Classes at Columbia College Chicago are chugging along, so much so that I can see the end of the semester creeping up, and it’s terrifying. (The rapid forward motion of time seems incongruent with the stasis inside my head. Or is it stasis? Is it just being stuck in the past?) I’m taking three courses this semester: Composition Theory and Praxis (I’m getting so much background in teaching theory), Project-Based Poetics (a craft seminar), and the core of any MFA program: the workshop.
This semester, the workshop is composed solely of our cohort. There are nine of us in there, all first-year students from a variety of poetic backgrounds, and we all have a different outlook on writing in general and what space poetry should occupy. Because I’m back in workshop after years of academic-free life, I’ve been trying to switch up my poetry styles—I don’t want to look back at grad school and think, well, I really left that stone unturned.
Partially because of the lyric strength we have in our cohort, I’ve been making the attempt to write lyrically for workshop. One of my other professors talked about writing lyric poems the other day, perfectly summing up what I’ve been trying to discover. “Writing lyric poems actually has a certain freedom to it,” he said. “You don’t have to connect anything!” In the past, I have written in a storytelling way, almost trying to marry my lines to the cadence of speech. In retrospect, I wonder if this were a reaction to the intense amount of academic writing I did during my undergrad years—as an English Literature and Linguistics double major, I could tell you theoretical thoughts in the fanciest way possible, and I didn’t want my poetry to be anything like that.
Anyway, the point is this: I never really understood how write lyrically before, so I have compiled here a list of instructions for changing up your style, if that’s what you’re looking to do. Since I want to grow as a writer, especially during this precious grad school time, I feel as if writing through all sorts of styles will help me learn, explore, create more content.
Step 1: Carry around several notebooks. I have done this regularly since my sophomore year of high school (with occasional periods where I thought, who needs a notebook when I have this phone?), but the purpose of the notebook was always to house ideas for future expansion. Don’t even worry about future expansion. Just write random lines of anything that catches your fancy.
Step 2: Read through this notebook now and again. The ample time you spend on public transit is great for this. Let these lines marinate.
Step 3: Settle down at your laptop with the lightest, cheapest Polish beer you can find and a bag of fun-sized Snickers. Get thoughtful. Listen to the sound of frozen rain on the tin roof of the balcony. Look at how the yellow leaves of the tree outside your window interact with falling dusk. Apparently, you feel a need to write about animals. That’s a little weird for you, but, ultimately, that’s okay. Let it happen. Don’t put pressure on yourself at this stage. You can always change it. You can always leave it saved to the hard drive and never look at it again.
Step 4: Connect some of the random lines you’ve typed out from your notebook, or arrange your lines in a way that maybe helps clarity. How is this beginning to take shape? This will be difficult, but since it’s supposed to be lyric, you don’t have to rope your lines together with elaborate prose phrases. Take a second to marvel at that.
Step 5: Keep it short! This is kind of the point for you narrative ladies out there. Can you say what you want to say in half a page? (Can you stop talking for half a second to just listen?) Maybe you’ve been trying to learn how to listen since you graduated from college.
Step 6: Print out ten copies and take it to workshop. Unless…unless that one’s too weird. Maybe print out ten copies of this one instead. Now that the writing process is set on pause, you can choose from any of your beer-and-Snickers writing. See what works. Go see what your classmates think. Know that they will be honest.