Fearless In-class Writing: or, how to write a poem about manure

There are many things I enjoy about teaching creative writing: the excitement of the students, the chance to encourage young hopefuls, the opportunity to watch them grow into better writers…

And manure.

Yes, that is cow-pie-in-the-sky I’m talking about. I confess, not the most poetic word I’ve ever run to ground. But that is the point of fearless writing prompts: you never know what you’re going to get.

The assignment: List ten words on the board, then write a poem including all of them. Switch with a partner, and using the same words and similar structure, change the poem’s tone. I’ve done this exercise before and it always stretches those poetic muscles, but I confess, I was not anticipating the possibility of such a “loaded” (pardon the pun) word.

It’s a very enthusiastic group, and daring, too. They boldly chose the never-going-to-rhyme-with-that “orange” along with nouns like “specter” and adverbs like “spectacularly.” But the tour de force for me was the addition of one particularly concrete word, its attendant images–and scents. We have “mountain,” and we have “manure.” In the same poem, mind you. AND–while the first go can be humorous, the second poem must substantially change the tone, must be serious, or sad, nostalgic or threatening. With manure.

As the instructor, I confess, I began to have one of those intervention moments: the shoulders creep up bit by bit until my elbows sprout from my ribcage–the smile freezes in place, and I develop a Stepford Wife blankness over myfeatures. This is not going to work as you planned, the shoulder devil whispers. No doubt about that, agrees the shoulder angel. But my policy is to kill all sacred cows and go forth in no-fear mode: Xtreme Creative Writing.

“Do we have to use all the words?”

“Yes, you do.”

“Even that one?”

“Yup.”

And they do. And they are brilliant. One pass was a manure fight, the next a commentary on war… the dung hill became metaphor, became the guts of reality, Became strangely nostalgic, became indicative of earthiness. We read them out loud, we shared them, we laughed, we clapped. We spread that lovely word all through our work, all through the class.

And I return to an early remark, one I made many months ago on this same blog: our job as teachers of creative writing is to create hurdles for students to leap over, and when that gets easy, to make the hurdles higher. We give them boundaries so that they may cross them. We give them assignments so that they may surprise us.

Manure: organic matter than contributes to the fertility of soil, that provides nutrients in order to inspire growth.

Strangely apt, isn’t it?

2 Replies to “Fearless In-class Writing: or, how to write a poem about manure”

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