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Beat The Blank Page Writing Exercise  

December 2006 

"Inheritance"


[Instructions]   [An Example Poem]   [Send Me Your Work]

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What are these "Beat the Blank Page" exercises?

The blank page never ceases to intimidate - it seems presumptuous to intrude on its perfect whiteness. As our pens hover uncertainly, it asks us who do you think you are? Easier not to begin, to go and do something less risky instead (like the washing-up) - after all, if we don't write anything, then the possibility of creating something brilliant and beautiful remains; we haven't marred that hope with the messy, no-guarantees process of writing.

If this is how you feel too, then I hope this regular exercise page will help. What follows is meant as a starting point, a way of allowing you to make that initial mark on the page, and ease you into the creative flow. These are exercises which I've found useful myself and which I've tried with different classes of students. It may seem artificial to be given a starting point, rather than letting inspiration strike, but I've always found that inspiration needs encouragement and the right conditions in which to flourish. Exercises don't always result in a finished piece of work (although they can do) but at the very least, they get you going, and fire up the brain. If you come out with even one image or word you might use later on, then the process will have been worth it.

For an excellent series of exercises, do take a look at the online Poetry Workshop run by the Guardian - I did a slot in February 2006 and every month you get a different poet suggesting an exercise and then commenting on the results.

Instructions

  • This exercise centres on the idea of what we inherit from our ancestors and what we want to pass on. I want you to think of inheritance in the widest possible way, not just in terms of money, property and the physical possessions that are passed on when someone dies, but also characteristics of body and personality, skills and talents, memories, attitudes, songs and sayings, fears, likes and dislikes, ambitions etc.  
  • First of all think of a relative who has died; this might be a parent or grandparent, or someone else like an aunt or godparent but whoever you choose should be someone of an older generation and someone you knew intimately. Make a list of 20 things which you've inherited from them, bearing in mind the broadness of the idea as outlined above. Once you've got your list, choose one of the things on it to free-write about for 5-10 minutes in more detail. Choose the item which seems most resonant or interesting to you.
  • For the second part of the exercise, do the same thing but this time make a list of the things you didn't inherit from this person. Think about absences in this particular relationship - the talents they didn't have, the story they never passed on, the love or approval that was withheld. Again write in detail about one of these.
  • For the final part of the exercise I want you to think about the future and write about what you would want to pass on to a child, and equally what you don't want to pass on. If you don't have children in real life, simply imagine a son or daughter.
  • You should now have quite a bit of material to work from. Try writing a poem using the notes you've made. One approach could be to use the second person singular, i.e. 'You', which allows you to address either an ancester or descendant directly - this can give a poem a powerful sense of voice and intimacy. Alternatively, try looking both to the past and to the future, perhaps using the sonnet form and the 'turn' in the ninth line to signify the shift in focus. Or simply write about whatever most interests you in the material you've collected.

Purpose

  • This exercise is a way of thinking about the shape of our lives, our place within the broader context of time and the way one generation influences another. It is likely to bring up material that is both joyful and painful as you explore the idea of what survives us and what is lost after someone dies.

Example Poem

Here are a couple of examples, the first by U. A. Fanthorpe whose poem 'Mother Scrubbing the Floor' is a wonderful description of one generation's repression couched in the emotional and linguistic eloquence of the next. See how many kinds of inheritance you can spot in the course of the poem. The second piece by Pascale Petit uses the 'You' form of address as suggested above and is a powerful indictment of the absence of motherly love.

Mother Scrubbing the Floor

She had a dancer's feet, elegant, witty.
We had our father's, maverick spreaders of dirt.

Dirt from London, dirt from Kent
Mud, dust, grass, droppings, wetness, things,
Dirt barefaced, dirt stinking, dirt invisible.

Whatever it was she was ready:
The rubber kneeler, clanking galvanised bucket,
The Lifebuoy, the hard hot water.

Let me! we'd say, meaning Hate to see you do this.
Too old. Too resentful. Besides, you'll blame us
That you had to do it.

She never yielded. We couldn't do it right,
Lacking her hatred of filth, her fine strong hands.

Don't want you to do this, she said, Don't want you to have to.
Just remember this: love isn't sex
but the dreary things you do for the people you love.
Home is the girl's prison
the woman's workhouse, she said.
Not me, she said. Shaw.

I do remember. I stand where she knelt.

by U. A. Fanthorpe from Collected Poems, Peterloo Poets, 2004

The Witch Bottle

Mother - I have counted to a hundred
in the dark cellar, it's time to switch
on the light and open the door.
You have locked me in
like a foetus in formaldehyde.

and now it's your turn:
I've gone back to the brewery
where you worked as I was forming -
glass exploding in the bottling machine
is how the world first sang to me.
I've picked an old brown beer bottle
and taken it to the sea to cleanse it,
then charged it with the light of the full moon.

Inside it I place one of your eyelashes,
your nail clippings, broken mirror, thorns,
a photo of you cut into a heart
stuck with nine rusty bent pins.
I fill htis vessel with my urine.
Wind your red hair round the cork
and seal it with black wax.

then call.
You come to my door in agony,
begging to be released.
But I have buried my witch bottle
in the earthfloor of my cellar inverted.
And it's my name scratchd on the bottle.

by Pascale Petit, from The Huntress, Seren, 2005

 

Send Me Your Work !

If you have enjoyed this exercise, send me your poems - I will put up the best pieces I receive inspired by each exercise.

Other poems selected from those submitted by readers can be found on the Submitted Poems page.


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