I’ll never forget my first writing class at the University of Victoria. I was the oldest and probably the keenest student in the class. Like a kid on the first day of school, I was giddy with excitement, curious, nervous, and unsure what to expect. The class was a creative nonfiction workshop, so I didn’t expect to be assigned a poem.
After a round of introductions, Tom Henry passed around a folder containing photographs of provocative individuals. Each of us was to choose a photo that interested us. Tom didn’t tell us why until after everyone had chosen.
I selected an elegant woman whose expression bespoke an aging European ballerina. I wish I still had the picture to show you, but Tom asked us to return the photos with our completed assignments.
Our task was to write a biopoem about the person in the photograph. Obviously, since we didn’t know who the people were, we were free to invent the details.
A biopoem uses a specific formula to describe a person in 11 lines, as follows:
(friend or relative of)
lover of (three different things that the person loves)
who would like to see
I invented a daughter for Václav Havel and wrote this short biography:
intense, pragmatic, guarded, driven
daughter of the playwright and human rights activist Václav Havel
lover of the ballet, ripe strawberries, and her nephew Václav
feels she was born to achieve greatness as a prima ballerina
needs fame, recognition, and the freedom to travel
fears being revealed as an agent of the secret police
gives everything she has in her daily practice
would like to see herself onstage at the Metropolitan Opera House
resident of Prague
What I loved about the assignment was the way the formula forced me to think about the woman in the photo. I’ve since adopted biopoems as a useful tool in writing fiction or creative nonfiction to help me discover what drives my characters.
Later in my UVic writing program, I enrolled in an advanced creative nonfiction workshop with the journalist Stephen Hume. He, too, suggested poetry as a means to distill one’s writing down to its essence.
I write creative nonfiction. True stories. And apart from biopoems—which I’m not convinced are really poems—I never tried writing poetry about the people in my stories—until the first week of my poetry challenge.
I wasn’t planning to participate in the challenge, but the evocative image of the chair I found on MorgueFile grabbed hold of my imagination. The photo sparked a thought about the last chair standing. I set out to write about a game of musical chairs. Then I experienced what Gertrude Stein talked about in conversation with John Hyde Preston in The Creative Process: Reflections on Invention in the Arts and Sciences (University of California Press, 1985):
“You will write,” [Stein] said, “if you will write without thinking of the result in terms of a result, but think of the writing in terms of discovery, which is to say that creation must take place between the pen and the paper, not before in a thought or afterwards in a recasting. Yes, before in a thought, but not in careful thinking. It will come if it is there and if you will let it come, and if you have anything you will get a sudden creative recognition. You won’t know how it was, even what it is, but it will be creation if it came out of the pen and out of you and not out of an architectural drawing of the thing you are doing.”
On Wednesday, I’ll post four portraits and challenge you to choose one (or more) and write a biopoem about it. Stay open to discovery as you write. You never know what might come out of your pen and out of you.