The Writing Moment

Excerpt from the Preface

The second assumption about the creative process upon which this book is founded derives from the first assumption: if poems arise out of a convergence of occasions, then the best way to teach the tools, techniques, and traditions of poetry is to immerse poets in the complex blend of occasions that characterizes the act of writing. This immersion is an effective way to encourage poets to write poems that—to honour the root of the word “verse”—turn, unfold dynamically with ingenuity, imagination, and skill. The following chapters accomplish this immersive introduction to craft by pairing my thoughts on a topic with a series of practical, hands-on writing moments.
          These writing moments are micro-writing exercises that invite you to try your hand at the topic under discussion. I call these short exercises writing moments because of the helpful double meaning of moment. These writing moments are “moments” because they will only take a short time to complete and because, when you undertake them, you will be “having a moment,” experiencing a break from the day-to-day that may already be common practice for you: turning—

Interview about The Writing Moment by Jonathan Ball.

from a dinner table conversation or from an obligation at work or from a mindless stroll—to your notebook to scribble down the line or the form or the vision that just struck you.
          The writing moments have been designed with two goals in mind. The first goal is to immerse you in this meeting of life and art, this convergence of occasions, by coupling active practice with abstract explanation; as is the case with all poets, your reading process will also become your writing process. The second is to initiate you into the two extreme poles of the poetic practice: the work—the writing routine, the daily grind, the practice that becomes a habit—and the invigorating experience of inspiration—the burst of insight or feeling with which a poem so often begins (and the experience that can transform the writing habit into an addiction). Writing moments take place within the purview of both of these poles, nurturing your habit and stimulating you to compose new work. 
          Each section also ends with a number of writing exercises and a pair of sample poems composed by some of the many talented students with whom I have had the good fortune to work. The writing exercises will give you the opportunity to further expand on the work undertaken during the writing moments, encouraging you to test out the new lessons and techniques as you compose new poems. 

Sample Writing Moment (From "Making Metaphors")

To begin with our first example, the transformative capacity of figures of thought makes them suitable for encountering and giving form to the unsaid. For example, a figure such as metaphor is indispensable for poets who seek to accurately represent the world not in terms of its basic material presence, but in terms of its strange, wondrous, irrational, ecstatic, and even violent manifestations. In this sense, the unsaid is the “not yet said” because the world has not been spoken into being in this way. It is made new. 

          The following writing moment gives you the chance to test out three processes through which this renewal occurs.


  • Writing Moment 1.9

    • Process 1: The Different Use. How might a gardener use a stethoscope? What tool, for a gardener, might the stethoscope become?

    • Process 2: Misperception. Choose an entity or object within your sight, and watch it out of the corner of your eye, so that it is just barely visible. What other object or entity, when glimpsed, does this thing become?

    • Process 3: Revelation of the Hidden. Think of someone close to you who has a hidden quality. What animal or object would this person have to transform into in order for this hidden quality to be evident?


          In undertaking this writing moment, you have inhabited one of the motivations that guides many artists: the hope to faithfully and accurately represent the world by revealing the many possible worlds that remain hidden within it.

You also had the opportunity to test out the tool best equipped for undertaking this work. Most simply, a metaphor draws a connection between two things, puts an equals sign between them, without using “like” or “as” (whereas a simile, metaphor’s familial companion, is a comparison that uses “like” or “as”). Put another way, a metaphor reveals an invisible thread connecting, for example, leafless treetops to the shot nerves they resemble, or the spurned lover’s broken heart to the shattered shards of a bottle or the husks of back-bound, long-ago starved crickets. Metaphor transforms not only our vision of the world, but also our experience of it. 

          A metaphor is composed of two parts: a tenor and a vehicle. The tenor is the literal term—in our examples, the treetops and the broken heart—while the vehicle is the figuring term, the term that reshapes the literal term—in our examples, the nerves, bottle, and crickets. As these examples suggest, John Crowe Ransom was correct to observe that the transformative power of the metaphor allows any individual to work miracles (60). Though these transformations are of a perceptual order, rather than a physical one, they are, when well executed, no less able to inspire awe and wonder.

Sample Writing Exercises
  • The old saying, “seeing is believing,” sums up our culture’s privileging of one sense over the others. What if smelling was believing? Or tasting? Or the work of a sense that we have not discovered? One of your key tasks as a poet is to renew language and perception. One method for accomplishing this is to not only avoid clichés (e.g. “seeing is believing”), but to attack them. Two strategies for waging this battle are: first, taking the cliché literally and presenting its lived implications, and, second, turning a cliché on its head. You can attempt both strategies by writing a poem in which you imagine the society that ascribes to the saying, “_______ is believing,” with the blank being filled by whichever sense (real or imagined) you wish. 

  • While at a butterfly sanctuary, I witnessed a woman covered from head-to-toe in representations of butterflies (printed on her pants and shirt, shaped into earrings, rings, and hairclips) completely lose it when real butterflies swarmed around her head (she was about thirty seconds from needing an ambulance when her family rushed her out). Have you witnessed or experienced a similar encounter with the disjunction between the ideal and the real? Can you imagine such a scenario? Compose a poem that explores this breakdown.  

  • Compose a poem that develops centripetally, moving from the broadest, encircling outside to the centre point. What is something that humanity, or a large community of people, has lost? Is it an object, an identity, an ideal, or something else? Begin your poem with “we” (speaking on behalf of yourself and the rest of this community) and move inward to “they” (the ones in the past who possessed what is now lost) to “you” (someone in the future who could retrieve what is lost) to “I” (your personal relationship to and/or opinion of the lost) to “it” (the lost object, identity, ideal, etc.).

  • Advertising is the mix of mediums (at once artistic and communicational) by which we are most inundated and which has become the predominant “lyric” form (concise, figurative, concerned with desire) in the lives of most people. In what ways are poetry and advertising similar? In what ways are they different? Create a poem that is an advertisement for the ultimate poem. If possible, format the poem like a specific type of ad (magazine, newspaper, public, online), so that upon first glance it appears to be an ad.