(UPDATE (Feb 5) – I just started this workout and I have to say I am amazed and loving it. I think the combination of the ritual of writing first thing and last thing each day, introducing the piece through the “title” ritual, and writing 3rd person about oneself somehow draws deeper meaning from what could be seen as very ordinary experiences)
A big thank you to Gautami Tripathy for reminding me about Marvin Bell, who I hadn’t read in a long while. She was experiencing some writer’s block and Big Tent Poetry suggested their readers write versions of Bell’s Dead Man Poems (click on links for examples).
Dead man poems come out of an old Zen admonition that says, “Live as if you were already dead.” But you needn’t feel remorse. The dead man is alive and dead at the same time. He lives it up, he has opinions, he makes bad jokes, he has sex.
Years ago when I was reading the book The Poet’s Notebook (which also contains a few “Dead Man” poems) I was inspired by several of Bell’s journal entries that began with phrases like: “The Journal of a Few Minutes to Midnight,” “Journal of the Perverse Nature of Ice,” “Journal of the Night of Blue Ice.” I merged these two ideas, the “Dead Man” and “The Journal of . . .” and encouraged my students to create a ritual for a set period of time during which they would start each piece of writing this way: The Poem of ______, The Journal of ______, etc.
I was writing in a red notebook at the time, and for my own ritual I wrote every night before bed and first thing each morning in this book. Each poem started with the title “On the Night of . . .” or “On the Morning of . . .” or “On the Day of . . .”
Each poem was written in 3rd person, like Bell’s, but whereas he says the Dead Man isn’t necessarily him, my poems were all recording the small events of my own life, observing myself at a distance.
My intent was simply to write at the beginning or end of the day as an observer of my own thoughts and actions. It was an experiment in objectivity. What emerged was a sometimes surreal, sometimes poignant 3rd person story-telling . . . Becoming a character in my own poems allowed me to maintain a common story-thread while increasing my sense of freedom within the work.
Eventually, these poems ended up in a chapbook called Her Red Book.
I’ve included an example below. Other titles from the series include: “On the Night of the Pork Chop Billboard,” “On the Day of the Hospital Window,” and “On the Morning Before the Morning Before the Plane Took Off.”
Much of the time we title things after we’ve written them. In this case, the title should be the first thing written as a jumping off point.
(Suggestions for prose writers to put this exercise to use are below.)
On the Night She Didn’t Feel Like it Anymore
She stuffed herself to claustrophobic proportions
belly ache a reminder she still had work to do
she baked during moments of frustration listening
for the difference between fireworks and gunshots
she had been startled the week before by a
strange man in the yard tonight
she baked without looking out the window
perhaps it was the New York Times story
the Israeli tank blowing up two little boys
on bicycles who didn’t know the curfew was still in effect
the whole one the one who maintained his limbs
was buried with his chocolate bar in his hand
perhaps it was Noah’s impending flood God with crumbs in his beard
or the appearance of an angel-afraid-of-dogs in the forest
perhaps a lot of poets had died in the last few weeks
and with them their hats
or perhaps it was the rose on the bus lying on the dashboard
in wet paper towels confiscated at the border a memento
a kiss an apology
what she really wanted was to stay up all night creating a path
of words burning clay singeing the wick of mortal time
what she remembered was this is not a dress rehearsal
what did it matter the embarrassment of being human
when we are all pedaling away from the same tanks
with our chocolate bars and
our misinterpreted dreams
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I’ve never used this technique for my prose or for story or character building, but I think it would be an interesting experiment.
Of course, you’re probably already writing and thinking about your characters as “other” than you, so this exercise would simply be to use the ritual and the writing prompt as a way to write in a different direction and discover what’s there.
You could focus on a particular character and each morning when you get up, and each night when you go to sleep, simply write an observation of them around an incident, large or small. Just observe them and see what they do. It could be a great way to write about something you’ve been stuck on. Remember to write the “title” first.
The Story of the Ethereal Observation: she could not have seen them descending. At least, she should not have been able to see them. Standing there in the middle of The Shift, one hand on her friend’s arm, the other to her own mouth. Her heart, she could always sense it speaking to her, and now it was pulling as if it wanted to escape her chest. Her friend looks at her, at first teasing, then concerned. She could see them but not describe them. How can you describe a shape made of air? She moves forward, pulled by ghost. She knows she must leave, although she also knows if she leaves at that moment, she will not return. (etc)
By forcing yourself to write first thing in the morning and again just before bed, and using the “titling” method, perhaps you can sneak up on your muse.
Have a great weekend!