Monday, May 2, 2016

A Chat with Elizabeth Crawford: Step-By-Step: How to Write a Poem When You're Blocked

My friends, I went through a period, late winter, when the grey skies had sent my Muse into hibernation. I could not have been less inspired! Our friend Elizabeth Crawford, who writes at Soul's Music,  offered me a step by step exercise in writing a poem and, as I followed the steps, it occurred to us that this info might be very handy for many of you, since we all have those times when the words won’t come.

I kept track of our emails and Elizabeth's step-by-step instructions, as we wanted to share them with you. You can keep these steps in mind next time the words are elusive. Let’s dive in!

Sherry: This chat began when Elizabeth left a cool comment on one of my Wild Woman poems: “Wild Woman calling to Wild Woman. I hear you and know this deep within me.”

I replied: Maybe it’s time for we wild women to write another poem in tandem? Though I am absolutely without inspiration at the moment….any ideas?

Elizabeth: Yes, I do, as a matter of fact. Give me a bit of time to work it out. This could be fun.

(It wasn’t long before my email pinged. It was Elizabeth.) How about I walk you through a step by step process of building a poem? Giving you the steps one at a time, maybe three or four steps.

Sherry: This sounds intriguing, but daunting, at my end, as I am brain-dead at the moment. Let’s give it a go.

Elizabeth: First step is a stream of consciousness list. But you must make some preparation. Make sure you are in a place and time where you won’t be interrupted. Have clean paper and pen. Have some kind of timer near at hand and set it for five minutes. Sit down and relax. Breathe in through your nose, then slowly release it through your mouth as though you are blowing out a candle gently. Do that three times. It is a signal to  your subconscious that you are ready to begin.

I’m going to give you a word. Let it float through your mind and begin your list. One or two words, a short phrase, whatever comes into your head. Try to be specific. Use actual names of whatever you see or feel coming at you. People, places, feelings, things, animals….whatever. Continue to write for as long as you can, but for no more than five minutes. No going back to look before you are finished. This is a stream of thoughts, associations, reflections, feelings, nothing more. No sentences, just a few words to remind you.

When I send you your word, I trust you not to peek before you are ready to do the exercise. Only then can you look at the word and begin.

Sherry: Kids, when the word came, I was careful to not let my eyes fall on it. I printed the page out and set it aside until I had time and space and energy to begin. Only then did I look at the page. It said:

Elizabeth: Now you are ready to begin. You will write whatever list of associations that occur when you read this one word. Don’t think. Just let yourself drift through all that comes into your head. Write words, phrases, etc. for no more than five minutes.

Sherry: Then I turned the page to look at the word. And it made me smile, because the word my friend and fellow wild woman gave me was:


I did my breathing, checked the clock in front of me and began. This is what came, in the order they arrived:

Nature   Grandfather Cedar    the ocean’s roar   draped in old man’s beard
   Moss   wolfsong    seaspray   the call of the Raven     the howl of the wolf
Freedom   sunrise, sunset   the inner wild: unrest     midnight moon
Sorceress       feeling caged   incantation   earth, air, water, fire    
 Longing    where is the soul’s home?    Windsong   
                   take me to the forest        
Lulled by the waves   
                            wild woman    the sky of mind

Kids, I was amazed. Since I was not inspired, not writing at all at that moment, that week, that month, I was impressed at how this process revealed itself to be so productive. This is when I began to think, if an actual poem resulted from this exercise, we would bring it to you in a chat to help you through your own thorny moments.

Sherry: Okay, my friend. I finally had time to look at the word – what a perfect word for me! – and I wrote my list of associations. In four minutes, I came to a stop. What is the next step?

Elizabeth: Another word, of course. And the same process repeated with the second word. Glad you enjoyed it and am looking forward to the next steps. I will send the word separately, so you can do it at your own convenience. Okay?

I dutifully printed off the second word, eyes averted, and set it aside till I had some time.  Sooner than I was ready, my eye happened to catch it as I was sorting some papers, rats! So I stopped and prepared to gather my words.

Elizabeth: Sherry, here is the second word. Follow the same instructions that you used for the first word. Just jot down impressions, associations, memories, images, colors, feelings…..

The second word is: woman.

Sherry: I cracked up! So I stopped and did my five minutes of word-gathering. Along trotted the words. I dutifully wrote them down. Not inspired. Just whatever came:

Archetypal    moon goddess    forest nymph    an ancient knowing
Pulled by the tides      in love with the moon         friend of wolves   
       sings to the trees        inner wisdom     the path of heart  
 lover of the sky         converses with birds         a sense of wonder      
      intuitive    communes with wild creatures      lover of the wild     
                           seeker: finder of what was sought

Then I emailed Elizabeth: What is the next step? (This is cool!)

Elizabeth: Next Step: Take each of your lists created from the words and study them. Choose three to five from each list that best illustrate your personal sense of the word itself. Sense imagery is best, what we can touch, feel, taste and smell. But don’t eliminate something that you respond to strongly because it doesn’t seem like sense imagery. This is your poem, your words, thoughts and ideas. Choose items from both lists that best express that reality. 

We’re three quarters of the way through, kiddo.

Sherry: I went back and looked at my lists. I took those words and phrases that spoke to me most strongly, and listed them on a separate page from top to bottom, with lots of space around each. Then I emailed Elizabeth.

All righty! I’ve picked my phrases – ready for the next step.

Elizabeth: The next step is the first line of the poem…..using the two words. Your first line is:

This poem is a wild woman…

And, yes, it may take the boomerang form, or go wherever you wish, using some or all of those items you got from your list.  Above all…have fun.

p.s. While structuring this I, of course, started hearing whispers of a poem. I’ve blocked it out, as I want to see what you come up with first.

Sherry: Maybe you should write yours before you read mine, and see what we each come up with?

Elizabeth: Will do. The few lines floating around in my head were interesting but not nearly wild enough, if you know what I mean.

Glad you are liking the process. When you use it regularly, I find that the process becomes almost automatic. I’d just let my mind roam through the words of a prompt and most often a first line would emerge. Sometimes I had to sleep on it, or go off and do something else for a few hours. Then I could sit down and find the basics for a poem that I can play with.

That is what happens when I do the wordles. Some of the words set me to stillness, just listening, and images, memories, and feelings arise and I am off. Most often, the rest of the words seem to find a place inside whatever formed from those first one or two words. I’ll let you know when I settle in to write it. This is fun!

Sherry: So I applied myself to my list. What emerged on the page, bare bones, looked like this with my chosen words:

This poem is a wild woman
The inner wild: unrest, away from the wild places
The call of the Raven
The howl of a wolf
Where is the soul’s home?
She chants an incantation:
earth, air, water, fire
sorceress of the midnight moon
Wild woman---the sky of mind
From the second list:
An ancient knowing
Sings to the trees
Communes with wild creatures
A lover of the wild
Wild woman has always been a seeker,
Hoping to become
A finder of what was sought

Now it was time to go into Word and get serious. I didn’t have to work very hard before the poem was complete. This emerged after only a few minutes of trying, discarding and substituting repeated words.

This Poem

This poem is a wild woman,
knocking down invisible inner walls,
the better to observe the sky of mind.
This poem is agitated,
the inner wild a climate of unrest
when too far away from the untamed places.
Attuned to the call of the Raven,
the howl of the wolf,
this town full of monster trucks and logging rigs
assaults her senses, she feeling
as alien as a cougar
inexplicably materializing
on a sidewalk in the middle
of this grey little industry town.

Where is her soul’s home?
Deep, deep, in the wild places
where only the creatures live.
Sorceress of the midnight moon,
follower of the shaman’s path,
she drums a primal beat
that speaks “Home! Home!”
with a stick carved from her breastbone,
chants incantations to earth, air, water, fire,
prays her spirit guides will lead her well,
back to the ocean’s roar and the forest’s
sacred, hidden trails.

While waiting, Wild Woman
makes her escape in a poem:
sings to the trees, communes 

with restless spirits, ululates with owls,
flies up and away over the mountain pass
every morning, every eventide,
to where the wild things are,
always and forever, forever and always,
a lover of rainforest and ocean-song,
she knows where she belongs.

Confined, her spirit finds no rest
away from her soul’s home.
Wild Woman restlessly circles and turns,
within the inner landscape,
like a too-large dog circling a too-small bed,
trying to make what does not fit, fit,
too tight the wrappings that keep her 

from flying free,
for she has always been a seeker,
now hoping to find, one last time,
what has for so long been sought.

copyright Sherry Marr March 2016

Thank you, Elizabeth, for this poem, which would not exist without your midwifery. Now let’s hear yours.

This Poem

This poem is a wild woman
clawing her way up and out
of domesticated darkness
that ensnared her for years.

This poem is a hermit, points
its nose at the moon, croons
an ancient tune that celebrates
their shared aloneness.

This poem is a gray and black badger,
swift to defend her inmost den
with a snarl whenever, wherever
it is threatened.

This poem colors its world
with odd hues from Purple to Carmine
Red, that are not supposed to blend,
but then somehow do.

This poem is magic, dances
with delight at its own ability
to breathe and celebrate
yet another solitary moment.

This poem is a lover, as well as a mother,
prowling deserted beaches and wilderness
paths, sniffing out any who might
be in need of her wild word wisdom.

This poem is a seemingly capricious
wind, where an eagle screams
and a hawk stalks its prey
from constantly swirling currents.

This poem is a tree, rooted
in rocky soil, willing to bend
extend its branches to sun
and further nurture.

This poem knows sorrow,
cries for beautiful wild world
being destroyed by human
greed and indifference.

This poem knows it could be
many things. Also knows it
will always be, yet another poem
in the making…

Elizabeth Crawford  3/21/2016

Sherry: Oh, my goodness, Elizabeth! "This Poem" is spectacular! I adore every single word! "This poem knows sorrow, cries for beautiful wild world...." Oh, yes, it does.

As we can see, my poet friends, this process absolutely works. We are excited to share this with you, in hopes it may spark some poems when you need a little nudge. Thank you, Elizabeth, for sharing your wisdom and techniques, for the love of poetry. You are a wonder.

Wow. When two wild women get together, stuff happens! LOL. Do come back and see what we get up to next. You never know who you’ll find in here of a Monday. Who knows? It might be you!


  1. Wow! Very cool to read the process and end with two wild poems, each unique as the Wild Woman who wrote it. And something you wrote, Elizabeth, reminded me of a poem I wrote long ago which I am sharing just because:

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Susan. I really like your supermoon poem, and how comforting and soothing the natural world can be in moments of darkness and searching. Maybe we should create a Wild Women Group,there are so many of us out there.


  2. Susan, I love your moon poem, such a comforting presence. I had so much fun during this process. Elizabeth, you are such a good prompter and teacher. Thank you for being up for this chat. I so enjoyed this method of writing a poem. It was fun!

  3. And I must thank you Sherry, for reminding me of how much I loved and miss the whole teaching and mentoring process. This was as rewarding to me as it was for you. And I must say, I really like those two poems together and how they express the uniqueness of each and every individual.


  4. My, this is great Elizabeth! There has to be an intrusion into the subconscious but never thought it can be so technical. A structure like this eliminates the unnecessary distractions but letting the mind to flow smoothly and ideas come tumbling in. Thanks a lot Sherry and Elizabeth!


    1. Thank you Hank. I've never thought of it as technical. We have been told that the subconscious is dark and filled with shadows. I think of this process as bringing light and inviting that part of the brain to show us what it holds (think of a dragon hording its secret treasure of jewels and shiny things). When we write, we are simply polishing those treasures and putting them on display. The process, if used regularly, pleases the dragon and allows it to teach us about the value of all those stored moments.


  5. Really I love your technique, Elizabeth. I think it could definitely work to deter writers' block. What I like about it is first the writing of lists. Everyone can do this relatively easily, I think. Then choosing a few words from each list....and going with the flow. Sounds like a winner. Next time I am STUCK I will give it a try. And Sherry & Elizabeth, I liked both of your poems. Thanks for this very interesting and helpful article!

    1. Thanks Mary, but I'd go one step further. I think it could eliminate writer's block altogether. That dragon I told Hank about is, for the most part, hording those things we might not want to know or see, or have chosen to ignore and/or forget. especially about our own journey. Whatever is there in the mind really belongs to us, and the dragon is there to protect and to guide us by using all of it. We are particularly resistant and rebellious creatures. When we relax and let it all flow, we find those bits and pieces that are most valuable to the current task. That task being to creatively express what we know and hold as truth. And sometimes we ourselves are the ones surprised by the outcome.


    2. Elizabeth, you are such a good teacher. How I would love it if there was not such great distance among all of us and half a dozen of us could get together and have you give us a workshop. Wouldnt that be the coolest? I suppose such a thing might even be possible online. I LOVE the idea of the dragon guarding the secrets and words, and allowing us to polish them and set them forth.

    3. Sherry, I would love nothing better. However, I wouldn't know where or how to begin setting up an online class. Maybe someone out there would know? I'm more than willing to try to teach online and would relish the whole idea. Thanks so much for all that you do, and we'll just have to keep our fingers crossed and perhaps sing some incantations,


    4. I feel the same, Sherry! Would love to have a writer's workshop with Elizabeth. And Elizabeth, thanks for the additional tips here....interesting about the 'dragon' and indeed we are all resistant and rebellious creatures. I do like my poetry when it expresses MY truth. And I like other poetry that expresses another poet's truths. I become more and more intolerant of poetry that rambles on and on and says absolutely nothing, poetry that makes me wonder if even the poet knows what it means. Give me good HONEST poetic truth that I can sink my teeth into. We need to, as you say, polish our own treasures......and, I might add, make something meaningful from them!

    5. Mary, I like that idea of a workshop. I used to do them, before I started teaching at the University. The process outlined in the chat is one way of inviting the imagination to reveal its treasures. There are others. It could be fun as well as creating something meaningful. Thanks so much for your support,


  6. What a great process. I love the way you shared it too, Sherry – bringing us right there with you every step of the way. And both poems are nothing short of wonderful. What a feast!

  7. These two poems are fantastic. Without knowing about the process, one would think hours and hours went into their development. Elizabeth this is such a great exercise. Can't wait to try it. Sherry, it;s so nice of you to share this here. Thank you both. My muse has been at rest for some time now. Hopefully, she will be tricked into action.

  8. Hi Myrna, am so glad you liked the poems. The exercise works because it is based in how and why the human brain operates in the manner it does. I refer to it as an invitation because that is what this process is all about. Inviting our mind to do what it does so well and then choosing to follow its lead.


  9. An online workshop intrigues me. We must chat, Elizabeth. I dont think it would be that hard to set up.

  10. What an amazing post and dialogue..lesson..and sisterhood - my favourite thing - is that it is sharing, nurturing, being open - wild- everything poetry and writing and being should stuffy suits..dusty old tomes or right and wrong - I needed this today will go back and really let those poems shine a path ahead - thank you both xo

    1. PS online workshop/collaboration sounds like what's needed to breathe life into the muse and nudge us out of our comfort zones - yep. That means you too Alice!

    2. Oh, Jae Rose, I was hoping to see you here. And so happy to hear that you enjoyed this exchange. You are so right about all of it, what poetry should be, exactly. There are wild things inside all of us, wanting desperately to get out, needing to be heard, accepted, and embraced. Thanks for stopping by, for reading, and for hearing. I'm thinking I might have a means of doing the workshop, just have to figure it all out. Will let you know if it works out. Hugs to both of you,


    3. And so good to be heard and see you too - hugs back

  11. Yes! Two wonderful poets! Two wonderful poems! Thanks so much for the process! Can't wait to try it!

  12. The workshop idea would be splendid!

    1. Thank you much, my friend. I think it would be splendid as well. Will do some more checking and see about possibilities. I'll let you know,


  13. What lovely poems and process! Thank you ladies. I just needed it now.

    1. You are welcome, Sumana, and thanks for reading and commenting,


  14. Oh I am so glad you shared this process. I do a similar beginning with getting ready. And sometimes I store up words, phrases and quotes to look at once I am ready....I am sure I can take a few more pointers to add to my process....and wow look at these 2 both created incredible works!

  15. Inspiration can come from inside, nature and others. Im glad that you had Elizabeth Sherry to inspire you and for sharing the process.

  16. I needed a big nudge as, April or no April, my Muse was sluggish this year. I am so happy everyone enjoyed this. I thought it would be helpful. Elizabeth, you are a gifted teacher!

  17. I couldn't resist trying this for the next poem that came along, which happened to be the latest quadrille prompt at dVerse: It worked a treat!

  18. Great Strategy! almost meditative in its quality. I had heard stream of conciousness is a great exercise but haven't practiced it much. I'll need to give this a try as I'm getting stuck recently, mainly due to time constraints.


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