1. I seem to be / But really I am
This is a writing exercise by Kenneth Koch. Write a series of statements that begin with “I seem to be…” I seem to be a one-eyed dog. I seem to be thunderstorm. I seem to be a broken heater. I seem to be a flowering cactus. Once you have your statements, write another series that begins with “but really I am…” Feel free to make these statements as outrageous or fantastical as you can. Combine your statements together, mixing and matching. If you’re writing with a partner or group, try exchanging statements.
2. Go back and read your connected statements. Is there one that surprises you or stands out more than the others? Choose one and use it a first sentence for a 10 minute freewrite. The result may be quite surreal, but see where it takes you. Let your writing take you down the rabbit hole.
3. Read Jennifer Givhan’s The Change
THE C H A N G E
When I was still small I began growing antlers
as a stag grows antlers, as a girl grows
breasts. My chest remained flat & the blood
didn’t come, but the velvet skin
sprang spongy behind my temples. No one at school
laughed at the antlers like they did when I’d grown
hair under my arms & razor-scraped my shins
but mom said she would’ve given me warm
water & lotion. Instead the girls asked if I could
pierce my antlers like ears or a nose, & if they
hurt. The boys asked were they strong enough
to break glass, crush tin cans, & how long
would they grow? The doctor
said to stick out my tongue & drink
peach tea from a soda fountain in the nurse’s
lounge so I could pee into a cup & prove
myself. Sometimes a female deer grows
a stub. He asked if there was any chance I could be
growing something else. I told mom
there was a boy but it didn’t mean anything—
I couldn’t even use a tampon yet.
Soon small red birds gathered & settled
as the velvet turned to bone, matured into branches.
They were too heavy & I knew I had a choice:
Mom scoured every myth, required
that every curandera crack eggs
over my belly, rub sagebrush across
my forehead, chant & pray. One even told me
to sing. I could learn to love my antlers. I could
wait to see if they fell off on their own—yet even
if they did, how long would they stay gone?
Givhan’s poem initially seems surreal, and almost reads like a Frida Kahlo painting. The speaker describes the change she experienced while still small but with a quality of fable and myth. According to Matthew Strecher’s definition of magical realism, it’s “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to be believe.” While this is only one definition of the term, we can clearly read in Givhan’s poem that link between imagination and reality. Reality is called into being from the depth’s of imagination.
4. Think back to a time when you experienced a life change. It could be something difficult like going through a divorce or a break up. It could be falling in love for the first time. Or perhaps that awkward stage of puberty and adolescence. You could even chose a less traumatic experience, say moving house or even a first kiss. Whatever you chose, the experience should result in some type of transformation or a change in outlook. Think back to the experience or a particular incident that occurred during this time of your life. Take a moment to think about it, then when you’re ready, freewrite for at least 15 minutes. Do not stop to think while you’re writing. Let the magic happen.
5. On a blank piece of paper quickly make an abstract drawing. Don’t worry if you can’t draw. This exercise in not about creating a great work of art. Just quickly draw forms, shapes, shapes inside of shapes, blobs, angles, etc. Remember keep it abstract. Once you have your drawing, draw a line through the center of it. Now, write down everything you see in the drawing. If might be difficult at first, but listen to whatever pops up in your mind and make a note of it. Do you see frog eyes? A bear’s nose? Do you see a steep cliff? An alien? Write down phrases as well. A hideous figure… A polar bear kissing a snowman. Rotate the page and take more notes. Try for a good 10-15 words or phrases.
6. Now that you have a good list of words and phrases, go back to the life change freewrite. Continue the story but include all the words and phrases from your abstract drawing list. If you don’t know how to include it, use it as a simile or metaphor. e.g. Kissing him was like sticking my mouth to a frozen flagpole.
7. Go back and read what you’ve written. Think about how it could be shaped into a narrative or written as a poem.
8. Keep writing!
Jennifer Givhan is an NEA fellow in poetry and the winner of the 2015 Pleiades Editors’ Prize for her poetry collection Landscape with Headless Mama, forthcoming in 2016. A Mexican-American poet who grew up in the Imperial Valley, a small, border community in the Southern California desert, she was a PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices Fellow, The Pinch Poetry Prize winner, and the DASH Literary Journal Poetry Prize winner. She earned her MFA from Warren Wilson College. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets 2013, AGNI, Southern Humanities Review, Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, Rattle, The Collagist, and The Columbia Review. Her poem The Change is a finalist for the Jane Lumley Prize and originally appeared in Hermeneutic Chaos Journal. She is assistant editor at Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and she teaches composition and poetry at Western New Mexico University and The Rooster Moans Poetry Coop.