There’s nothing more important to me as a poet—and as a human being, really—than awareness. Paying attention is, I think, my primary responsibility as a writer. If I don’t notice the quiet tickings within my own self, I can’t fully appreciate the secrets and mysteries carried within my own body and memory, and perhaps more importantly, my work as a writer is work as a noticer, an observer of others and the life outside my own.
Below is an exercise I use often in the classroom to try to teach students to pay attention deeply. I think it’s the most essential and basic thing a beginning writer must embrace; it’s more important than any lesson on language or syntax or tone. You won’t need much to do this exercise, really. Just some good, slow time with a group of students.
I’ve seen many poems come out of this exercise and have included one here by Seth Pennington, one of my students who graduated from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock a few years ago and is now an Editor at Sibling Rivalry Press. This exercise was printed in the second volume of a sharp and useful anthology of creative writing exercises edited by Scott Wiggerman and David Meishchen called WINGBEATS II, published by Dos Gatos Press in 2014.
Ostranenie & Awareness: Defamiliarizing the Apple
Rationale for the exercise:
How do you teach a writer to use imagery? How do you hound them out of cliché? How do you convince that the body—with its imperfect clash of all the senses—is the way into language? The trick, to me, has not been to shame writers away from their emotions and abstractions (since those are mostly likely the things that brought them to the page in the first place). Instead, I teach awareness. By awareness, I mean attention as a form of devotion; as a raw, muscular kind of seeking; as an unflinching dedication to scrubbing away one’s preconceived notions of a thing in order to see it for what it really is; as a discipline—the core discipline—of writing.
Awareness—as it’s taught to visual artists in the drawing studio or to practitioners of meditation who attempt to sit silently for hours on end—isn’t a passive reception of information. No, it is focus, a striving, something that most beginners will fail at time and again. But its worth? Invaluable. Those who achieve true awareness are changed by it. This exercise is the most succinct way I know to demonstrate this transformative power and to have students begin that practice.
- Apples. One for each student. Preferably a variety of apples, so that each has a slightly different shade and size. (It’s a thoughtful gesture to wash them beforehand, but don’t remove the grocer’s sticker.)
- Some napkins or paper towels.
- Sample poems about apples. I like to share a variety of poems that talk about apples in completely different ways, including Grace Schulman’s “Apples,” Tom Hansen’s “Fallen Apples,” Dorianne Laux’s “A Short History of the Apple,” and Donald Hall’s “White Apples.”
- Start with a discussion of defamiliarization. A simple definition is “the technique of forcing the audience to see common things in an unfamiliar or strange way, in order to enhance perception of the familiar.” Ask: if we are all telling the same stories of love and sex and death, how can we write something new? How can we sidestep the spiritual nausea of cliché? The answer doesn’t lie in writing about something completely different (if that’s possible) or in shocking your readers awake, but rather in writing about those things you know intimately well, so much so that perhaps you don’t even notice them yourself anymore. (If you meet the class regularly, it’s a good idea to incorporate as homework the night before Charles Baxter’s wonderful essay, “On Defamiliarization,” from BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE; he makes this argument so eloquently.)
- As a quick exercise, ask the students to take out their notebooks and draw a picture of a tree. Most likely, each participant will draw something that looks like a cloud on a stick. Does this really look like a tree? If there’s a window, have them go to it. What are those odd, ticking sticks in the breeze? And how is it that each student has drawn a tree without first asking what kind? Does a Palm look remotely like a Ginkgo? Or how about a River Birch or an Oak? Crepe Myrtle, Holly, White Pine—the list goes on. And how is it that we’ve simplified the world, that we’ve wired ourselves for simplicity and efficiency so much so that we’ve washed out the strangeness, the true complexity of the world?
- If there’s time, another good thing would be a quick dip into linguistics, talking about the difference between the signifier (the word itself, spelled out in four letters, “T-R-E-E”) and the signified (the thing itself, whatever particular tree it is, which is far more complex than the signifier can even come close to addressing). This, of course, points to the essential lack and laziness in language itself, and most importantly, how hard one must work to try to carve reality out on the page.
- An easy segue way from this conversation is to talk about the apple. What fruit is more commonplace and thus more overlooked? Humans have enjoyed apples since about 6500 B.C., and no other fruit is rife with more clichés. From Eve’s temptation to a doctor’s prescription, we’ve been inundated with the apple ever since we put a shiny, red apple on the desk of our grade school teacher. In turn, she taught us, flash-card icon of an apple in hand: “‘A.’ ‘A’ is for apple.” There’s likely no food that we take more for granted than the lowly apple, and thus, no fruit more difficult to write about in a fresh way.
- At this time, tell them this is exactly what they’re going to do: write about an apple (one particular apple, that is) for the remainder of their time. Then take out the bag of apples and tell them each to choose one carefully, as they’ll be with it for quite a while.
- Depending on how much time you have, it’s often helpful to take ten minutes with each of the senses. I usually start with sight, stressing on the importance of seeing something new, as if you’ve never seen it before in all your life. Attention to color is important (most will assume, quite wrongly, that apples are uniformly red), as is shape (which is never, as assumed, really symmetrical). I then move on to touch, asking them to ascertain the exact texture form of their apple. Does it feel like anything else? What about the temperature? Or the ridges one can feel if fingering around the horizontal circumference of an apple? Similarly, move on to taste, smell, and sound. Have them reach for metaphors whenever possible, especially if the comparison is completely unexpected, making the description new and unexpected.
- Have the class share their perceptions, without necessarily reading from the page. At this point, it’s not about performance or about the actual production of a written piece, but about observation. Awareness in itself should be enough. Ask: Did anyone notice something completely strange about your apple? How can we see it new? Can you make it strange? These observations are what later can go into a poem about an apple, or conversely, about something completely different that employs apple imagery. It’s all about filling up one’s warehouse of imagery: one simple observation made today, during a concentrated time with something so commonplace, could be the exact line you need to use in a poem, perhaps years down the road.
- To wrap up the class, I like to share poems written about apples so that the students can consider different ways into the subject matter. As homework, I often like to assign a poem that came out of this exercise. If possible, I try to give the group a few weeks to find their own lines.
Variations and/or adaptations of the procedures:
This exercise can be done again and again, with a hundred different variations on things we take for granted. A trip outside to actually examine trees is fantastic when possible, but you could use most anything we think we “see” but no longer see at all. Stawberries are a good, less expensive option, but I’ve also used lychees and seashells and even grapes.
Comments/tips/suggestions for success:
- When prompting the students to write, tell them not to write a poem. Most of the time, reaching for something profound and writerly will get in the way of true observation. The writing during class should be something more akin to sketching, taking down details and discovering metaphors, but not necessarily imposing any sort of cohesion and meaning yet.
- When writing through the senses, remind them of kinesthetic (tactile) learning and encourage them to apply force here and there, puncturing and rolling and tossing up their apples here and there. You can even have them smash them to the ground. Descriptions can often feel as if they’re behind museum glass without movement, and encouraging play like this can do a lot to move this exercise along.
- It’s often best to have all students bite into their apples at one time, perhaps on the count of three. Even better if you can turn off the lights and have them take that first bite in the dark!
You claim you are numb. Still
I watch you finger your
stomach and press the twist
I want to ask:
Do you miss your mother?
How she held you
kinked in her arms? Or
when she let you go—
was that too much?
Your skin isn’t different from mine.
You tell me you are softer
but know it’s only your young age.
I point to each scar, and you
recite their stories with the same fervor
as Bradbury and his tigers. I have
a favorite—in your roundness
I found a globe’s mountain
range raised from a paring knife.
It matches my mother’s on her right
hand; a bottle scar, a memory:
a mad sister, her heroin
flushed. Neck bloodswoll, crying out,
There are days when I bite into you,
and you only taste of pink and water.
Like I’m tasting the last of all
you have to offer.
I leave my mark in you
with my whole mouth, and you rest.
This is how
you want to be used.
—by Seth Pennington
Nickole Brown grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and Deerfield Beach, Florida. Her books include FANNY SAYS, a collection of poems forthcoming from BOA Editions in 2015; her debut, SISTER, a novel-in-poems published by Red Hen Press in 2007; and an anthology, AIR FARE, that she co-edited with Judith Taylor. She graduated from The Vermont College of Fine Arts, studied literature at Oxford University as an English Speaking Union Scholar, and was the editorial assistant for the late Hunter S. Thompson. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council. She worked at the independent, literary press, Sarabande Books, for ten years, and she was the National Publicity Consultant for Arktoi Books and the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. She has taught creative writing at the University of Louisville, Bellarmine University, and at the low-residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Murray State. Currently, she is the Editor for the Marie Alexander Series in Prose Poetry at White Pine Press and is on faculty every summer at the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference. She is an Assistant Professor at University of Arkansas at Little Rock and lives with her wife, poet Jessica Jacobs.