Writing poetry can cause the earth to move. It wakes us up, fosters deeper understanding and more self-awareness, and when we would despair, instead, we are granted the gifts of hope and perspective. Perhaps most importantly, when we capture our own history and stories in poetic form, we become empowered and begin to unravel those significant moments. Poets who reclaim personal stories celebrate their life and their writing.
Certain life experiences have substance and become touchstone moments, revered as personal milestones that have great value and meaning. Where do we find these? According to Willa Cather, diving deep into childhood and adolescence offers a lot of important fodder for the poet, no matter what age. “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before age fifteen,” she said. How can we maximize our creative potential and explore those eventful experiences? One of the best ways to begin is completing some starter sentences. Here are a few examples:
- In my childhood, I spent a lot of time_______________________________
- When I wanted to get away, I _____________________________________
- People who were important to me in my adolescence were ______________
- The pet that was my favorite pal _____________________________
- The home that held the most meaning ___________________________
Try completing the starter sentences by brainstorming two or three, doing a quick storyboard, or developing concept maps around the ones you chose. Then, select one, writing down your first thoughts, and without editing create a poem using one of the starter sentences as a line in your poem. For many writers, this technique helps them get started and no further scaffolding is necessary.
Or for additional options, consider working with the following statements “What touchstone moments or experiences have _____________?
- involved an event that made you recognize something new about yourself?
- caused you great joy or great despair?
- resulted in you opening up to more possibility?
- shaped the values you hold today?
After reflecting on these questions, identify one or two touchstone moments in your life you’d like to delve into. You can begin by putting yourself in a specific place and time. Consider using this as your first line of your poem It was in _________ (year or place). This can be dropped when you develop the rest of your poem.
I recently wrote a poem using this technique. My touchstone experience involved asking myself what home meant to me. For many, the concept of home is a powerful trigger. Capturing the home of your dreams or the home most remembered helps us tie loose ends together, create story. I considered how light brought into focus vivid details of our home place and the power and meaning they held. Using the starter sentence The home that held the most meaning ____ and guiding statements/questions in italics below, I re-imagined my home as a child and the magic of the day’s first light, and wrote Home: A Touchstone Moment. Selected lines from the finished poem are included.
Find something that moves me.
Even now after so many years
when I close my eyes
the enchantment of the first home
I knew and loved comes into view,
a small, brick farm house
with homemade lace curtains
that blinked hello…
How do I find grace in the world?
When I remember that home
all the threads of what I embodied
were tied up with a blue ribbon,
and a warm honey glow spreads
throughout my body.
There I felt the comforts of being
How much did a girl of ten really know…
What in today’s world offers me the comfort and reassurance of home?
Today I feel a renewed sense of hope and promise
knowing that, soon, the broken heart of the world
will be mended and we’ll be safe and well again.
Rotating in an orbit of healing and recover
the world will be kinder and
healthier communities will evolve,
folks will come together and
find their places with each other…
- Imagine your favorite home or the home of your dreams. In workshops, teacher and poet Pat Schneider asked the following three questions: a) What is the “quality of light” that surrounds the images of home. How bright is the light, does it come down in rays, is it dimpled, grey? Write down your impressions; b) “Where does the light come from?” Is it from a bulb in a room, a flashlight, the moon? Jot down what you are remembering or imagining; and c) “Was anyone near you, or are you alone.” Now create a poem that includes these images of home and light.
- Or, read “I Come Home Wanting to Touch Everyone” by Stephen Dunn. Create a list of ten words that describe what your home or a favorite place means to you. Consider using selected words from your list in different lines of a poem. How aware were you of the light? Where is the light coming from? Did it uncover something buried within you? Now write.
For writing exercises and information about the writing life, see our book Writing in Community and our website, “The Writing and Creative Life,” at http://www.thewritingandcreativelife.com.
Becky Breed, a veteran educator, poet, and essayist, co-wrote and facilitated “Women at the Springs,” a Nebraska Humanities program empowering women to live more courageously, as well as “The Intergenerational Project” connecting elders and teens through stories to promote communication, writing, and use of the media. She has an Ed.D. in Education, and, in addition to teaching at the university level, was the principal of a Gold Star School. Every summer for the past twenty-five years, she has backpacked and hiked the white peaks of the Rockies, exploring with others the spiritual dimensions between nature and personal development. These journeys have inspired her writing.
With her writing partner, Lucy Adkins, Becky has facilitated over seventy-five workshops on poetry and prose writing. Together the two co-authored Writing in Community: Say Goodbye to Writer’s Block and Transform Your Life, which was awarded an “IPPY” in the Independent Publisher’s Book Awards. Writing in Community, the first book in their “Creativity and Writing Zone” series, along with the impact of Adkins’s and Breed’s many presentations and workshops led to them being named winners of the 2020 Lincoln, Nebraska Mayor’s Art Award in Artistic Achievement in Literature. Their second book, The Fire Inside: A Companion for the Creative Life will be released June 1.
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