What should I write about?
A Writing Exercise Inspired by The Anthologist
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In The Anthologist, a quirky, gem of a novel by Nicholson Baker, the narrator—a poet who is struggling to write the introduction to a new poetry anthology—answers a question about how he puts himself in a frame of mind that allows him to write poetry:
“[S]omething cracked open in me, and I finally stopped hoarding and told them my most useful secret. The only secret that has helped me consistently over all the years that I’ve written. I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you how. I ask a simple question. I ask myself: What was the very best moment of your day?’ The wonder of it was, I told them, that this one question could lift out from my life exactly what I will want to write a poem about. Something that I hadn’t known was important will leap up and hover there in front of me, saying I am—I am the best moment of the day.” (pp. 256-7)
What a wonderful idea for writers of all ages to use when we face the daunting question, “What should I write about?”
- What was the very best moment of your day so far today (or yesterday, or in general)?
- Visualize it. See it in your mind’s eye. Feel it. Hear it. Touch it.
- Do some freewriting about it. Or draw a sketch of the moment. This is pre-first draft writing and drawing, uncensored thoughts and images meant for your eyes only.
- What are the strongest words—either from your freewriting or your mind—that describe the moment? Circle them in your freewriting. Write them down in a list. Try to think of words and phrases that use all of the senses.
- Use the words in a poem, essay, or short story that captures the very best moment of your day.
- Revise, rewrite, share.
- Lather, rinse, repeat.
Listen to Nicholson Baker discuss how he wrote The Anthologist, including focusing on the very best moment of the day:
“[E]njoy this book’s intensity. Don’t break its spell. Notice the way Mr. Baker glides from Paul’s plain talk to his plummier locutions, knowing that Paul is miserably aware of how he sounds. Share Paul’s joy in the writing he adores. And remember his best ideas as if they came from a classroom, because they could. An essay, he says, is a glass of water. But if a few drops of that water fall on a hot frying pan and sizzle? Then you have a poem.”
Read an excerpt of The Anthologist.[This post was first published on Everyday Intensity.]