March 2018 | Poetry Study, and Writing Through Another Character

Ah!  It just turned to spring, didn’t it?  (March 21st)  Does it feel like spring where you are?  Thinking of my writing colleagues across the country and across the world, I’m sitting at my desk imagining what spring is like for them in Phoenix, Los Angeles, New Jersey, India, Australia, Tanzania, and Cambridge, England.  And even though the calendar says it’s spring, this week we had snow.  Big sloppy snow flake packets dropping from the sky to the ground, not sticking, but still – present.  This morning the sun is out, there are sounds of birds in the budded or blooming trees outside, and the grass shimmers green, almost vibrating in the early-spring light.  That kind of light makes you feel like you can do almost anything.  Doesn’t it?

I would love to share this inviting poem from Joy Harjo, “Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit”, courtesy of The Poetry Foundation’s “Poem of the Day” (have I convinced you to subscribe to POTD yet?):

Don’t Bother the Earth Spirit
Joy Harjo

Don’t bother the earth spirit who lives here. She is working on a story. It is the oldest story in the world and it is delicate, changing. If she sees you watching she will invite you in for coffee, give you warm bread, and you will be obligated to stay and listen. But this is no ordinary story. You will have to endure earthquakes, lightning, the deaths of all those you love, the most blinding beauty. It’s a story so compelling you may never want to leave; this is how she traps you. See that stone finger over there? That is the only one who ever escaped.

I love that in this poem Harjo shakes up the “typical” poem form.  She doesn’t use line breaks, she talks to the reader conversationally, but at the same time, the poem goes into compelling and dramatic places.  “If she sees you watching she will invite you in for coffee, give you warm bread, and you will be obligated to stay and listen.”  And then:  “You will have to endure earthquakes, lightning, the deaths of all those you love, the most blinding beauty.  It’s a story so compelling you may never want to leave; this is how she traps you.”  What is it that makes us want both the comfort of warm bread and the stunning sight of blinding beauty?  It is interesting that we, as humans, endure deaths of loved ones AND earthquakes AND beauty.  What do you think?

Happy Spring!


Here is a 101-word story from my “Eleven Stories” writing course!

Marley & Marley, by Theresa Barker

The twins named the gerbils the same name:  Marley.  They saw that movie “Marley” a few years back with the silly yellow labrador retriever named Marley.  They’d fallen in love with the dog in the movie, goofy as he was, and that’s where the name came from.  These were only two small hamsters, but they were golden and they did race around the cage, much as Marley the dog had raced around in that movie.  Their father and I objected to the same-name strategy, protesting, – how would we tell them apart?  But the twins were set on it, so the names stuck.  We had no problem telling them apart a few months later when one of the Marleys had a litter of pups.  Plenty of Marleys now.

– The twins and their hamsters will be very happy.  The parents?  Not so much, perhaps!

Ah, I see in my notes from this story that I wrote this for a different purpose.  For this story I opened a book of short stories and I picked several titles that jumped out at me, then I wrote  my own (brief) story for each title.  This title was from “Marley and Marley” by J. R. Dawson and it appears in the November/December edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science FictionDo you ever try writing from “found words” or sayings that you encounter?


Writing Tip – Seeing Work Through Another Character

Have you ever fallen in love with someone else’s writing, but you’re not sure how to study their work or learn from it?  You might give this a try:  pick a story you enjoy or admire, and then rewrite the story from the point of view of a different narrator.  It might be another person in the story, it might even be an inanimate object or an animal.  In this way, you can study the author’s writing – where does this narrator come into the story?  What is important to this narrator vs. the original narrator?  What insights does the new narrator provide, what secrets does it have?  – And as you pore over the original story, picking up clues to your new narrator’s story, the rhythm and the lilt of the author’s original writing can become a part of your thinking, which helps you work new techniques into your own writing.

Let’s take an example, Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”.  Here is an excerpt from the opening:

. . . The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid.

“What should we drink?” the girl asked. She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.

“It’s pretty hot,” the man said.

Suppose we wrote a new section from the woman’s point of view.  It might go something like this:

We sat at the little table outside in the shade, though it was too hot even then.  He always wanted to be outdoors.  It was like he was watching for something, some sign.  He didn’t say anything, like usual.  I put my hat on the table.  I said, trying to be nice, “What should we drink?”

He said, “It’s pretty hot.”  He was looking at the white hills across the valley.

Granted, this may not be brilliant text.  But it gives you the idea; we are in the viewpoint of the woman, and as narrator she’s telling us she’s irritated with him, she’s tired but trying to get along.  He seems to be ignoring her, “as usual.”  We’re hearing what’s important to the woman, what she does not tell the man, how she’s feeling in the heat and isolation of the train station.

As an exercise, let’s try narrating from an object’s point of view.  Maybe the white hills?

Down along the valley, in the small adobe train station, the man and woman sat outdoors at a table.  The white hills along the valley of the Ebro had seen eons of human and non-human history.  The station and the train had only come into the valley recently, in a blip of time.  But the hills watched everything:  sky, valley, train station, people.  There was some interest in the goings-on of humans.

Even though this seems unpromising – what could enormous hills have to do with the story of a man and woman waiting for a train? – the exercise could take you into a different frame for your writing.  For instance, the hills could be angry toward the intrusion of humans, the scratching of earth and the disruption of the natural system.  Or they might be philosophical that humans are nothing compared to the long timeline of the hills and valley.  Because the narration of an object (or in this case, landscape) is so unusual, it may lead you into a poetic or lyrical approach that you wouldn’t have otherwise discovered.

Next time you run across an intriguing story or piece of literature, stop and think:  what would happen if I rewrote this story using another narrator?  Even if you only write a couple of pages in the new narrator’s voice, having studied the original story and attempted your own version will lead you into new writing and new voices.  Try it!

24 thoughts on “March 2018 | Poetry Study, and Writing Through Another Character

  1. Peter Klopp

    Thanks for the writing tip, Theresa! Right now here in Western Canada we are eagerly awaiting spring (see my photos in today’s post). I like your photo of the raindrop on the leaf, a natural magnifying glass.

  2. Dahlia

    Thanks so much Theresa for introducing me to yet another wonderful and unique poem. I am captivated and charmed by this style which I did not even know was considered as poetry. I think I should subscribe to POTD but then why bother when you are there to do all the hard work and pick out the best of the best for me? 😀 Also thanks for the writing tip – I have written short stories that are completely and instantly inspired while reading others’ works but of late i havent been reading at all. I should get back to reading. With time in short supply I desperately need 48 hours in a day! Or may be I should re-schedule my week/month as 48 hour days. That way I will have enough time to read and exercise 🙂 I’ve been meaning to ask for sometime now what happened to your patch of garden? With spring has it grown, showed results? Would love to have a picture update on it! Have a wonderful day

    1. TheresaBarker Post author

      Dahlia! I wanted to tell you, I read the little piece I wrote for Miró’s “The Farm” about the tree in the garden of good and evil that was one of your trees, I read that piece at my reading event last week: “It was one of Dahlia’s trees, but it did not know it.”‘ I wonder if you felt your ears burning at the time? Haha I was glad to be having you in my thoughts and in my heart at that moment. (Wed. Mar. 28th, in the evening Seattle time!)

      Yes, I love your thought, why subscribed to Poem of the Day if I can do the work for you! 🙂

      I know what you mean about the shortage of hours in the day. Reading, reading, reading can be hard to fit in. Even harder: what to read? These days the new books lists seem to be full of very difficult stories of abuse, violence, hatred . . . perhaps mirroring the world? It can feel discouraging.

      I was surprised to read of your interest in my little garden. I had not checked on it! This weekend I went out and I took some more photos. So far, so good. The plants are still there, no one has trampled them or yanked them out . . . it’s a little bit of a public place at the end of the road, so you never know. But so far. I’ll include the photos in an upcoming post!

      . . . and your comment reminded me, I need to foster my writing like I foster my growing plants. – Try not to neglect it, try to keep coming back to it. Thank you, my friend! 🙂

      And tell me, how is your shifting house working out? I hope you are feeling more settled. Looking forward to more trees, more trees! 🙂

      1. Dahlia

        I did sneeze a lot! Over here if one sneezes or has hiccups it is because someone is remembering us 😀 I am really touched, excited (and flattered!) to know that you read about Dahlia’s trees half way across the world. How cool is that!
        You are so good at your selection of poems that I actually dare not delve into that world and come out disappointed and like you said, even disturbed. So I shall stalk your blog for pearls and gems 😀 And now photos of your little garden!
        Thanks for asking about my shifting, thankfully things are more settled now and I am back to blogland 😀 Have a wonderful week Theresa – I will be waiting for photos of your garden and your other posts too 🙂

      2. TheresaBarker Post author

        Aha! I know you must have been sneezing because of my reading. That’s a wonderful connection. And thank you for your encouragement about poetry, I’ll be glad to continue. Yes, it takes persistence to find a poem that really speaks to one. 🙂 Glad you’re back to blogging!

  3. Lyndalee Hovey-Crain

    I love the poem and the style it was presented. The author wants the reader seduced into imagery and become like the stone… there.
    I love rewriting other people’s story, it makes you rethink each word with the author’s and your eyes and challenge your muse to bring it on.

    We are finally turning green here in New Jersey. We still have traces of last week’s storm but it is fading with each day. I never mind spring storms, because beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to poor man’s fertilizer before the heat of summer appears.

    A pair of hamsters named Marley, that’s a lot to live up. The dog, Scrooge’s ghost, Good thing they didn’t see the movie Dumb and Dumber.

    Very enjoyable read, Teresa.

    1. TheresaBarker Post author

      Lyn! Thank you for your lovely thoughtful commentary. I’m so glad to catch up with you! I appreciate your thoughts about the poem, and more so because you are a poet!

      I think you are right about the rewrite being a way to rethink the author’s words and adapt the story to your own way.

      Turning green in New Jersey! Yay! When I was in Boston in January it was brown, brown, brown. Brr!

      I was puzzling and puzzling about your reference to “Scrooge’s ghost,” and then it hit me! Marley (as in, “Marley was dead.”). Silly me. I must have been thinking of Bob Marley, and reggae. Hah!

      You’ve been in my thoughts, Lyn! How are you feeling about your novel projects, as I remember you did a novel course last summer, and then there was the brave NaNoWriMo project you did in November. I hope you still feel good about your accomplishments and progress from 2017!

      And at times I wonder about your Airbnb business, I still remember the delicious scones you wrote about. How’s that going, still good?

      Thank you again for taking the time to share your observations, and I’m happy to feel connected to you through your writing. 🙂

      1. lyncrain

        The airbnb is going slow right now. I kinda expected that with the crazy weather. I’m starting to get bookings for the spring already especially in May.
        I’m frustrated with the book right now, so I’m working on 30 days of poems on death. I’m feeling good with this goal. Death is such an amazing subject and hopefully it will get me back on track with my book.
        Oddly enough, we’re beginning April with another snow storm. I feel for the daffodils, forsythia, crocus, and muscari, they’re all getting a cold blanket. I’m so over this weather. It was 60 on Saturday.

        How’s your writing projects going?

      2. TheresaBarker Post author

        Lyn! I love the idea of 30 days of poems on death. That is so interesting! And like you, we got a strange thunderstorm this evening with hail! Strange weather. 🙂

  4. Anne J.

    Wonderful poetry! And definitely great author newsletter. You are so inspiring, as always.
    Writing stories from different perspectives is quite interesting. I sometimes think about changing my initial perspective, say shifting from the female protagonist to the male counterpart in a love story. It will definitely change the story.

  5. Joy

    Amazing newsletter, Theresa! The poem is beautiful–I love the tone and the format in which it is written. I will be sure to try out the writing tip; it has never occurred to me to rewrite a story with a different narrator. Introducing a new point of view will definitely allow you to examine the writing on a deeper level! Thank you for sharing your brilliant ideas! 😊

    1. TheresaBarker Post author

      Thank you for your long thoughtful comment, Joy! I like that poem very much, too. And I’ll be interested to know if you enjoy the new-narrator writing. Thanks again! 🙂


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