I’m delighted to feature a writing prompt by the very talented David Hubbard, who is one of those rare writers who excels at both poetry and prose.
David is a writer/poet living in Carlsbad, California, about thirty-five miles north of San Diego, where he works as an environmental law attorney. He published poetry in the late 1990s, stopped writing for about fifteen years to pursue a law career, and recently started up again. Last year, he had a story published in the May issue of Marginalia and also has a poem forthcoming in Gargoyle Magazine.
When David recently told me about an inspiring writing exercise he did, which resulted not only in solving a writing issue but also led to the publication of a new poem (see below), I invited him to do this guest prompt. It’s a fabulous exercise for all writers, and I think you’ll enjoy it. Best of all, you’ll find a link to the published poem that grew out of it. Enjoy:
When I write a short story, I usually have a pretty good idea how to move the narrative from point A to point Z. There aren’t many scenes or episodes to keep track of and I don’t often get stuck. But now I’m writing a novel about the travels and trials of a young American photographer. There are a lot more things to juggle, technically speaking, and I recently ran into a problem that seemed intractable. I was trying to write an important scene that involves a house fire in New Orleans, and I couldn’t get the pieces to fit together. No matter what angle I attempted, I couldn’t make it right. I wasn’t blocked – I had plenty of words and ideas – I just couldn’t figure out how to make the movie in my head play out on the page.
So I did something to trick myself out of the rut.
Rather than beat my head to a pulp, I decided to alter the format by which I was attempting to write the scene in question. I stopped attacking it as prose and attacked it as a poem instead. The concision required of a good poem forced me to tease out the essentials of the scene and select the absolute best words to create the images and carry the story. In addition, the poetic form freed me of the kind of long descriptive passages that make a novel feel like – well – a novel. I also didn’t have to worry about dialogue.
When the poem was finished, I liked it well enough to send it out to some literary journals, one of which picked it up for publication. More important, however, it wiped the fog from my eyes and brain and I could sense for the first time how to render the scene in prose, thus allowing the novel to move forward (toward the next frustrating ditch, no doubt).
So the prompt is this: Take one of your incomplete stories (everybody’s got at least five) or your unfinished novel and locate the scene where the narrative ran off the rails – that point where you gave up and shoved the whole mess into the desk drawer or trash can. Now approach that scene not as a prose problem but as a poetry problem. Or try a third format, like pure dialogue, as if you were writing a play instead of a novel or short story. I think you’ll find that this switch in writing formats will yank you out of the loop that was causing you to drink too much.