When I was young, I had a deep desire to prove I could be a great writer. At award celebrations in middle school, cool poets read these heartbreaking poems brimming with bruises, cigarettes and swearing. If my experience is at all normal, budding poets can feel pressure to be deep or somber, which can often translate to sadness or angst. I easily fell prey to romanticizing sadness in my early writing. I felt that, in order to win a contest or get published, my work had to be intense, moody, and sad.
Today, one writer in particular helps me juggle heartbreak and happiness in my writing: Ross Gay. He’s published five books and is also an avid gardener. When you visit the “about” section on Ross Gay’s website, several sentences come right up at the top, reading: Ross Gay is interested in joy. Ross Gay wants to understand joy. Ross Gay is curious about joy. Ross Gay studies joy.
Ross Gay knows there should be a place for grief and sadness in poetry. In one interview, Gay lays it out: “If I agreed I was happy all the time, I would be full of shit, because I’m not.” In many ways, it is productive for writers to grapple with grief in their work. Poetry wouldn’t be a human experience if it didn’t translate pain or create a space for collective mourning. People get sick, our friends die. We fall in love, we break up. Systems oppress us. But not every poem must reside in a place of helplessness.
How do we deal with this as writers? How do we deal with our personal struggles when it seems the whole world is falling apart?
Like Ross Gay has helped me discover, self care is an integral practice to have the capacity to tackle the world. We’ve come face to face with this realization from living through global pandemic. Yes, we know all about face masks and cups of tea, but how can we practice self care *in* our writing?
The thing is poetry can hold space for it all, which I didn’t discover until later in my writing journey. Mourning, love, tenderness, rage, helplessness, levity––it’s all part of life, and thus part of poetry. Ross Gay agrees that he started writing poetry to lament, rather than to praise. Now, though, he sees the ways that praising and lamenting are part of the same process of life: “The process of writing my second book reminded me– or taught me– that I love praising, too, and that they’re very intertwined, obviously.”
He says that if we acknowledge life’s sorrows, we must acknowledge life’s joys. I used to think happiness was seen as frivolous or naive in poetry, but joy and comfort are no less important than sadness in writing. Gay says “Joy is this very complex, full, rigorous emotion.” Joy is just as deep as grief— just as crucial to our lives and just as crucial to poetry.
Ross Gay embodies the profound ways joy and gratitude impact our lives in his poem “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” a 285-line poem giving thanks to everything from “the tiny bee’s shadow” to “the ancestor who loved you before she knew you.” He gets specific. He picks out little delights of his life and spins a shining web. Towards the end of the poem, he even expresses his gratitude for the reader, connecting with each person that lays eyes on his poem:
I want so badly to rub the sponge of gratitude over every last thing, including you, which, yes, awkward, the suds in your ear and armpit, the little sparkling gems slipping into your eye.
One of my favorite things about this poem and Ross Gay is that he doesn’t shy away from the weird or even gross parts about being human. In fact, he’s grateful for it. You can experience more of his full embracing of life in his other work, such as The Book of Delights, where he challenged himself to handwrite an essay each day of the year.
I believe gratitude to be a self-care practice, and I believe Ross Gay is a perfect place to begin the exploration of self-care in poetry. My challenge to all writers, especially those grappling with heavy content or a difficult period in life, is to create your own catalogue of unabashed gratitude. So, today: take a breath. Write your gratitude down. Start a doc, open the notes app. Use your poet self to encounter the world’s joy. What are the early-bloomed peach trees, paisley panties, and hyacinth bells in your own life.
Meet the blogger:
EMMA HARRINGTON is a current senior at Hamline University and second year editor in chief of the Fulcrum Journal. Her poems have been published in Fulcrum, Emry’s Online Journal, and december magazine. Outside of school, she loves to sing in choir, tend to her plants, and go on hikes.
The Great British Baking Show (also called The Great British Bake Off or GBBO) is a baking competition show that’s been on air since 2010. Unlike many other reality television shows, it relies on camaraderie between competitors and difficult baking challenges rather than drama or arguments to generate intrigue. Because GBBO doesn’t offer a grand prize, competitors will happily help each other out when needed. The most stress between people in the competition tent is when judge Paul Hollywood gives a competitor a suspicious look from across the room.
But The Great British Baking Show can do more than just bring joy to all who watch it. It can also serve as inspiration for writers. In this post, we’ll look at some writing exercises in the form of GBBO’s three challenge structure.
In The Great British Baking Show, the signature challenge is the place to show off what makes your work unique. How would you describe the way you write? Do you use a lot of metaphors, write long flowing sentences, or keep things simple? In other words: what is your writing signature?
For this exercise, pick 3 excerpts of writing from different writers. Look at the construction of the pieces and take a few notes on what techniques are used in each one. Put the excerpts away. Set a timer for ten minutes, and try to imitate the style of the first excerpt based on your notes. Repeat the process again for the other two pieces you took notes on. Then, set another timer and write a piece in your own voice.
Take a few minutes to reflect on the experience. What are some of the differences between the pieces? Which ones did you enjoy, and which ones did you struggle with? Think about how this might change the way you write in the future.
Optional: Write all four of your pieces on the same topic and imagine how each writer might approach the same subject.
GBBO is famous for its technical challenge in which the bakers must make something that they probably haven’t even heard of. For your technical challenge, try writing something in a form you’ve never used before. A few ideas to get started are listed below:
- Poetry: write a ghazal , a haibun, a sestina, or other structured poem.
- Fiction: write a story that uses almost exclusively dialogue, or no dialogue at all.
- Creative Nonfiction: write an essay in reverse—tell the last events first, and the first events last.
If none of these stick out to you, you can write something using a random prompt generator like this one, but try not to hit the button too many times. The point of this is to try something new, not to do something that you’re comfortable with.
In the showstopper challenge, the goal for GBBO bakers is to show off what they know, and to be able to take and apply criticism. This is the last challenge, so it is the time to go all out and really give it your best shot.
This exercise is meant to be done in a group of two or more. With a friend or group of friends, set a timer for 20 minutes and write a creative piece in one of your favorite forms. When the timer goes off, take turns reading and critiquing the pieces you just wrote. Remember, these were written in a short amount of time, so it’s okay if they’re rough around the edges. Unlike bakers, writers don’t have to throw something in the bin if it doesn’t turn out the first time.
Optional: A day or two after writing your first drafts, meet up with the same people, set another timer, and try to implement some of the changes you talked about.
If you want to have a little extra fun, you can play this Spotify album of GBBO songs while you write and become completely immersed in the world of stodgy cakes, biscuits that don’t quite snap, and general British baking shenanigans.
Even if you don’t wind up trying any of these exercises, hopefully this is a reminder that inspiration can come from strange places—even British baking competition shows.
Meet the blogger:
ANNE SALMI is a creative writing student at Hamline University. When she isn’t watching old episodes of The Great British Baking Show, you can find her knitting in a coffee shop, hanging out with friends, or spending way too much money at the local book store.
When the world is burning, and the news seems to fuel that burn, I turn to comedians. Some might say this is naive and counterproductive, but I disagree (as long as Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert are not your only news source). Humor is communal; laughter draws us together even when differences threaten to undo our penchant for human connection. Remember the last time you were in a room and tension seemed to fill the air more than oxygen? And then someone cracked a rather terrible joke, but seconds later, that tension dissolved and then disappeared? There is power there. But it’s not always easy. Quality humor requires tact.
Let’s dig deeper into why humor is such an important literary tool to master. Not all humor fits all writing, but the element of stopping your reader in their tracks with a well-written, well-placed satirical or comedic line is an asset writers should take seriously (but not too seriously because that’s the opposite of what we’re going for here). Not everything you write will make readers double over with laughter. But humor equals surprise, which means delight in the reader’s experience. We LOVE surprises. Especially in fiction. Our attention is reinvigorated. And when you find yourself on the 5th page of a short story or the 250th page of a novel, this is a welcome sensation. And to be honest, even if it’s not that funny, I’ll still take a begrudging chuckle. Why else should we infuse humor into our writing? Is there a connection between humor and creativity? Yes. There most certainly is. There’s a decent amount of research that shows a correlation between a sense of humor and the creative process. Why is this? I’ll discuss a few reasons.
- Risk-taking– humor requires taking a risk. You don’t always know if a joke will land or pay off, but you do it in hopes that your audience will feel more connected to your material. Humor and vulnerability are closely related, leading us to places we might not visit when our logical brain is in overdrive.
- Playfulness and Innovation- most of us know that kids are fabulously creative. My eleven-year-old brother invents entire worlds using legos in a single afternoon. Not all humor is the same, but there’s often a detail of not taking everything too seriously within it. This opens a pathway for writers to look at their work in a new, more playful light and might lead to ideas you’d never considered before. So, to sum this point up, we could all take notes from our fellow tiny humans.
- Humor and information– when we absorb information that has humor sprinkled in, our defenses lower, we relax, we’re more willing to see things from new angles. Most of all, our interest is renewed. And whether you’re on the receiving end of the creative process, or on the production end of it, we can all appreciate giving our minds a “break.”
There are countless other reasons humor, creativity, and the writing process are intertwined, but I can’t fit it into one blog post, and I certainly don’t want to bore you (is this where I should throw in a joke to keep you all interested)?
While I didn’t touch on the “how” of weaving humor into your writing, if you’re looking for more tips, this page has some great information. What stories, poems, essays, etc. have you read lately that made you fall out of your seat with laughter? Or earned even a begrudging chuckle?
Meet the blogger:
DANIELLE FRANKE is a Senior at Hamline University studying English with a concentration in Creative Writing. When she’s not studying, reading, or writing, you can find her ogling every single dog she sees while out on walks around Como Lake.
Now that we’re in Capricornus season, finishing at the end of January, it’s time to start bearing down on the project you’ve been dreaming about or pushing off. The changing of the seasons might find you seeking acceptance on creative avenues in your life. What’s holding you back? Expect frustration, but persevere nonetheless.
Everyone struggles with writing in their own way. Some have strengths where others have weaknesses, but you can’t compare your struggles to others’ successes. There’s a remedy to every writing conflict. Maybe this will help:
- Aries: Don’t abandon a piece because it’s not turning out the way you want it to. Start from scratch, take time to think out details and a plan you agree with, or go with the flow, letting what happens happen. Freewriting and rewriting are your friends right now. If your piece is really not working, break it up. Take your favorite bits and apply them elsewhere, and use the work as an inspiration for something else. Don’t let your labor go to waste.
- Prompt: Describe a flame in the instant before it is extinguished. What does it look like? How does it feel? Where does the heat go?
- Taurus: You’re stuck on a piece, a scene, on wanting to write but not being able to. You can’t fix it today, so try something else. Avoid the boulder and make your way down the river. You can always come back later. When you do, think about what in this situation is sticky. Can it be removed altogether and replaced with something new? Otherwise, flesh it out or write about what’s wrong, and at least let out some of your pent up frustration.
- Activity: Go back to your second most recent work. Find something you liked and something you were unsatisfied with. Start a new, mini-piece using each fragment.
- Gemini: You’re not sure what you want. Which word goes where? Where is this plot going? You’re afraid of making a wrong turn– don’t be. There’s always room and time to rewrite. Mistakes are okay to make in any stage of your writing. Learn from them, don’t learn to fear them.
- Activity: Take an unfinished work or an idea you have yet to write. Start the piece from another perspective or a different point in your storyline.
- Cancer: You’re having a hard time focusing on your work. Outside stressors are cutting into your writing time. Reclaim it, make time and space to get back into your proper writing headspace, even if it’s for 15-20 minutes. Think about what you need to get back into your groove: is it a quiet place, proper music, a good night’s sleep? Make adjustments and come back when you’re ready.
- Prompt: Imagine one human function– sleeping, eating, drinking water– is replaced with something more efficient, like photosynthesizing, one month of hibernation per year, etc. How does the human race change, for better or worse?
- Leo: You need to accept and apply criticism without losing hope. Your writing will never be perfect, but no one’s attacking you for that, and neither should you. It can be hard to understand that people are trying to help when they point out your errors, but it’s also hard to sense what needs improvement on your own. Trust your peers, don’t take criticism personally, and put effort into editing. Seeing improvements will be worth temporary discomfort.
- Activity: Make three copies of a recent project you got feedback for. Leave one version alone, then make the edits you feel necessary to another, then apply every suggestion you received to the last one. Which are you more satisfied with?
- Virgo: You’re beating yourself up over small details. They matter a lot to you, but learn to embrace the ambiguous and unknown. Your focus on these things may take away from other parts of your work, like plot, dialogue, or voice. Which part of your writing do you want to be the focal point? What do you want to be remembered? Record details that are important, not ones that distract you and the reader.
- Prompt: Take a hard copy of a short piece (it doesn’t have to be yours) and cut it up. Create something new from the cutouts, ransom note style.
- Libra: You’re caught in the insecurity that not everyone likes your writing. They don’t have to, but that shouldn’t be the audience you’re focusing on. Align yourself with people who care about your writing as much as you do, that provide positive feedback and helpful criticism when you need it. At the same time, understand that there will be many different opinions on your writing, and while you cannot change them, you also don’t have to give them your attention. Embrace what you do and others will do the same.
- Prompt: Have you ever read or watched something that had an ending you weren’t satisfied with? Change it. Twist the plot and characters’ decisions to match what you had in mind.
- Scorpio: Your confidence is getting the best of you. It’s important to be bold and passionate about your writing, but listen to the ones around you who tell you to slow down or take a break. You risk overlooking mistakes or burning yourself out. Pace yourself, restrict yourself to only one or two projects, and make sure you review your work carefully.
- Activity: Take a break from your next drafting session and read instead. Go through your previous works, review a friend’s writing, or break into a book you got months ago but haven’t had the time to read. Reading is one of the best ways to improve your writing and you deserve a break.
- Sagittarius: You may be dedicated to your current project, but you may have also bitten off more than you can chew. Break up what you’re working on into smaller, easier to manage tasks, or put something nonessential to the side. Quality is better than quantity, and whether you believe it or not, the stress of overextending yourself will get to you. Burning out is not fun, but it is preventable.
- Activity: Slow down and read through some of your newer, incomplete works. Are you following the bigger picture? Where are some points that you’ve gone astray? Identify them, but choose only one to work on for now.
- Capricorn: Not everything will go your way, no matter how much you plan. Don’t get too frustrated and don’t quit. Identify where and how things went wrong. Where can you see this often happening in your writing? Reach out to see what advice others can give you, and allow yourself the freedom to go astray from your original plan. Some good may come from impromptu writing.
- Prompt: It’s time to sit down and do some actual drafting. Find a place to put all your ideas, like sticky notes or a journal, and choose one to work on. Set the mood, find a place and time that works for you, and put pen to paper. Outline, freewrite, or make a character sketch. Give your idea substance.
- Aquarius: You’re an energetic writer with many ideas, but it’s easy for you to lose stimulation and, therefore, motivation. If something isn’t easy or doesn’t go the way you want right away, you give up. Bright ideas lose their luster, a dream becomes clouded, and the pen gets put down. Persevere through these struggles. Your muse will not always be present, but you will have to work past this to get anywhere with your writing.
- Activity: Write something terrible, just to get back into the rhythm of writing. It can always be reworked or even discarded, but you need to learn to persist even if you’re not feeling like writing. You may be surprised by what you come up with.
- Pisces: You tend to get caught in the fantasy of your own writing, so much so that you forget the writing part altogether. What’s causing this block? Are you too afraid to put your words on paper? Not sure how to articulate? Take some time to freewrite or plot out the idea you have, then give yourself a deadline. Dreams are great in your head, but they’re also meant to be explored and shared.
- Activity: Take some time to create a plot or outline for your newest idea. Where will your story begin and where will it end? Choose a point in between and free write for a bit. Does it follow the arc you want it to? Are you ready to keep writing or do you need to outline a bit more?
Looking for a personalized read to curl up with this month? This post from Literary Hub is old but the books are still worth checking out: https://lithub.com/the-astrology-book-club-what-to-read-this-month-based-on-your-sign-23/
Wondering how studying can improve your writing? This post is over, but here’s some further reading: https://writingcooperative.com/how-astrology-can-improve-your-writing-4b7004b33373
Meet the blogger:
EMILY POUPART is a Hamline senior from Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin. She hopes to go into publishing after she graduates, and enjoys plants, reading, and being indoors.
You’ve done it! You’ve found yourself some quiet time and you’re wondering what you should be writing about. You’ve dipped your toes in form writing before, but you want to try something new, or old rather, something a bit more ambitious than the well-treaded sonnet. Well, if you’re feeling brave enough to try out one of the many received forms from years passed, you might implore one of these three French and Italian forms with rich history.
The rondeau was traditionally a lyric and song writing form originating in the 14th and 15th century in medieval France. The musical form consisted of four stanzas, the first and last stanzas being identical, and the second half of the second stanza being a short refrain which had as its text the first half of the first stanza. As the rondeau became older, the number of lines within each stanza grew longer.
The lines were later abbreviated to fifteen lines when nineteenth century English poets adopted the form. The stanzaic structure also evolved to begin with a rhyming quintet, followed by a quatrain, and a sestet. The refrains were shortened at the end of the second and third stanzas leaving in its place a “rentrement”, or re-entry, of the opening words, creating a desirable change of meaning in this line from where it had been seen earlier in the piece.
Rhyme Scheme (R being the rentrement): aabba aabR aabbaR
We Wear the Mask
Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906)
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties
Why should the world be over-wise
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see up, while
We wear the mask
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
Another French form from the thirteenth century, the triolet is an eight lined rhyming poem. The first triolets from their inception were devotional poems authored by notable names like Patrick Carey, a Benedictine monk. It was also reintroduced and became popular among late nineteenth century British poets. It is another great poem to play on shifted meaning using the nature of the repeated lines encouraged by this form.
Rhyme Scheme (the capital letters mark repeated lines): ABaAabAB
Mary Ellen Clark, published in 2003
In response triolet to James Joyce “She Weeps Over Rahoon”
Embrace twilight and bid farewell
to passion’s warmth and sweet caress.
A grave’s prepared where she will dwell
embrace twilight and bid farewell.
O hear the mourning of her bell
that tolls for sorrows you supress
embrace twilight and bid farewell
to passion’s warmth and sweet caress.
Invented by the poet Dante Alighieri from Italy, and used in his epic poem “The Divine Comedy” (further reading), the terza rima is a rhyming form consisting of tercets, there are no limits to the number of lines this form can have. Terza Rima is typically written in iambic line. An interesting dilemma English poets have run into while trying to write their own terza rimas is that there are fewer rhyme possibilities found in English than there are in the Italian language and so, many writers have used near and slant rhymes in their work under this form.
Rhyme Scheme: aba, bcb, cdc, ded
To sum up the form’s rules – a passage from poetry resource poets.org: “The end-word of the second line in one tercet supplies the rhyme for the first and third lines in the following tercet. Thus, the rhyme scheme (aba, bcb, cdc, ded) continues through to the final stanza or line”
Terzanelle: Manzanar Riot
Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan, published in 2008
This is a poem with missing details,
of ground gouging each barrack’s windowpane,
sand crystals falling with powder and shale,
where silence and shame make adults insane.
This about a midnight of searchlights,
of ground gouging each barrack’s windowpane,
of syrup on rice and a cook’s big fight.
This is the night of Manzanar’s riot.
This is about a midnight of searchlights,
a swift moon and a voice shouting, Quiet!
where the revolving searchlight is the moon,
and children line still to use the latrines.
This is a poem with missing details,
children wiping their eyes clean of debris—
sand crystals falling with powder and shale.
Now that you know a bit more, what do you think of these forms? Let us know in the comments!
Meet the blogger:
KYRIN STURDIVANT is a Creative Writing major and English minor in his final year of undergrad at Hamline University. Kyrin is a writer of poetry, fiction, and screenplays and enjoys practicing dance in his free time.