Student work: Asemic page

Last day of my poetry workshop today. We ended on a sweet sad silly happy blue note, or several of them, everyone is feeling lots, and it’s all good. Delicate uncertain care. I’m honoured to be in the presence of so much true feeling. The texture of such a moment can’t always be got across – though, poets, we try – in words. Thank goodness there are for these occasions unwords!

Strained transition but man I’m blasted. Sometime when it’s over I’ll write why. Right now I want to share a few of their asemic compositions.

The exercise: Compose a page of asemic writing. The post I wrote round it here.

This first one is peacock. And bravery and has such boldness in its made mark. I love it for that and learn from it. Some of its sworls – that big blue swoop with the edge of a robin’s egg, e.g. – are not just proto-charactery but the prelim of true things.

Then there’s that centred square of no-sense going on as if it were all the order in the world – ain’t no thing, just move on. Five by five, or almost, like a Tang dynasty poem. But yet not. This poem is but yet not.


This one to me marks an opening for its author. Every crook and curve is of note, as if it belonged to a musical score. And her work after, it got smaller, sharper, every syllable counted (literally – she grooved to syllabics) and enjambments suddenly heartbreakingly present. 

Every student in this striking group had a breakthrough poem. I do think this was hers. Look how even as it proceeds it opens and bravens. 

This one touches the spirit of Oulipo, or something ‘Pataphysical, geometry of a universe soon to be invented. And of all the ones that came in, it took the most care with the page as a material object, which like a universe has more than one side, is all turnings.

This one is wholly free in its spirit of gesture and direction. The poet said she didn’t think much of it but what I love is she didn’t think much in it she just did it. Her not-thinking transmits with no loss of energy her embodied gesture to this embodied eye and the mind of it.


Dōgen: “When Yaoshan was sitting, a monk asked him, ‘In steadfast sitting, what do you think?” Yaoshan said, ‘Think not-thinking.’ ‘How do you think not-thinking?’ Yaoshan replied, ‘Non-thinking.'” This is that!

My conversation with the poet of this one went something like

—Why does this work so well??! (me)

—I don’t know! (her)

—I don’t either but it does!

—I know!

It’s barely more than scriggles. But that it gave me a word, scriggles, totally for free, means lots. It’s second-order creative; it creates creativity; it’s generative. Those earth and vegetal tones are life-in-potential. (Even what colourblind I thinks to be purple, the chlorophyll of the low-light set.) Just as asemic writing itself is meaning-in-potential.


A student in my other class, damn but I love her ambition, and so see myself in it, wants to elicit from Marvell’s “A Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body” the whole mind-body problem, link back to the Buddha on that and connect forward to modern materialist theories positing mind as an emergent property of material systems. Had to say, that’s an MA thesis, not a ten-page critical research paper. But emergence is where it’s at, complexity, new reals irreducible. (Why the eff am I advisor to a journal called Occam’s Razor?) And I trust her to find a scope to make it work. And – point of the digression – emergence is what’s here, too.

I do love this teaching thing. However good I may be at it, it is better to me. I only wish I knew how to explain to a blind inertial institution what it means to want to teach from prajna.

Exercise: Asemic writing

Gave my poetry workshop an exercise in asemic writing. First time I’ve tried it & they done good. Will post some of their scriptures soon. For now, the exercise, with prelims.

In class, showed some alphabets invented or divined. Hélène Smith‘s Martian:


Something cool by Andrew Clark I found:


Razorsharp letterset, with pareidolia, by Christopher Skinner:


Wish I’d remembered the Deseret writing created by Brigham Young:

DeseretMore widely used perhaps is Klingon:


And then an in-class exercise: Create a new alphabet. You have 15 minutes.

There was time when they were done (!?) so I had them write their names in their alphabet and put them on the board.

photo (9)

Click this one to biggen it, so worth it.

The characters illegible but full of character – I can almost tell, weeks later, whose letters are whose. (Of course the palindrome’s a giveaway.) And that’s asemic writing for you: all the meanings semantic meaning was veiling, when we were distracted by it, shiny toy, creep forth, peek out.

The exercise they went home with: Compose a page of asemic writing. And man did some come out good. I will post post haste.

To those who had trouble with the ex, I said, try it anew with your eyes closed. (Makes me no better than some Obi Wan voiceover, I know.)

Examples of asemic writing I had for them, who now are you, to look at.

Zhang Xu‘s “wild cursive,” or loosely (or wrongly) “wild grass cursive”:


A few by Henri Michaux:

A couple by Paul Klee:

And this wonderful ongoing project, The Geranium Lake Properties, by Lyn Tarczynski, maybe my favourite asemic compositor out there.

And this bed of asemic misadventure, The New Post-literate, edited by one of the mode’s current progenitors, Michael Jacobson.

Also had them read these good orientations on the practice:

Tim Gaze on asemic writing.

Michael Jacobson on asemic writing.

Minnesota Center for Book Arts, “Making Sense of Asemic Writing.”

Postscript. Orientations, orient, Orient, Orientalism. Can’t help but wonder, worry a little, as I play around in the asemic stream, what kinds of othering might be going on. It’s pleasing to make a script one recognizes and doesn’t, cognizes and doesn’t. It gets fantasy circuits firing without any durable duty to, I dunno, the actual world of beings bedded in history. Sort of the way paintings of Turkish harems might have got Euros turned on in the 19th C?

Play’s okay, we all need to sometimes. But while most of the asemic stills in SCRO, my current project, are redolent of leafs and bugs and unraced faces, there are those that might mind one of an ethnographic rattle, or petroglyphs I saw somewhere, and others please me maybe for imping the fluidity of Arabic.

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What the fuck am I redoing the Mikado for the 21st C or something? I don’t mean to, but do I get to claim the privilege of not meaning to? A couple friends and I are putting together a proposal for next year’s CCWWP Convention, theme of necessary conversations in a time of racial and gendered violence. Had thought to propose on this – show some, say my self-questions, see what other questions flew. (Our thinking’s gone another way, another post on that.)

Post-postscript. Are many Arabics gorgeous and asemic to me meaning God.

In the name of Allah
“In the name of Allah beneficent and merciful”

There needs to be room for play of equals. That astonishing face is full of play.

Post-post-postscript. The book that got me started on this whole misadventure – erasure, asemia, the limen, the lumen, the clinamen, compostery even I’d maybe say, is Imagining Language, eds. Steve McCaffery and Jed Rasula. I met Hélène Smith there, e.g. Now out of print. SAD!

Student work: Poems with no metaphors in ’em

The exercise: Compose a short poem with no metaphor or simile in it.

Not that there’s anything wrong with metaphor. Some of my best friends are metaphors. But we in the West are metaphor junkies, thank you Aristotle (“to be a master of metaphor is the greatest thing by far, a sign of genius”). So it’s good now and then to go dry. What can you do minus that junk? How do you make a poem work without yer fix?

Hello, syntax and line. Hello, metonymy. Hello, objectivist mode, basically, though I save that for elsewhile. And coinages, hello too! Language is full of forces we are totally out of control of and yet surf fluently in our wake and sleep with astonished ease. Tweak them just a bit and you draw them into awareness and that’s poetry. (See what went on there with wake, e.g.? Didn’t intend it, just saw it and commented latterly, and that’s prose.)

Enough preamble, on to some student work.

Here’s one by Steve Lemma – excuse me, that’s “Goldenrod Steve” – that’s quite careful, in a seemingly careless way, with the composition, the putting-in-places, of its syntax – fragments and all. It also has an admirably various line, not just its length, also how little or much torque it asserts upon the syntax of the thought passing through.  

ink running down the wrist.


Subtle fading

Darker than


your irreparable attitude.

Welcome to this side of the world,

You may n
ever make it back.

The under
belly is hungry
as much as me.

I think a couple of the moves here, re: the line, are stretches, but that’s less important to me, as teacher, than that he’s messing around, trying stuff out. (BTW, I’m counting the comparisons as not similes, since they compare extant objects in the poem’s field, to others the same.)

First aside. “Go dry.” Is that metaphor or metonym? How about “that junk”?

Another one, by Rob Jones – turns out no one wants to be anonymous, why was I doing that, don’t remember, probably had a good reason that’ll come back to bite me – short and sweet –


That ringing,
A sound
I will never hear again.

The frequencies

Heard less
And less frequently,
As my eardrums become less taut.

My proposal to Rob was, cut the last line. With that line the poem is nailed to its occasion. Without it, the occasion’s forgot, and the language can widen beyond whatever thought happened to incite it. (This is an curious case of what Richard Hugo called the “triggering subject” showing up in the last line. But one feels it was held in reserve all the poem long – I’m suggesting, hold it in reserve even longer, till the poem is fine without it.)

Second aside. Compose, not write, because as I did say later, they mighta done a visual poem, and solved their problem right there. I give maddeningly open exercises. But in them every word does matter: “embody spring” means embody spring; “myth consciousness” means myth consciousness. Why so uptight? In the poem, too, every word matters, otherwise no word does, in which case, stop.

Here’s another, by Alex Hastings, who has a very Creeleyan ear for speech under pressure – pressure of strong feeling dimly understood (TOTAL INSIGHT MOMENT: Creeley was an avatar of Shakespeare), and she’s been learning how to get, not just the dimness, also the understanding and the strength, onto the page, by way of line, syntax, the tortured dance of them.

crossed over
cheap carpet, we
blink at our
each tired
faces and pick

Change the slightest thing here and you wreck it. For instance, fix the syntax, “each other’s tired / faces” – wrecked. The contortion of the syntax there recalls me to how my powers of language flee me when I’m in a fight with someone I love and who says they love me but isn’t seeming like that. I mean, oh my students, you can create great storms of emotion in a poem without ever naming an emotion. Also, FYI, without many adjectives – “cheap,” “tired” are the only here.

Third aside. Since I went to Urban Dictionary (“elsewhile”) – the poetry of that. Our natural unconscious and dionysiac poetic fluency. And let’s aleatorize the fuck out of it. My pasketti is boiling so let’s be quick also. Random number generator to choose letter then entry. Let’s say thrice and see what comes.

 “Zombie company.”

1. A technically bankrupt company that is kept alive with large infusions of government money for the sake of “stability” in the U.S. financial system. 2. A large financial company with negative net worth that continues to operate, despite having no clear path to solvency. 3. The UnDead of Wall Street.


what stoner says when mad

stoner 1: rrrrrrrs, i need money to buy weed, but i smoke weed because i have money.

preppie boy 1: wait…..what?


Gratuitous Picture Of Yourself Every Fucking Day

I see a picture of someone who is asleep in class, “GPOYEFD”

So I was real worried, around word two, how I was going to get a poem out of this, but GPOYEFD saved the day. Does this not come together as an incisive remark upon the tedium a certain once awesome post-apocalyptic fantasia has come to?


Zombie? Company.
Gratuitous picture of yourself,
every fucking day.

I go back and forth on the comma. Imagine it spoken by a career extra.

Coupla more. This by Lauren Edison, who like Alex is working in a short line, not quite as enjambed, and not quite as spare of sense data, but headed in that dir.


I wake
to a preset tune
and white plaster walls.
Barren, save for shadows.
I blink. Rollover.
My screen says 7:00
January 18. Monday.

This wall, too, is barren.

Lauren’s syntaxes are intact, untorqued – she looks for what can be got through denotation and lineation within the rules of normative syntax, inhabited austerely. I am on her case about titles.

And one more, from Haley Kenville, which I suddenly now realize is her myth consciousness poem, that I was looking for in the exercise she submitted for that assignment, and was kinda hard on. (I’ll do a post on that ex., I hope.) Hear myth mind in that third bullet point?

In Order;

• Call ahead,
they’ll want to know you’ll be early
• Roll in late with hair
still wet from shower.
• Saturate trees with buds, so
they are prepped for your petal
firework finale
• Reign. Relax.
They have been waiting for your ascension

Not sure what she’s doing there with punc but that last line rocks my world. Because of the indefiniteness of the “you” – possible because the poem has let go of its inciting occasion – it points to me and to you, and anything green in anyone, even as it also calls to the Persephone-figure (as I read her) of the poem’s surface levels.

Last aside. Realizing once more how much of my teaching style comes from my Zen training. Don’t feed the ego – affirm the person. Cultivate intuition, spontaneity, not-knowing. Nourish faith in their inborn abilities, empathy, insight. And, be always poking, wherever they’re at rest, unsettle them.

And, to that last, I am always causing problems – as if my students didn’t have enough problems already? One asks me a question, and instead of answering him, I respond with a question. Then, as he’s working towards an answer, I interrupt him with another question. I must be maddening.

The intent’s generous – how can I in this moment help you further your inquiry – but I’m a limited human being. Right this moment anyway I’m feeling my limits. Often the generous is mixed up with stress or my own shit or simple fatigue or I’ve got a tummyache. I’m not often the Platonic ideal of Socrates the method seems to want.

Dude. Zen, Plato, you should ride a motorcycle, and then maybe write a book.

What am I here to say. I’m grasping towards a place where fucking it up somewhat is still okay. For them or for me. Hurting other people heedlessly is not okay – don’t do that in my classroom. You’ll hurt other people, I have, you will, but not heedlessly, please. Also, don’t be lazy – this is the Zen training coming in – treat this as the matter of life and death it is (OMG did I write that, do I believe it, I do). Other than that, be free.

And with that, my dream syllabus, any course

Don’t hurt anyone heedlessly.
Don’t be lazy.
Treat it as a matter of life and death.
Other than, in that, be free.

this post must come to an end. Oh and here’s Bodhidharma for ya.


Springly exercises

That’s a wrap on Spring and All and great good fun it’s been. Dunno if I’ve had a class meet this one so freely or fleetly before. Here are their first exercises in case any’d like to play along:

  • Write a poem that interrupts itself more than once.
  • Write a poem that enacts or embodies spring.
  • Write a poem with no metaphor or simile in it.


And I quote, “The only realism in art is of the imagination.”

And I quote, “First must come the transposition of the faculties to the only world of reality that men know: the world of the imagination.”

And I quote, “poetry: new form dealt with as a reality in itself.”

                – da white chickens

and no we no Plato)

So much to say about this little poem, which is so easily denatured, benumbed, by anthologies, high school classrooms. Students often come to college hating it. Or, worse, thinking it a metaphor. Consider, there’s no metaphor in it –

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

How, though, does it tell us not to cut to metaphor? Its particularity. There aren’t a lot of particulars, but those there are, they have roughness, rugosity, they refuse the reduction, the simplification, the let’s just say it dumbing-down, you gotta do to a thing before you can make it tenor in a metaphor, and space-tie it to a vehicle. That the rainwater glazes the surface it lies on, makes it tangible, specific, momentary, and unconvertible.

It’s language, so it’s part of a system of semiotic exchanges, no way round that, but it resists entry into the second-order system of exchanges that sustain literary tropes like metaphor. It refuses to be made currency.

What depends on a red wheelbarrow,

I asked them to consider, beforehand, and please commit it to paper?

—And be particular?

—The poem, one said, depends on it.

Yeah, good answer.

The wheelbarrow is, as one student said, touching our earlier talk of Buber’s I-Thou, let be a value in itself. Though it’s in ordinary use a tool, instrument, for the sake of the poem it’s a good in itself. (Coulda gone to Heidegger there but thought to spare her. But think Van Gogh’s worn out shoes.)

I got tenor and vehicle the wrong way round up there, but I ha!, like my metaphor too well to bother to fix it.

This one is, by the by, for my old teacher Don Revell. I wonder how he is.

Much else I’d love to say, but time presses, and appetite. I treated myself last night to a Dungeness crab after a tenured colleague made me sad, angry, perplexed by poaching my classroom from me – today I well remember I’m contingent labour – and half’s in the fridge there awaiting me eagerly.

So I won’t try to say all the else about the poem I learned today from talking with my students about it. Why it’s a not the red wheelbarrow – the definite article would be more particular but at the cost of exclusion. And how much world comes to mind metonymically, a barnyard and American era, without the edge-smoothing of metaphor (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”). That each line is a moment of perception beseeching total attention. For reals, see how it’d be broke if the lines broke different –

glazed with
rain water

beside the
white chickens

– it’s destroyed, right? All the held energy, everything bearing the elements up in a network of dynamic tensions, gone. Line as perceptual trace. A whole world for as long as it lasts, and gone when it’s gone. So the next can live.

WILLIAM LOGAN – oh, why do I bother?

Student work: Compost mural

A mural my students made last week in class. The prompt: using only the materials you have on hand, or can forage from the surrounding environment without breaking the law or hurting anyone’s feelings, express your understanding of “the art of compost.” Oh, and no legible text, other than found text.

Here it’s, as composted through my iPhone:

Interesting to watch them work. Each one herself, himself, just about perfectly. Last year I gave this, every one worked pretty much on their lonesome, class dynamics, long story, and it did come out okay. This time, some leaned toward solo, some into duo, some asked as to overview, but as they felt their way into the actual question at hand – are we one or are we many – those arrangements softened and shifted.

That is, as they composted their thinking, they found a rhythm where each had room to breathe, or so it seemed to me, and nice to see. Nice to be part of just in watching. Here ’tis, as panorama,

Compost mural 2015
Click on me to see (and again) compost understood

Sometime soon, a post on breath, breathing, the breath, which I’ve been thinking and not-thinking about, these days of hot high still air all round. How’s it I ever thought my breath was anyone else’s to order around? That’s my little bit cryptic thought of an evening, after a day hiking up at Baker, forest fire haze out of BC hanging on air, dulling Baker and Shuksan to the eye, but someone or something was watching lupines and mimulus shivering in wind bits, and what’s wind but earth’s breath, what we’re in.

Student work – Poems with no words in ’em

Last day of my vis po class today. Gonna miss these guys, I am. Not often a group comes together so clear real and kind. Mean to post over the next week or two some of their later works, which have been bright and entrusting as ever.

The exercise:

Either compose a poem with no words in it, or compose a poem that is one continuous line (once the pen tip touches the paper, it doesn’t leave the paper, until the poem is done), or do both!

All that follow follow the former prompt. This time round, the latter didn’t work out, quite so well. (I mean to write, before I’m done with this spring class, on how little it matters whether a given ex has worked out for you or not. For most students most of the exes are enh and that’s fine and expected. And one or two make for breakthroughs and that’s giddy and golden.)

This one harks back to our study of Judith Copithorne’s Runes and’s inflected maybe also by flash presentations on graffiti and calligraphy. Though the semblances most evident to me are Arabic script and maybe even Hélène Smith’s Martian writing though I don’t recall us discussing it.

piece 2

Anyway it suggests to me that our early exercise on handwriting, which seemed mostly a bust at the time, might have set some seeds long to germinate.

This one’s a culmination of its author’s preoccupation with forces in the culture, ad copy junk food and so on, conspiring to benumb one.

piece 1

I should mention that the exercise comes in company with our work on Derek Beaulieu’s Local Colour, a reading of Paul Auster’s novella Ghosts that replaces every colour word with a swatch of that colour, all other words with the whiteness of the page.

I could dilate here on the symcomplexity of that project, or on the extraordinary anxiety it induces in some students (“You don’t ask what a waterfall means,” I said today, “why do you ask what the poem means?” “Nature – art,” said one student, and it’s a sound response, and because I didn’t feel like talking about Kant, I went to Bach. “You don’t ask what the Goldberg Variations mean, though, right?, you ask what they do.” Probably not a good pick, but my first thought, Beethoven’s 9th, has words in it, which complicates. A long parenthetical. Gist is, if there’s one, we got into a good discussion of just what one means by meaning, and’s pretty effing giving of a group of graduating seniors, Thursday of Dead Week.), but I’ll just send you to the text itself. Wread it!

Can’t quite put my finger on why this last one blows my mind.

piece 3

Saw its author today on the plaza and asked her what it was like to make it – was she in the zone, an altered space, and she said she kind of was, there on the floor with her scissors and construction paper. What you Buddhists yo call samadhi, one-pointedness, and it does come through, so we get some of it, too.

There’s something inexpressible comes across in the whorls. Its imperfections are perfections. All that’s clumsy about it’s subtle. Makes me want to cry and don’t know whether w/ happy or sad.

This one’s her breakthrough poem; told her so; she thought that, too. Everyone in the class had one this time round, no one left out, some did early, some late, some with fireworks, some as quiet as a snowflake of exclamation points or a photocopy of onion skins. What a privilege to be a part of, my god.

Exercises – Working it (out) (of order)

A pair of exercises that come right of our encounter with Robert Grenier’s Sentences, which I’ve written about elsewhere.

A first –

Write five micro-poems on five 3 x 5 index cards. No longer than the longer poems in Sentences. Take note – this exercise is easy to do and hard to do well.

And a second –

Compose a text that can be read in several different orders. Web-based texts are welcome. If you can write HTML – awesome, go to work. Or you can sign up for an account at and create a small network of wiki pages, interestingly linked to each other. Alternatively, a bag full of scraps of paper can work nicely.

My vis po kids did some way cool work in answer to the second. Not, unfortunately, easily reproducible on this blog, mostly, so I made a bullet list. Then I made the list a paragraph. Then, in the spirit of compost, I took out most of the punctuation, and got this prose po.

An orange construction paper buckyball inscribed with US states and states of feeling they induced a prescription bottle on each of whose curled up paper slips (pills, slips) was writ a glaring bit of clickbaitery a shirt box made proscenium in whose shallows cards hung mystical amid thin thick strips of pink tissue paper oh so many scraps of different size thickness mode of inscription containment scrapitude an assemblage that altogether beat my meagre imagination down and included, let’s see, a CD case a rubik’s cube a tape measure an invented alphabet and other various and sundry also a monkey I think but amn’t sure he was hero.

One only admits of posting, an homage to Grenier hisself, and you might check them out side by side, compare. As Pliny the Elder said to the fire eating his air – Interesting!

It’s here.

Grenier - STB

Exercise – Inscription

The second exercise to my visual poetry group. Who keep doing wonderfully – our conversations together, their serious play, astound me. I wish I had leisure to write how much fun it was to talk with them today about Grenier’s Sentences and Cage’s 4:33 and Olson’s “high-energy construct” and Duchamp’s readymades.

Back. On. Track. An exercise cued by Judith Copithorne’s Runes, rather more obscure than A Humument, but very delicious, and in its way more luscious, an investigation of the threshold where grapheme becomes idly wandering line.

The prompt. Write a poem by hand in which the character of the writing is central to the experience of the poem.

Pointers. Again, by all means, take Copithorne as your model, but avoid slavish imitation. You might start by exploring ways of stylizing your usual handwriting. What happens when the cross-strokes on your t’s, the loops on your g’s, are allowed to run riot?

I’ll post a few of their soon. Till then, a bit from Copithorne (what, BTW, a lovely Norsish name).


Full text of her Runes and some others on UbuWeb.

Exercise — Treated page

So here’s the first exercise of the quarter for my visual poetry class. Cued by our wandering through Tom Phillips’s well known widely loved yet not for all that at all worn out A Humument.

The book’s an object lesson in the power of powering forward not knowing where the sweet bloody fuck you’re going. Glory of the aleatory. Here’s he in his Blakean vein —

The exercise. Treat a page of a prose work as Phillips has treated the pages of A Human Document.

Pointers. Be inspired by A Humument, by all means, steal moves from Phillips, but don’t imitate slavishly. The composition should feel to you like your process. Do take care with your erasure marks. They should do more than just cross out. They should express, manifest, draw eye and mind.

They’re doing beautifully by the way. What lovely conversations we have. We seem already friends in the free and easy wandering in mind I remember reading of in the Chuang Tzu … lessee if I can find it … nope. But this is as good, Chuang Tzu to Hui Tzu, who’s just told him his words are big clunky useless, like a gnarled and lumpy tree, so everyone ignores it, carpenters, painters.

Now you have this big tree and you’re distressed because it’s useless. Why don’t you plant it in Not-Even-Anything Village, or in the field of Broad-and-Boundless, relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it?

The sleep I want for my students when they make their poems.

P.S. Speaking of Cezanne, and Mont St. Victoire, saw a pretty indifferent one in Vancouver, apparently the only one he composed in a portrait orientation, and I saw why. But what blew me away, and made me excited about in and for the VAG for the first time in my admittedly little life, was an exhibit I wandered into mostly accidentally of contemporary Chinese art that poked and prodded and nursed and scowled at the long awesomely durable tradition of Chinese landscape painting.

I’ll hope to write more soon on what I saw there and what it seemed to see in me. For now a link to the curator’s intro for you.

Exercise: Eavesdropping

Last writing exercise of the quarter. In earlier carnations of this course I’ve given it early on and it’s never gone as well as I thought it maybe should. Was ready to give up on it as a pedagogical near miss.

This time though, with some tweaking, a different timing, and some reminders of what else we’ve talked about, something new has kept happening. I get to get glad all over again seeing what they’ve done. I’ll ask one last time for their okays to post some.

Go somewhere people talk. Listen in on their conversations. Try to spend at least an hour there, scavenging for interesting bits of speech or interaction. Do your best to write them down just as you hear them. Don’t use a tape recorder — mis-hearings are as interesting as hearings.

At home, look through the material you’ve gathered. Underline the bits that excite your interest or curiosity (listen to those antennae). Write them out on a new page. You might choose only a single phrase, or a single exchange, or bits and pieces from all through your notes, depending on the material, and what in it moves you.

Working with those seed materials, and making up as little or as much as you want, create a scene half a page long. It should have a beginning, middle, and end, but it doesn’t need to be a complete short story — you can, and probably should, imagine it as a scene in a longer story.

All scene. No exposition. Objective point of view. Most of the words should be spoken by a character. Keep dialogue tags (“she said,” “he said”) to a minimum. Avoid ponderous verbs (“declared,” “stated,” “hinted,” etc.) and adverbs (“wittily,” “angrily,” etc.).

A few reminders advisements provocations —

  • Remember the iceberg. Ninety percent of the story is not in the words but in what the words suggest or imply. Tune those antennae to subtext.
  • Dialogue gets interesting when characters talk at cross-purposes (e.g., answering a question with another question, changing topic, ignoring the other person’s change of topic.) Also interesting are unusual expressions that reveal a personality, and leaps or gaps that hint at unspoken emotion. (These are all ways of creating subtext.)
  • Every phrase should contribute something new to the scene (e.g., developing character, establishing conflict, moving plot forward).
  • As writers we try to avoid clichés. But people often talk in clichés. For this exercise, avoid the clichés you hear, and stick to the curious, the strange, the interesting.
  • If you’re having trouble getting your scene to resonate, try writing it twice as long — a full page — and then make cuts to create interesting dynamics or juxtapositions.

Finally. Go somewhere unusual people have unusual conversations. Try to make it a place you’ve never been before. Try to listen in on people who are unlike you and the people you hang around with.