Wednesday, June 9, 2010

How I Write

Over the past couple months I've had people ask me how I write. Where I draw my inspiration, what process I use to come up with my compositions. Yesterday a very dear friend wrote a wonderful poem on her blog. In her post she also asked for suggestions on how to overcome writer's block. At the risk of seeming self-indulgent I thought I'd take this time to run through some of my philosophy towards writing and discuss the approach I take. (I'll focus specifically on poetry and prose as quite a few of you are aspiring poets). I'm no expert but what follows is what works for me...


Unless it's been for academic reasons I have never actively sat down to write a poem. In other words, the inspiration has to be there first before the words can flow on paper. My inspiration comes from several places. Things I've seen, experiences I've had or that others I know have gone through, people I've known, or many things about which I'm just plain curious. In all cases the subjects of my writing have been those I've been passionate about and/or that I romanticize. When I use the word 'romanticize' I'm referring to anything in which I find an underlying beauty and mystique which may in fact be more than it possesses, or that others may or may not see. For example, Brooklyn was influenced by Springsteen's writing, my attempt at a vignette painted upon a stark urban canvas. For me the main character in that piece wasn't the lovelorn musician but the tenement building in which his girlfriend lived. When I was looking for a backdrop to this story I realized I held a romanticized notion of these buildings, so it seemed like a logical choice. The story played out very clearly in my mind before I ever wrote a word.

Whatever you choose to write has a better chance of being a strong piece if it's about something that inspires you. Where that inspiration comes from will be different for everybody. For some it comes from a very dark place and the result can make for heavy, even disturbing reading. This is perfectly valid, because to my mind the purpose of poetry is to evoke emotion in the reader. Your writing is an expression of who you are and what you're feeling.  No one is to say if it's right or wrong.


So how do we stay motivated to write? Why is it that some of us stumble and stagnate while others seem to consistently turn out compositions? (Doesn't it frustrate you sometimes to see that?) I have some unfinished pieces that will probably sit for a while until something prompts me to return to them. Others have almost written themselves, and those that have were invariably about things of which I felt intensely. Again, motivation is helped by writing about a subject I feel so strongly about that it will hold my interest long enough to finish it.

Writer's block. Sucks doesn't it? I think we all experience it at one time or another. I've found no magic solution to overcome this, sometimes it just takes time and patience until the mood strikes again. But there are a few ways to combat it. First, many of us have a tendency to put too much pressure on ourselves. It may seem counter-intuitive, but sometimes just putting it down and walking away for a while helps. If I give it a day or two and come back, often I'll find I can approach it with a fresh set of eyes and take it in a direction I may not have thought of before because I was too close to it.

Another approach to overcoming writer's block is to simply sit down and start. Think of a subject that inspires you.  If writing is something you enjoy, try to do it as much as possible. You may find that when it becomes a habit, words will come more easily.


Okay so maybe you won't sweat much, but if you're putting all of yourself into your writing you'll still find that you're exercising your heart and mind. You may even find the process emotionally draining at times. This for me is when it's most rewarding, because I know I've reached down and pulled out something very personal. Things like this tend to resonate with people.

I find writing poetry or prose very much like putting together a puzzle. I'll be in the shower or drifting off to bed when an idea strikes me. This is always followed by words, lines and phrases that come to mind. I'm never too far from a pen and paper; I keep one on my reading side table in the living room, on the desk in my studio, in the glovebox of the car. (This is often where a lot of things come to mind. It isn't easy trying to jot down notes when you're crawling along in rush hour traffic!)

These notes end up in the form of various scrap pieces of paper, which I input regularly on my computer (I always compose on a word processor; it's so much easier to rearrange things). If I wake up at 2:00 in the morning and think of something I'll write it down, even if I'm too sleepy to know if it's good or if it can't be used in anything I'm currently writing. This is where the fun begins. I start to piece together these random thoughts as I would a puzzle, discarding what doesn't fit, adding more and tweaking certain words here and there. This process can take days, weeks or months.

I tend to write in 'free verse'; I usually find trying to fit thoughts into rhyme somewhat restrictive because I tend to look for words that will make it conform to a scheme rather than convey what it is I want to say. When I am composing in rhyme I take a more methodical approach. Usually a rhyme scheme will come to mind that lends itself to the poem.  It's not anything I consciously choose.  I'll use the last stanza from Released as an example:

What goes on in your good-girl mind
What shadows lurk, what secrets to find?
Would you surrender yourself
For one night of sin
When the wind blows through your door
And the wolf creeps in?

Let me simplify the structure to illustrate my point...

What goes on in your good-girl mind
What shadows lurk, what secrets to find?
Would you surrender yourself for one night of sin
When the wind blows through your door and the wolf creeps in?

I rarely have the entire verse in my head when I start, so I might literally notate it like this on the page (screen):

What goes on in your good-girl mind   A
                        , what secrets to find?   A
                                                of sin  B
When the wind blows through your door and the wolf creeps in?  B

I virtually never have time to write a poem in one sitting.  Instead the process consists of stolen moments, jotting down words here and there as I'm able until the piece gradually comes together.  It's easy to forget the meter of the poem between the time I begin writing and the time I come back to it, so often I'll fill it in with 'nonsense' words (which I distinguish)...

What goes on in your good-girl mind   A
Where do you go, what secrets to find?   A
Can you uncover the dark for one night of sin   B
When the wind blows through your door and the wolf creeps in?  B

These lines don't have to make sense, I just use them as temporary 'placeholders'.

Now a few random thoughts:

-Have a specific intent in mind before you write. What story or message do you want to convey?

-Write when the mood strikes you, but don't force it. It's rarely productive.

-Don't rush the process, have fun with it.

-Be prepared to toss out some lines or phrases that don't fit in with the mood of your poem. Just because it sounds pretty doesn't mean you have to use it.

-Keep whatever you don't use, as it may find its way into another piece later on.

-Once you're satisfied with what you've written, put it down and come back to it a day or two later. You may find there are some changes to be made. I'm forever reworking what I thought was finished.

-Decide who you're writing for. You may choose to present something you've written to friends and family, if so be prepared to be critiqued. But if it's something you love, that's all that matters. Even if it isn't strong technically, your writing is an expression of who you are. Again, there's really no right or wrong.

I look forward to reading more from you.  ♥


  1. I SO loved this post! It really helped with techniques and such. I have a little green poetry notebook that I carry EVERYWHERE. It has a lot of unfinished poems, and you're right, I need to get in the mood to finish them or else they'll be too forced. Now I know to save everything I don't use. Thanks darling!

    xo, Sophia

  2. I will learn from this post... I will copy and paste this in my inspiration folder. Maybe I can write something good someday. Thanks for sharing this Barry. xoxo

  3. Thanks for sharing Barry! I used to be so into writing when I was in school (as in not college) but since then it's almost become a chore when I have a paper due or something. I think that's part of why I love blogging... it gives me a chance to express myself with the written word, even if I don't use poetry to do so.

  4. " the inspiration has to be there first before the words can flow on paper" <-- I think this is the most important key to writing. I've written some things by intentionally sitting down to write, but they are never even CLOSE to being my best works. The best and most intimate, moving ones come from being inspired prior to writing.

    Great post and thank you for taking the time to go into such detail for us.