Monday, August 6, 2012

The Importance of Word Play

I'm pleased to welcome Khara House to the house (I'm sure she hasn't heard that one before). She's covering one of my favorite subjects: playing with words! Khara is a poet, freelance writer, and educator. She just finished her first year teaching at the university level, teaching First-Year Composition and an Intermediate Poetry Workshop. Khara says, "I have been writing for as long as I can remember, though only recently have I started working to share it more seriously, and more widely. I am currently focusing a lot more on both my poetry and my blog, through which I hope to share many of the rich experiences I have been blessed with through writing." Find Khara online at

Khara House, poet, freelance writer, and educator

When I walk into my poetry class, I hold a small pile of poems in foreign languages. As class begins, I pass out the poems, tell my students to pick one, and begin translating it. For a moment, I am met with disbelieving glances that tell me my students are officially convinced I'm insane. But then, as I lower my head and begin my own translation, I hear a few murmurs, a collection of giggles and groans, and finally the movement of pens over paper.

Poetic Serendipity
Word play is, for me, one of the essential tools in a writer's toolbox. When I talk about word play in a workshop, I usually also talk about poetic "serendipity"—that is, letting words guide you rather than you trying to guide the words. Too often we, as poets and writers, try to force words—or characters, or scenes—into line when all along the words are just waiting for us to let them do what they do.

There is a story about Michelangelo that I think speaks to this process of letting creative juices flow as they will, when they will. A man came into Michelangelo's studio and found him staring at a block of marble (that, the story says, would eventually become his statue of David). When the man asked Michelangelo what he was doing, Michelangelo simply replied, "I'm working."

When I asked my students to do the translation exercise, I was asking them to become Michelangelo and simply wait on the words within them to form themselves: to stop worrying about what the poem should mean, and instead allow themselves to express themselves freely. An exercise like this, and word play in general, allows us to step outside of the world of sense and engage in a world of play. It practically forces us to accept that sometimes the best poems are the ones that are completely out of our control; they will only settle into what they are supposed to be when we stop trying to force them into being.

Sample translated poem (in Armenian)

Same Poem Different
As the activity ended, my students and I took turns reading our poems. After discussing the prompt's purpose, I revealed my "big secret": despite the fact that they worked with ten different languages, they had all been translating the same poem … and it was one I had written! What made it such a fun surprise was that when I read them the original, one student pointed out that even my translation was different than the original! This only further emphasized the point of the exercise: stepping out of the familiar, and letting the mind run wild.

I encourage you, whether you are a writer of poetry, fiction, or nonfiction, to take some time and step out of your writing's way. Free write for an hour. Write a fake dialogue with a character; let yourself be surprised by what he or she has to say. Play with the words you are writing—you'll find they make excellent playmates!


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J.lynn Sheridan said...

A great reminder that we all need to relearn how to play. Thanks, Khara!

Unknown said...

This is fantastic!! Thank You Khara for opening a door for me,letting me step in and have a seat! I'm in no way a writer..But I often let my imagination run wild and let it take me where it wants. I think we all should take a step back and do this from time to time. Makes life seem not so hectic for a little while (:

Lara Britt said...

Ms Khara, as always, you are an inspiration as well as a joy to the mind and soul! Thank you, Robert, for showcasing one of my favorite people and poets in this world.

Unknown said...

Khara, this is brilliant! Your description made me laugh out loud as I read - AND made me want to go and find ten pieces of foreign-language poetry to translate. What a great way to access the right brain and let the "mind run wild."

Lauri Meyers said...

Love it Khara! Just seeing your poem in another beautiful language is inspirational.

Michael said...

Thank you, thank you! I plan to share this with my creative writing class- citing you as the source (of course). Blessings!

Gerry said...

I love it, Khara! So true, that we all need that freedom to play with words. I wish I could take your poetry class! Thanks, Robert, for bringing Khara to us.

Unknown said...

Thank you all for your lovely comments. This has been a wonderful exercise both for students and myself, whether I'm working on fiction or poetry, and it is my absolute pleasure to share it with you through Robert. Thank you again, Robert, for providing this opportunity! ~Khara

Julia Tomiak said...

What fun! And that's what writing should be, right? Thanks for providing a writing prompt - even if we can't take your classes, we can benefit from your instruction.

Rusty Kjarvik said...

This is truly inspiring to find here, this has been ever the crux of my writing habit (for lack of a better word) since the beginning of my submission and publishing process, spurred on by such poetry emissaries as Robert Lee Brewer. My first poetry collection, while amateur and self-made, is entitled, "Cyclical Wordplay" for the very pragmatic and philosophical notion that is described here. I am delighted to read this post and wish for the writing and arts world to continue the dialogue of liberated expression always, as that is first and foremost the identity of writer, as writing play, as liberator of form, in creative fellowship with all the selfless mystery about this fine universe.

Claudette Young said...

Love this, Khara, and it sounds so much like the you I've come to appreciate over the last many weeks. This is something that can be done anywhere and for as much time as a person has available in the "moment."

Great exercise and one I'll be doing for sure.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Julia, Rusty, and Claudette. One of the essential elements I try to encourage in anyone's writing is that sense of fun--that this is a joyous journey, and above all else a labor, yes ... but one of love.

De Jackson said...

Wonderful, Khara. For me, poetry should always, always be play. When I'm feeling burned out, I find that it's primarily because I've stopped playing. Love this. Thank you!

Hannah said...

So true!!!! I find I'm happiest with the results when I get out of the way!!

Excellent piece of advice...glad to have found this...timely!

:)'s to you!

Gloria said...

Here is my poetic summary of the article :-)


I am gonna let my writing shine,
to penetrate souls of deceased greatest.
I shall let no morals or standards rule,
only words will guide me to excellency.

No hands of editor or publisher,
shall tie mine to pitying silence.
Careful guided characters and scenes,
will not receive care of my time.

Poetic serendipity it shall be,
discipline outshined by letting go.
I will write not what I know,
but what words want me to know.

--Gloria D. Gonsalves

Ella said...

Thank you so much Khara! I love this exercise and the freedom you allowed~
I recently did a Dr. Seuss prompt for a poetry prompt, very few responded. It was a playful exercise to write about the man that was part of your childhood or write a poem in his zany style. Many did not embrace this prompt. Those who did said thank you-it was fun! Sometimes we just need to play~ Thank you Robert for sharing Khara with us~ :D

Unknown said...

Thank you, Gloria and Elle (and a belated thanks to De, as well!) for your comments. Often it's hard to get folks engaged with prompts, but how rewarding it is to have even one person take it on and discover something new!

Eric Indiana said...

I like making up words by combining old ones. Here's my suggestion for a way to do it:

Nichole L. Reber said...

I love this post, especially because just a moment ago I read a friend's blog post that incorporate lovely word play. Do you agree that once we grow comfortable with the revision process we can allow for more organic word play? Sometimes when I get stuck on a part I just say "Push" and manage to get through it, instead of letting the block stop my writing. If I don't like the words later, there's always the option to edit. Besides, even in 20 years we'd make revisions to our work. Glad to see you on Robert's blog.

De: I dig your comment and totally agree.

Cheers and happy new year.