Mary-Jane Holmes

Love the Blank Page by Mary-Jane Holmes

The blank page can be daunting like snow drifts or an ice plain you can’t walk around. Even the most established writers know the frustration of a seeming lack of imagination or fresh ideas. When this happens to me (almost daily) I take solace in the two quotes scribbled on post-it notes and stuck on my fridge: Nabakov (paraphrased) ‘Great ideas are hogwash’ and Robert Frost’s ‘No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader’.

It’s worth quoting a bit more from this passage from Frost: ‘For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn't know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows. Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing. The impressions most useful to my purpose seem always those I was unaware of and so made no note of at the time when taken…The line will have the more charm for not being mechanically straight. We enjoy the straight crookedness of a good walking stick’

The impressions most useful to my purpose seem always those I was unaware of…. What Frost is alluding to here is a well-argued case that the unconscious is a rich source of inspiration to writers and creative process of any nature. Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler talks of ‘sensual memory’ that taps ‘the white-hot centre of our consciousness’. He posits that when we allow our rational mind, that part of our psyche that critiques, analyses, plots, edits, and focuses on ideas, when we fall back on technique or intellect rather than the unconscious we will close doors on something unique, fresh and original.

So how can we access this treasure trove of creativity and generate original and stimulating material? For once I think the poet has it easier than the prose writer. Mexican poet Tedi López Mills, talks of the genre as a site of collision, where the yoking of seemingly disparate images come together and are able to produce something new and significant. Much of the poetry that I am in awe of and strive to produce often mines connections and possibilities where there seemed to be none, and the result is that wonderful feeling Emily Dickinson talked of when she read poetry, this feeling of having one’s head physically taken off.

This is why I am a fan of such things as multiple word prompts (take five random words and make a poem from them), free association writing and ‘template’ exercises. The advantage of such props is that they distract the mind from what David Jauss calls convergent thought – trying to find a ‘correct’ answer. According to Jauss, the creative process requires a mode of thought that is diametrically opposed to this, our usual convergent way of thinking.

So writing with uncertainty, i.e. not knowing where the words are going to take you, is one way to kickstart the creative process and it is surprising how that idea you have had simmering away but didn’t quite know how to present it, will make its way into the lines that build.

But what if you have the bare bones of a poem but it feels stilted and dull?

The divergent mode that Jauss offers, is something that can help here as well. Basically, the idea is to think outside the box but with certain tools for the job:

The advice of Simone Weil is  “As soon as we have thought something try to see in what way the contrary is true.” Dreams work in this way. You’ve had that dream when you say but there was a bear but it wasn’t actually a bear it was a man in a beret. The connection of these two things can spark a compelling third factor. That is why working from dreams can be such a rich experience.

Adrienne Rich concurs: “conceive of alternatives … You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate; nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite.”

Robert Lowell often found his poems by resisting his initial, convergent impulses. According to Jonathan Raban, Lowell’s favourite method of revision was simply to introduce a negative into a line.

Here is a template exercise incorporating this idea of contradiction that I often use both in my workshops and in my own work (changing the content from time to time of course).

First two lines:                         Must have a colour

Second and third lines:          Focus on something close – the skin, the detail on an iron railing

Fourth line:                              Must have a simile with something elementary – the earth, water, a metal, a mineral etc

Fifth Line:                                Contradiction. What isn’t this thing?

Sixth Line                                Must contain a question

Seventh Line                          Must have another voice or a quote from someone else.

Eighth Line                             Refer to something elsewhere but pulled from an image from the first four lines.


Prescriptive as this challenge is, the fun lies in not knowing where it might lead (especially in editing). See it as a sort of trail-blazing, a formation of new paths in the pristine snow of the blank page.

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