The Poet’s Toolbox: Generate Ideas and Inspiration

by Manuela Williams
published in Writing

Hi, writers! Today, I want to talk about some of the strategies I use to generate ideas and inspiration, especially when I have a deadline to meet. 

Before starting grad school, my “writing schedule” typically involved waiting around for the perfect idea to strike. I didn’t have a set writing schedule, and I spent a lot of time wandering around with half-formed images and unfinished poems rattling around in my brain. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with this strategy (after all, it worked for me for several years!), it does make things a lot more difficult when you’re suddenly faced with a looming deadline. 

Now that I have a rough draft of a poetry manuscript due by the end of the summer, I can’t exactly sit around waiting for the great Muse to bless me with amazing ideas—I need to do some of that magical work myself. 

Before moving on, I want to pause and emphasize the importance of having, at the very least, dedicated writing time for yourself. For those of us who are also juggling jobs, school, and family commitments, this might mean you can only spare a couple hours a week. That is completely fine! As long as you are dedicating at least a little bit of your time to writing, and are consistent, it’ll get easier and easier to rely on yourself for generating inspiration and ideas rather than relying on the mysterious and fickle Muse to drop the perfect idea into your lap. 

Here are some of the strategies I’ve been using this summer to generate ideas and inspiration for my poetry manuscript. 

Breathe New Life into an Old Draft

I’ve got a folder on my computer named “Crappy Drafts” where I banish my most atrocious, embarrassing poems (or sometimes poems that are okay, but they’re missing that special something). If I’ve been staring at my computer screen for two hours with nothing to show for it, I turn to my “Crappy Drafts” folder to generate ideas and inspiration. 

A lot of the time, distance and time are all I need to turn a “crappy draft” into a magical, or if not magical, decent first draft. Here are a couple of the techniques I use when I’m really stuck and want to breathe new life into an old draft: 

1. Turn a traditionally lineated poem into a prose poem. 

This is a pretty simple exercise. You take an old draft that uses more traditional line and stanza breaks and, essentially, delete all those line and stanza breaks, forming a block or prose poem. 

Sometimes all it takes to see your draft in a new light is to radically change the form it takes. 

Alternatively, if you have a prose poem, you can try breaking it into lines and stanzas. I’ve had really bad prose poems suddenly take on a new life after I’ve broken them into lines. 

2. Cut a poem in half. 

I think this is one of my favorite strategies because there is just something so satisfying about cutting out all the fluffy or over-explanatory language in a poem. 

Think of this technique as a form of extreme editing. Take a draft poem and cut out at least half of the words or lines. Some words you might consider removing are transition words and any narrative connective tissue in the poem. 

Alternatively, you could also try adding in more. For example, if your poem is a page long, try writing another page, expanding on ideas you begin to explore in your original draft. 

Make a Word Collage

Lately I’ve been using a website called Magnetic Poetry for inspiration. Essentially, you’re given a digital “word bank” and, much like you’d do with a physical pile of random, cut-out words, you can arrange them on screen to form poetry. 

I think this is such a cool exercise because you aren’t given a lot of narrative connective tissue in your word bank. This helps me focus more on creating interesting images and metaphors. I wouldn’t say that I get complete poems from this exercise, but I’ve definitely come up with some unique imagery, which then sparks a fuller draft. 

If you’d rather not do this exercise online, you can easily recreate it by cutting out random words from old magazines and rearranging them to form minimalist poems or, at the very least, inspiring images and ideas. 

Find Inspiration in the Everyday

When I first started writing poetry, I felt a lot of self-imposed pressure to write about Big and Serious topics. I’m talking about things like death and love and loneliness. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are some excellent poems out there about these very topics, but they can also be challenging and intimidating to write. I think this is mainly because, by themselves, big events and emotions like death and love and loneliness can feel very abstract on the page. Especially if you’re trying to capture such universal experiences in one relatively short poem. 

I still find myself writing about these topics, however, they are scaled way down. How do I scale something like love or loneliness down in a poem? I use everyday experiences to make abstract emotions and events more accessible and relatable to my readers. 

For example, a while back, I really wanted to write a love poem for my partner. However, I didn’t want it to rely on abstractions or cliches. Instead of waxing poetic about the swelling emotions I experienced around my partner, I decided to show the love and tenderness between us by zooming in on a very specific moment in our day-to-day lives. This moment didn’t encompass our entire relationship; however, by focusing on such a small, everyday occurrence, I was able to really hone in on the love in that moment rather than trying to write about love in a more abstract, generalized way. 

Take a Break

Sometimes, you just need to take a break. I get this feeling when I’ve written every day for five days straight and, once I sit down at my desk on the sixth day, I just can’t. My brain feels fried and words won’t appear on the screen no matter how hard I try. 

In cases like these, it’s perfectly acceptable to take a break from everything writing related. I like to think that our brains need time in the “real world” in order to recuperate and gather more inspiration. 

So, if you feel burned out and like you can’t write a single word more, I say take a break! Go for a walk, read one of your favorite books, or cook a delicious meal. And, once you’ve taken a couple days off to recover, get back to work. 

You might be surprised by what you come up with once you’re fully rested! 

What other exercises do you use to generate ideas and inspiration for your poetry? 

Manuela Williams lives and writes in Nevada. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks and one paranormal fiction novella. When she’s not writing, Manuela loves reading romance novels, drinking *all* the coffee, and playing video games.

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