My original post is up at The Aspiring Author Blog, where I’m a regular contributor. My fellow bloggers post about writing in their respective genres. If you’re looking for fun writing advice, check it out!
I start writing this as I am about to make dinner for the first time for my new boyfriend. Baked salmon, mushroom fettucine, asparagus with lemon pepper and dill, fresh Italian bread. I suppose I wouldn’t be a woman of my generation if this evening’s act didn’t make me think about being a woman, about whether I am too eager to fill this role, about whether being in a position of service changes something about our relationship in a way I don’t want. Am I happy and excited because I am the girl cooking for her boyfriend, or because I am a person who loves doing nice things for others? Is domesticity a fair extension of my femininity, or is it an expression of something different and more sinister?
So I set myself to think about femininity and how I express it when I go to get a massage today. The room smells like eucalyptus and lavender, and it is warm with neutral, earthy colors. This is a gentle place and I feel relaxed. I muse on last night’s dinner, which was wonderful, and how my boyfriend thanked me, careful to show me that he didn’t expect me to do this domestic work for him, but that he appreciated it. I think he was careful because he understands the history of women cooking for men, and I wonder if he thanks his mom when she makes dinner.
My massage begins. I ask myself if femininity is what allows me to take care of my body, as so many other things I do– brushing my hair, shaving my legs, moisturizing my skin — seem gendered and connected both to beauty and to feeling confident. But men take care of their bodies, too, or should, in this Queer Eye era, and I wonder if masculinity is what allows men to take care of their bodies, not toxic masculinity but the good and true kind– the pride and striving that makes men feel they are achieving their purpose.
I start to muse on touch – if receiving touch is part of this file folder of feminist traits I am amassing, is giving touch then masculine? (I think callously while my female masseuse works on my back.) Is femininity receptive? Are men grasping? Is there strength in resisting its grasp?
Look, I’m not sure that I have any of the answers to gender and what it means to me, but this episode of looking into my head is to show you how associative thinking works for poets. Does your mind more closely resemble an ice cube tray or a spiderweb covered in dew? As far as I know, most poets’ brains are the latter. Thoughts like droplets are all connected by threads, and what a poem does is tap the web gently so all the droplets slide toward the middle or the bottom. You’ve got to make them intersect.
When I’m writing poetry, I’m fascinated by the ways images surface by surprise. Sometimes I can articulate the exact train of thought that brought me from the beginning of the poem to the end, and sometimes I’m not sure how stuff got there, but I’m sure it fits. I start with asteroids and end with snowdrops. In a poem I just wrote the other day, my first line sets up a comparison between scars and live animals, then between myself and the trash cans through which the animals are rummaging. I think this means that my scars are causing some unrest; they’re not really in the past. But if I am like a trash can, then I must be full of both trash and treasure. I’m not really sure I’m comfortable calling my actual self a trash can, but I’m intrigued by a character looking at her scars to attempt to decipher how good or bad she is. So I allow the speaker of the poem to diverge more from myself, and then thinking about scars leads me to tattoos and what marks us. I think it’s a really interesting poem, and it just took curiosity.
This is to say: I don’t think that associative thinking is a blessing from on high; I think it’s something that can be practiced.
One practice that helped me a lot with this type of generative, idea-rich thinking is yoga. Meditation and yoga practices encourage a non-judgemental way of looking at the self and its experiences. Gradually, I’ve been learning to welcome whatever thoughts come to me, and if they’re negative or doubtful or sad about my body hurting, I can see them and send them on their way. But if they’re intriguing, I just stick them up on the rocks on the riverbank and let things swirl around them to see where they connect.
I wonder if you’ve done this kind of thing when you’re in the shower, maybe washing the dishes, waiting in line, even driving? I think these daily, low-risk, semi-automatic activities allow for free associative thought, like walking does. Once you get in the habit, a blank page in a notebook sets that same motion going,
It takes some practice to turn these wanderings into interesting, poignant, or powerful poems. Sometimes I wander through a poem only to look back and think the connections are too obvious, or the images too random, not aesthetically harmonic. But if you’re wondering why your poetry seems basic, or stays at the same emotional pitch throughout, or lacks surprise, you might want to try letting your mind wander a little farther than you think it’s supposed to.
Here are some tricks I use to practice associative thinking:
1. Write a list of 10 objects, images, and actions that you associate with a certain age. Cross of the 2 or 3 most obvious ones. Now, use the remaining images to write a poem about someone that age without saying directly what age it is. For an added challenge, write about the person doing something that people of that age don’t normally do.
2. Look around you and choose a color you can see (it helps to visualize if you can currently see the color). Then make lists of things that relate to that color. There are a lot of types of connection you can find other than objects that are literally that color. What kind of feelings come up as you make this list? Go explore those.
3. Try association through opposites. Begin a poem with this line: “Because I can’t _____, I ______.” Fill in the blanks with verbs. For the next line, keep the phrase in front of the comma the same, but change the ending. You might keep it this way for a few lines, then try a different word in the first blank and see how that changes your options for the second. This is best done fast so you can see what conclusions your mind jumps to.
Exercises 2 and 3 are adapted from prompts I received from my teacher Christopher Citro at the Kettle Pond Writers’ Workshop. You should check out his work and his teaching: christophercitro.com