit my writing to your magazine?
Send your poems, stories or thoughts to us. Write for our thought-provoking departments, such as What’s on your mind? Or Letters to the Editor, etc.

We like writings under 750 words or 800 words. Poems can be free form, or any style, and under 30 lines.

Send with a cover letter that tells us about you, your age/grade, cultural background, etc. What are your dreams and visions?

You might like to know that each piece of writing sent to us gets read by at least three readers (several of them youth, our interns)!

For more submissions details, click here.

Good First Lines Can Launch a Great Story

Here are some example of first lines that make you want to keep reading . . . to find out what comes next.

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
(Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White)

This is a very famous first line. It gets the story rolling. What is Papa going to do? When Fern finds out, she runs out to stop him . . . from doing away with the runt of a new litter, a cute little baby pig named Wilbur. (Little Wilbur will be one of the stars of this story – with Fern and, of course, with Charlotte, the helpful barn spider.)

Here’s another great story starter:

As soon as he was born, Mr. and Mrs. Canker knew that their baby was not like other people’s children.
(Which Witch?, by Eva Ibbotson)

Oooh. We want to know . . . why is this baby different?

Here’s a surprise beginning, a story that start with a cliché (a common, over-used phrase):

It was a dark and stormy night.
(A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle)

Let’s hear a bit more.

In her attic bedroom Margaret Murray, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat at the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind.

In the first lines, we meet the heroine, Meg. The storm hints that something is going to happen. And sure enough, a few pages later there’s a knock at the door and we meet an odd character, Mrs. Whatsit, with colored scarves wrapped around her head and a top hat on top of those . . .  and a bright pink stole over a rough overcoat . . . and big black rubber boots. Very strange things are about to happen.

One last example:

My life began the afternoon of June 7, 1847, when I tumbled off the back of a wagon on the West Hill Road and no one came back to look for me.
(Jip: His Story, by Katherine Paterson)

So . . . a good start to a story does a couple of things, lightning fast:

  1. Introduces the main character.
  2. Creates some point of interest, maybe a little mystery.

The best way to learn to do this is to imitate. That’s right, copy.

Well, not exactly! But try something similar. Take a story you’ve written. Any story. Now, give it a new start . . . the most interesting one you can think of.

If you need some help . . . go to your bookshelf and pick up your favorite book. Try to write the same kind of beginning to your story.

It’s a great way to learn!

How Do You Start a Story?

So . . . how do you start a story?

Here’s great advice from a skilled novelist, John Dufresne, a Florida writer, university teacher in Miami, and author of a book about writing stories, The Lie that Tells a Truth.

Here’s what he says in that book:

Don’t [start] the story too early, when the trouble is nowhere in sight. [So don’t do this:] “The alarm clock rang. Joe turned in his bed, reached for the clock, and punched it off. Six A.M. He rolled over and caught forty more winks. When the snooze alarm sounded six minutes later, he felt rested and not so resentful of his day.”

The story starts much later than this, we hope – when he gets to work and discovers he has been fired. So [a better place to start is]: “Joe knocked on Mr. Brind’amour’s door and wondered why the boss wanted to see him before he had a chance to finish the Collins report.”

. . . In other words, don’t start at the beginning, when everything is about to happen, when trouble only faintly casts its shadow. Begin in the middle of things.

Dufresne also points out:

The first line of a story breaks the silence. All of us will read any first line of anything. But will we read the second?

Until you get the hang of it, you might need to write fluffy details that get your own thoughts going . . . like a person in bed waking up, wondering what will happen today.

But you’ll learn to cross that out in revision. Look for the real beginning of the story. Search through your first paragraphs for a most interesting, curious line . . . the one that really, really makes you want to read the next line!

That’s a great place to start. Jump into a story . . .that’s on the move!

(In the next post, I’ll give more example of first lines that make you want to keep reading . . . to find out what comes next.)