from the Hedgebrook Farmhouse Table Blog
In the weekly Sunday Writing Studio I lead at the San Francisco Zen Center, we begin with a round of generative writing modeled on the quick gesture drawings that often begin a life drawing class. Invoking the immediacy of these gesture drawings, I call these quick prompts “Poses.”
I adapted this strategy from my own practice of writing from the model in life-drawing sessions, a process I’d discovered in a drawing group I went to regularly when I first moved to New York in 2000. Sitting there trying to focus on drawing the model, I was very preoccupied with the gothically difficult triple breakup I’d just been through, and in an attempt to deal with this, I decided to write, as if I could sweep my thoughts and clear the way so I could just draw. And so I started writing, using the timed poses and the physical experience of writing on drawing paper with a pencil. I wanted to come in under the habit of deliberation and deferral and respond to what was there in the room with me. What began as a kind of maintenance actually became a very regular process and a series of poems called Poses.
So for the Writing Studio, I borrow this convention of the timed poses, but instead of there being a model, there is a verbal prompt. We usually begin with one-minute “poses” and then go on to two-, three-, and sometimes five-minute poses. As with free-writing exercises, the emphasis is on direct response, writing continuously and quickly, springing off the prompt. It can be a flash of an image, a moment in a conversation, a visceral feeling, a sensory memory, a quality of speech. They are hairpins to unlock a door. Sometimes taking this neutral cue can grant access to something that’s pressing for attention.
For a given class, I usually have some kind of theme in mind and the prompts cluster around this theme. Maybe they all deal with awkwardness in some way, or touch, or breakage, or interrupted perception. They can be very simple beginnings of sentences: I recognized her from her walk; I thought I saw; I was sure.
These slips of conversation situate a perception or feeling within a sample of speech, or a narrative. This provides the chance to build a context from within an utterance rather than thinking of the situation and then what someone might say in that situation. The main thing is for there to be movement through which discoveries can be made. Stumbling into something unplanned can often be a way to find a way through resistance.
After that I never
All she told me about you was
Any other time, I would have been totally discouraged
At first I thought it was broken
Before I could stop, he stopped
But after a while it started to yield
But then, I’ve never
Did you feel that?
Each one held
Even if I’d known
For weeks now
He asked if I could feel
He looked for a blanket
He put down his suitcase
He sang my name, the way he had always done
How long does it take
I couldn’t see in front of me
I couldn’t tell how close it was
I counted six, but my friend said she saw seven
I didn’t quite manage
I got back up
I knew it would happen
I leaned in
I never expected
I never had a chance to say
I never took the chance to say
I rang the bell but no one answered
I was surprised it was so easy
I’ve never had to do that
It had been so long since someone called me by that name
It hardly seems worth mentioning
It tipped over
It was so small
It was still blinking
It would have been easier if
It’s easier when
Most days I see her
No one told me it would happen so fast
Nobody told me
It isn’t enough
Now that I’m
They opened their
She said she saw her in the
She stepped carefully onto
She tried to tell her
She was right next to me
Something small floated toward them
I knew it was wrong
That scarf of yours
That was the only time I could
The boy stepped over
The ground was warm
The last time I said
The lights went out exactly when
The part of it I couldn’t see
The part of it that I could see
The pressure from underneath
The recording ends just when
They said her resting pulse was 110
This is one thing I will never
This key is for the front door, this one’s for
Those shorts you found in the desk
Today she would tell her
Underneath it I found
What made it difficult was
Whenever I tell that story I try not to
With her next to me I could
Here are some examples from Joanna Scandiffio, a writer in the Studio:
I kept trying to clean my desk but stuff just piled on top of it – breakfast dishes, coffee cups, tax bill, P&G Bill, to-do lists, airline tickets, doctor’s number and numbers that I couldn’t or that didn’t have names attached to them, business cards, articles from the New York Times, a quote from some poet and the word Canard – from the French – a false duck, a half-price duck.
I couldn’t tell if she knew or didn’t know. She is so good at not saying. She surprised me by saying just thank them for coming. You know how to work around it.
She opened her trunk and a carved malachite elephant appeared carrying a small figure under a parasol. This is to remind me of my travels. Now that I am confined to my bed I no longer feel the intense heat of the day or all the stratifications of green. My elephant and I journey, we recite foreign names on maps we find in magazines and I pretend we are lolling near the gardens of the last king of
This one, from Catherine Pantsios, plays with the prompt itself:
I asked her to repeat what she said.
She said what I asked her to repeat.
I repeated what she said to ask.
What I asked, she said to repeat.
She repeatedly said what I asked.
“I repeat,” she asked, “What did I say?”
Sometimes the Poses cluster around a specific person, as in the following set from a studio that took place on Father’s Day.
Driving with your father
Your father, biting his lip
Your father, singing
Your father’s door
Your father’s shirt
Something he confided in you
Something he kept longer than you would have expected
Something of yours he threw away
Something others appreciated in him that you never saw
Something you didn’t understand about him
Something you made for him/he made for you
And we used a similar set on Mother’s Day. Here are some quick responses from Jennifer Cheng, one of the writers in the Studio.
I think of these exercises as a kind of rigorous play, kindred to playing scales or to barre work in ballet. I know there’s a sense that writing exercises are perhaps artificial, that they distort one’s own process, but as someone who can become dazzled by infinite possibility, I find the specificity they offer often to be a helpful way into something I’ve been trying to write about. Some are lists as in, “Some of your names.” Or they can be situational:
Accidentally taking something that didn’t belong to you
Wearing someone else’s clothes
You, in a borrowed car
Breaking something that belongs to someone else
Seeing someone else in a piece of your own clothing
Finding something you had all along
A task that feels impossible, but you have to do it:
What will your life be like if it’s done
Who could do it for you?
What kind of person would be able to do it
In the Studio, I ask people to read some of what they’ve just written and I’m always astonished at what can happen in one minute, that these things are just kind of waiting to come forth. And it’s always instructive how different the responses are. Sometimes the reading lags as people feel that what they’ve written doesn’t merit reading aloud. One afternoon I said, “Okay, read the one you really don’t want to read and when someone has finished, someone else can come in. We won’t stop. We’ll just keep reading them for a couple of rounds.” It was striking how they would cue off of each other and so this became our method for reading these aloud. We just open the floor and one person reads and then another. It feels like it provides a context for people who are feeling reserved about reading to see that they can read something aloud and not only survive it but enjoy being part of the conversation.
More than anything, this process of gesture and response cultivates a readiness. It breathes into the posture of provisionality, into the habit of “waiting for a good song.” It is all a good song. The main thing is to move.
Use these prompts as you wish! And if you’d like to share any of your “drawings,” you can post them in the comment box.