The simplest, easiest and most painless way to write is to be stimulated or inspired by another piece of writing. Writers do this, without self-consciousness or shame! We read something and it triggers something off in our minds.
What kinds of ‘something’ might this be? And how do we allow ourselves to be triggered by other people’s writing? In one sense all we say to ourselves is ‘I could write like that’. That phrase ‘like that’ actually holds a lot of things. It can mean, I could write something that sounds like that; feels like that, has that shape, uses some of the same techniques, uses some of the same ‘motifs’ or scenes, is ‘told’ like that (narration), has that plot line (or part of a plot line), and so on.
This can work with poems and stories. We can read or hear a poem (and a song, actually) and use it to get us going in any of these ways. All we have to do is be open to what the poem or passage from a story or a whole novel and let ourselves be free enough to work with what we’ve just read or heard.
If you’re a teacher reading this, then why not try this out yourself, or with a colleague? I did a workshop this week in Newham, and the teachers brought poems to the workshop. First, we looked at them through my four questions (you’ll find them in my booklet Poems and Stories in Primary and Lower Secondary Schools or in my book, What is Poetry? (Walker Books). (These are in short: What in your life does this poem remind you of? (why? How?) What have you read or heard that the poem reminds you of? (Why? How?) Do you have any questions to ask of someone in the poem or of the poet, and can you or anyone near you answer those questions, even by pretending to be the poet? Or by asking someone? Or by using the internet or books. Can you find the ‘secret strings’ that bind the words, meaning and images in the poem together? Why? How?) These questions are again painless, fun ways to open up poems in ways that let the reader or listener find a ‘home’ in a poem or to allow the poem to belong to them. Then I asked the teachers simply to say to themselves: ‘I can write a poem like that’.
And they could!
After you’ve had a go at doing this yourself, you can experiment with it as a teaching method with your class. (In relation to those four questions, I’ve found it best for those discussions to take place first in pairs, and then back to the plenary. Then we can read those poems out loud, in pairs or in chorus (a cappella-like) or with visual material like powerpoint, or picking out words and making them into posters (like Bob Dylan and ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ video), or mimed or acted out.
By the way, we often make the distinction in education between ‘criticism’ and ‘creative’ work. Fair enough, but remember to do a bit of creative work based on another bit of creative work is a form of ‘interpretation’. And it may well be that, say, writing a poem in response to another poem, will help children and school students, do the critical stuff.