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4 Lessons I Learned From Trying The Same Poetry Prompt Five Times

A journey of writing growth

By Lucy Dan (she/her/她)Published 3 years ago 5 min read
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4 Lessons I Learned From Trying The Same Poetry Prompt Five Times
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

A few weeks back, I completed a five-day challenge to write poems based on one single prompt:

Write a 10-line poem where all the words of your poem must include a certain vowel.

I don't know about you, but I absolutely do not have a favourite vowel, I love them all equally. (Except Y, it doesn't count as a vowel here, shhh).

I ended up writing a poem based on this prompt for all five vowels: A, E, I, O, U.

In just 50 short lines, I learned so, so much.

***

#1: The beginning is always hard but don't let the first step stop you.

By Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

I saw growth across my writing, even just across the few hours, it took me to write these poems. You can see the progression as we move from A to U.

When I started A, I was a wobbling newborn deer on weak legs, threading together seemingly unrelated concepts together simply because they had the letter "A" in them.

I'd hoped that marrying the concept of a picnic and aliens together would create some sort of surreal vibe. I also tried to make it a visually based poem, mimicking the movement of ants across the page with my words, inching away bits of picnic food, one crumb at a time.

Ants, small, tiny, imperceptible.

I wanted to contrast this in size and scale to aliens, opening up the imagery to the world beyond our world, our earth, of aliens glancing towards us tiny humans as we do the tiny ants. To frame the aliens as curious about us, the way that we're quite curious about them.

That being said, it doesn't feel like it scratched that itch entirely, but I am pretty proud of it, considering that it was the first step.

The first step: the hardest. Taken. Checked off the to-do list.

Things improved over time.

***

#2: Sometimes creating limitations fosters creativity.

By Erda Estremera on Unsplash

We all know the age-old adage that describes creativity:

"Think outside the box."

I'm here to challenge that and ask you to think inside the box, limit yourself to a few limited ingredients. You'll be amazed about what you can do when you craft things from within the box.

In creating the "e" poem, I thought I would get the hang of it. After all, E is such a common letter, it should be so much easier to create an "E" poem!

That's true for nouns, maybe adjectives; there are a lot of verbs with "e" in it, but I was stuck within one tense, one time, without being able to use such common words like "is".

The limitation fostered creativity. Instead of falling back on my normal patterns of writing and using old sentence structures that I clung to without noticing, this new limitation forced me to think of other ways to frame the same ideas.

I feel this is similar to the idea that I am incredibly creative with solutions to life problems because I'm so limited in my budget that I have to fix things using what I already have.

Here, words are the currency. By limiting yourself, it implicitly rewires your "go-to" phrases, words, pushing you into uncharted territory.

Isn't that so exciting?

***

#3: When in doubt, use a list to kick off the creativity.

By Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

A list helps you lay out all of your ideas and easily creates a repetition structure that helps focus your audience on the items that change. Here I tried to pain the internal struggle of being a BIPOC, delineating the edges of the experience as icy, painful and lonely.

You'd think I'd be limited in describing such a complex experience if limited to by words with the letter "I" in them, but I surprisingly wasn't.

It reminded me of how expressing something large and complex can sometimes be overwhelming because it's hard to pick where to start. The limitations actually helped me overcome that feeling of overwhelm and narrow down the focus to one corner of the entire experience.

This was the same for the "U" poem, written much later. It looks much less like a stiff list, but the structure is still there - the five key verbs of the poem are:

  • underlining
  • undermining
  • unfitting
  • undoing
  • uprooting

From that structure, I constructed the rest of the story, figuring out which verbs felt like they belonged together. For example, being almost twins in sound, I sat "underlining" and "undermining" next to each other. "Undoing" and "uprooting" were powerful verbs of change, one that I strategically placed at the end for emphasis.

I poem || U Poem

***

#4: Sometimes, a concept expressed in a single word from another language far outweighs the entire sentence it might take to explain something.

By Soner Eker on Unsplash

In my favourite poem, the "O" poem, I write about the weight of expectations about behaviour and appearance by outsiders imposed on girls from a young, young age.

With a limitation on using only "O" words, I was strapped on how to communicate the commonly heard criticism women often hear: "women shouldn't do x, y or z". This is a sentence I've heard repeatedly as a child, across different adults in my life, regardless of what language I heard them in - unfortunately too universal a concept.

And just like that, I realized that the French equivalent of the phrase all contained "Os". In striving to keep within the limitations, I serendipitously added a new layer to the piece through language to convey the unfortunate universality of this conformity and expectation for girls to lose their uniqueness and voice at a young age.

There is definitely a limitation on how many foreign words you can include in a piece before making it too difficult for others unfamiliar to consume your poem. I think when there's strategically a few chocolate chips sprinkled into your cookie, that the brain does the wonderful thing of filling in the gaps the way it learns the meaning of unfamiliar words by context, thus intaking that concept, that word, that phrase into your mind.

This wasn't part of the challenge, but that's the take-home I really wanted from the "Love as Food for the Soul" poem. In Cantonese, the phrase of having the flavours (e.g., sweet, sour, bitter, spicy) of love depict the ups and downs of a relationship. It's such a common phrase in Cantonese that I never thought about how new this concept is in English, and how vivid the metaphor can be when brought into an English piece.

I really look forward to taking some of these common Cantonese phrases that guide how I think into my poetry, and to challenge others too. I now have a section called 廣東話 (translation: Cantonese), where I will be posting poetry prompts crafted from age-old Cantonese phrases. I absolutely cannot wait to see what others with different language backgrounds will do with these prompts, to re-image these proverbs and metaphors.

***

Summary

By Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash
  1. If something is hard, accept that the first step won't be perfect, but in completing it, you are learning and moving forward towards something valuable.
  2. In limitations there is creativity - it forces you to stop using old habits and to create new ones outside of them.
  3. When in doubt, lists can help kick off the structure to your poems.
  4. A concept can sometimes be better expressed in a different language in one word than a whole sentence in English.

***

Lucy (The Eggcademic) is practicing, practicing, practicing her writing and is open to suggestions on prompts and practice ideas from others! What ways did you use to hone your writing craft? Drop all of your ideas on me, I'm ready.

This piece was first published here.

literature
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About the Creator

Lucy Dan (she/her/她)

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