Day 17: The Power of Limited Choice

By Lisa Hase-Jackson, guest blogger

Fear is a familiar feeling to all artists, and writers are certainly not immune. Some of the more common triggers of fear include anticipated failure or, as is often the case, anticipated success. For writers in particular, fear is often triggered just by considering the likely ostracism that may occur from revealing family secrets, or by the realization that what was written in a passionate moment of active imagination will appear to be worthless drivel in the light of day.

Perhaps the biggest fear faced by many writers on a daily basis it that of the blank page. Even assuming a writer can overcome the overwhelming number of possibilities represented by the blank page, there are still myriad choices to make – or choices to rule out – once the page is no longer blank and writing has begun in earnest. Let us posit, then, that the progressive limiting of possibilities which occurs during the act of writing is perhaps the most difficult fear for writers to overcome – for though the writer experiences the anxiety this progressive limiting of choices represents, the underlying reason often remains obscure.

Most writers agree that the first line of any piece determines what that piece will be, as well as what it cannot be. Setting aside academic arguments over what constitutes a poem versus what constitutes a short story, it’s reasonable to suggest that once a writer ends a first line of writing somewhere before the right margin, the work in question can be labeled a poem. Conversely, this small but significant decision to hit the return key before the punctuated end of a sentence reasonably rules out the possibility of such forms and genres as the essay, the article, the epic novel, the play, or even the short story.

And that’s only the first line.

Since each line of a poem necessarily does a great deal of work (or should), the choices made and ruled out with each subsequent line after the first will determine the poem’s rhyme scheme, its form, its overall length, and whether the poem will be narrative, lyric, or something likely to be described as experimental. In the act of writing the poem, then, the poet – whether aware or not – is evoking every craft lesson, every respected opinion, every piece of mythology, and every aesthetic preference they have ever encountered or developed in their respective writer’s journey to this very moment of selective choices. What’s not overwhelming about that? Further, because (and most writers agree) the imagined poem is nearly always better than what appears on the page, the act of writing (and selective limiting of choices) is nothing less than a courageous gesture of considerable mettle resulting in an extraordinary ability to conquer fear on a daily basis.

So while it may seem logical that artists fear a lack of choice, it is in actuality this strategic limiting of choices through the act of creation that triggers fear for most writers. And though it is most decidedly difficult to do so, writers must make consistent effort to avoid brooding over choices sacrificed and believe with conviction in the choices they have made.

Gather your mettle now and try one of the strategic choice-limiting writing exercises below:

  1. From a literary magazine, of which most writers have dozens, select ten words you DO NOT usually use in your writing. Use these ten words in a poem, perhaps one per line. The more foreign they are to you, the more interesting the resulting draft will be (and the more fun you will have writing it).
  2. Formal poem construction strategically limits choices for you, leaving your creative mind room to focus on other aspects of a poem. Most poets find traditional Sonnets relatively rigid while Pantoums and Villanelles are considered by some to be a little more flexible. Experiment with these and other forms regardless of your opinion of their merits.
  3. The blitz is a form that makes choice elimination particularly fun. Follow this link for directions on how to construct a Blitz Poem:

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