Writers share something in common with actors; they need to be able to understand people who are outside their own personal experience. When we write a character who is vastly different from us, we do what actors do, which is step inside the mind and body of someone else.
Not all writers do this. If you write essays, blogs, or memoirs, getting into other people’s heads is not a necessary skill. But if you write fiction, it’s essential. It’s also a common practice in poetry, especially in poetry that strives to be compassionate, socially aware, or empathetic.
It’s also not a bad life skill. Fostering empathy gives you a broader understanding of the world and the people in it and can be immensely helpful in mitigating conflict and bridging cultures.
Today’s poetry writing exercises are designed to help you write a poem from a perspective other than your own.
Poetry Writing Exercises: Shift Your Perspective
Below, you’ll find three poetry writing exercises. Each one asks you to write a poem in which you shift your perspective and try to see things differently:
1. Animate the Inanimate: Choose an inanimate object, such as a tree or a toaster. Prepare for the exercise by looking at images of the object or the object itself, and then write a list of things that would be of concern to the object. For example, a toaster might be uncomfortable because its crumb tray is full. Think about what kind of personality this object would have if it were sentient and spend a few minutes cultivating a voice for this object by speaking aloud (into a recorder, if you have one) in the character of this object. Now that you’re warmed up, write a poem from this object’s perceptive. The main goal is to find the object’s voice and personality. This exercise is excellent for children’s poetry and humor.
2. Cross the Culture: Get inside the mindset of a culture other than your own. Choose a culture you’re not overly familiar with. This can be a sub-culture within your own region (maybe you’re a geek writing as a sports fanatic) or you can choose a culture from another nation or one from history. Give yourself one hour to read about this culture or watch a documentary about it, and then write a poem from your own perspective but from within the culture you’re writing about (a geek at a sporting event). Take a positive angle on the culture you’re writing about, even if you find it strange or if you don’t quite understand it.
3. My Own Worst Enemy: Now get inside the mind of your enemy. This could be someone who bullied you when you were a child. It could be a mean boss you once worked for. It could be someone you feel animosity toward because they’ve hurt you or a loved one or because they have an opposing worldview that you think is detrimental to society. It doesn’t even have to be a real person. You can make someone up! Choose a topic this person would care about (if it’s your childhood bully, maybe it’s about why this person picked on other children) and write about that topic from that person’s perspective. Explore why they do what they do, and if possible, try to find the positive. And remember: a villain is the hero of his or her own story.
Understanding “The Other”
Broadening your perspective to understand different points of view and different ideas is beneficial, especially if you’re a writer (or any type of artist, really). In the world today, which often seems wildly fragmented, a little understanding can go a long way. But these poetry writing exercises also encourage you to stretch your imagination and engage your creativity. You might find them slightly uncomfortable, but if you push through, you’ll learn something new and have a fresh poem to add to your repertoire.
If you try any of these poetry writing exercises, leave a comment and let us know how it worked out for you, and keep writing!