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Je ne sais quoi is “an indefinable, elusive quality, especially a pleasing one.”
I decided to write this blog “The House of Je ne sais quoi” because I strongly believe in sharing information & equipping people with knowledge. I got the title for this blog because my inspiring high school English teacher, Mr. Ries often called me “Je ne sais quoi” in lieu of my name. I also wanted to be free to blog about things I’m passionate about which encompass various subjects – including poetry. I wanted my readers to feel it is their home they are entering when they come to this site. So, welcome home!
I am a writer. I have always loved words and reading. I learned phonics from Dr. Seuss books. After that my mother gave me her childhood, high school and college books – including Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”, Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”, various poetry books & Shakespeare’s “Sonnets”. I remember spending hours deciphering the meaning of each.
In my 7th grade English class we were asked to write two poems. Our teacher, Mr. Bill Brewer read a poem to us. He then gave us no instructions on what poetry is or how to write a poem. He simply told us to write two poems describing: 1) “Something about a tree.” 2) “A relaxing place we go to in our mind.” I found out later he did this to assess where we were in our writing abilities. In my first poem I described the logs in a fireplace and my reaction to watching & feeling them burn. For my second poem I described a place in a forest beneath ancient trees where I sit on a rock covered with cool, soft moss. It is beside a gentle brook and that is where I find peace. The following day, he had us read aloud one poem each. He came by my desk and asked to speak to me after class. I was really freaked out by this. I couldn’t imagine what I did wrong. I thought perhaps he didn’t like it that I’d cut down my tree & was burning it in a fireplace, but it was the first thing that came to mind, so I wrote about it. When everyone left the room, Mr. Brewer came over to me and said, “Jeanine, you are a Poet.” Shocked, I said, “I am?” He answered, “Yes. It is a very special gift you’ve been given. And you must never stop writing. OK?” And I said, “OK. So, I’m not in trouble?” And I started crying. He hugged me and said, “No honey, you’re not in trouble. You did very well. Never ever stop writing.” To me, that experience was itself “poetry”. It is an example of the profound impact words have on others. It also exemplifies the power teachers hold.
From that moment on I believed I was, as Mr. Brewer said, a Writer. And no matter what I’ve done for work in my life, I have always believed writing is my vocation, not my job. This is the reason I have taught gratis poetry workshops my whole life. To help unlock and draw out the Poets/Writers that are within others and to also help those who simply desire to write purely for enjoyment.
Today a high school senior from the Netherlands wrote to me asking: “Where do you get your inspiration from to write?” I was so tickled to answer him because I love talking about the process of writing. I replied to him, “You are so smart to ask such a thing! You are going to be very successful. Most people never learn because they never ask!” I told him about my process. I will share some of it with you.
I get inspired from everything around me. I believe writers are a very different bunch. We have highly associative minds & we see/feel in a different way. I call this approach having an “Indian in the forest” view of things. It’s like a city person may walk into a forest & see trees, a brook, a couple of squirrels maybe. But an indigenous person who lives closer to nature might see the hidden world – food, clothing, & trading sources, animals that are camouflaged & hidden to the city person. I believe writers see differently like this. We notice things in a different way & associate those things into a nugget to reveal truth that is not ordinarily noticed. Everyone is different, but my brain works like a synthesizer taking in massive amounts of information & condenses them into a nugget. I’m very visual, & quite empathic. I feel things deeply and remember things vividly. So, I get inspired from traveling or wherever I am. It’s as if I feel a connection to or residual of inspiration from everything around me. When I can’t travel, I can just look at a picture to be inspired. I can find a picture of a place like a garden, the sea, or just think of Yosemite or Muir Woods, & I can actually smell the fragrances & it’s as if I’m there. Sometimes I see something or I have a thought & it gives me an association that brings me to another subject or “place” in whatever I’m writing. It depends on the project really – there are generally 5 types of ways it happens for me:
1) Triggers: With poetry sometimes I can see or hear something & it triggers the words to come. It’s funny, it can be something totally unrelated to what I’m looking at or writing, but for some reason it triggers the flow of words.
2) Mechanical: I can sit down & “try” to write – that’s a more mechanical process. That’s how I start to write a novel or screenplay. I ask myself questions about the subject & form a little world around what’s going to happen. This is referred to as a plot. I use a combination of things from my own ethnic center of experience & also fictional ideas. It can be the standard “Who, What, Where, When, Why & How” questions. Sometimes the microcosm I’m creating takes on a shape like a wheel of emotion. I want to start off on a low, then go higher, then I want the story to go to this emotion or that emotion. Sometimes it’s in a series of spikes or a spiral shape. Sometimes it ends up back at the beginning again. I usually write it down on paper this way. That makes it easier for me to visualize. The story then takes on a shape of its own.
When writing dialogue it’s helpful to imagine someone I know or a celebrity saying the lines. It’s also important to remember how real conversation sounds. People don’t always finish their sentences. People interrupt each other, & people don’t use the same words to describe or exclaim things. The characters should not all use the same word choices. So, be sure to use the “Find & Replace” key to check your characters’ word choices. By choosing words that are exclusive to each character, it gives each a distinct voice & differentiates them in the reader’s/viewer’s mind. It is also helpful to write a description/background sheet for each character. After you understand all the details about your characters’s lives, they take on a personality of their own & it is much easier to know what they will say & how they will react to situations. Also helpful is asking yourself “where would my character most likely be?” and especially “where would my character least likely be?” Exploring these areas often triggers interesting plots, twists & conflicts.
If I want to write poetry I will begin with a word or phrase. Sometimes I use tools like a thesaurus or dictionary to get a “better word.” When I do that, oftentimes I will use the 4th or 5th definition for the word because it is more interesting. In poetry it is often forgotten, but I believe of utmost importance to remember to avoid spoon feeding the reader. Just as in real estate the rule is “location, location, location,” to me in poetry the rule is “describe, describe, describe.” The reason you do this is so that you allow the reader’s own mind to connect what you have described with the poem’s deeper meaning. So when I write poetry, I’ve learned not to write “fruit” or “blue” or “flower” – it’s better to say what kind it is – like “plum”, or “sapphire” or “iris”. Do you see? You want to place the person looking at the object, so be specific. There are many tools. If I’m writing a character, I will use a name that means something symbolic. Places are symbolic. Colors, shapes are symbolic, etc. I also far prefer using metaphor than simile. Metaphor is a figure of speech that uses an image or a tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or quality or idea. e.g. “her eyes are pools” or “a ship cuts the sea”. The easiest way to think about metaphor is that it’s a metaphor when you say the thing is actually the thing. Simile is saying the thing is similar to/like the thing. e.g. “her eyes are like pools”. I don’t know why, but sometimes I am annoyed by simile usage, especially when they’re overused. It clogs my brain & pretty soon I’ve forgotten what the original point was. If one is trapped in simile usage, they can achieve metaphor by simply removing all those silly “as” & “like” words & voila! You have a metaphor. Perhaps it’s annoying because it’s similar to listening to a person who says “like” every other word in a conversation. Although, there are occasions when a simile is most appropriate, but one must feel instinctively when to use them & use them sparingly. To me, if someone uses metaphor, it’s much more sophisticated & powerful, because it prompts the experience of the reader’s mind to make it’s own connection to the thing the writer is describing. Metaphor can be extremely powerful in business writing, but people rarely understand how to use it well in that realm. Enjambment is the technique used to break the end of the line down to the following line or between two verses – it can surprise the reader & often it serves to give the verse double meaning. It’s nice to understand these processes while you are reading, so you get the full depth of the meaning intended. Even though writing may appear easy, there are many valuable & complex tools writers employ.
The especially beautiful thing about poetry is when the reader’s mind connects the thing you have described & the meaning or truth you are revealing through the lens of their own experience. It is possible for the reader to get a “brain aha” every time. In this way it is similar to impressionism, how the eye mixes the color within the brain of the viewer. Same principle. This process makes poetry especially beautiful & powerful because it is interactive in that it’s a shared experience, with the poet communicating to the reader, whose mind has formulated their own images in order to discover the meaning & come to their own conclusions. Thus the poem becomes multidimensional because the writer has written it via their own ethnic center. The reader has also brought themselves to it via their own ethnic center of experience & their own lens. For example, I was born and raised in Los Angeles in a big family, so my ethnic center – the environment where I learned language during my formative years is like a fingerprint on everything I write. The cadence of Los Angeles is like a second heart beat to me. Just as every place has its own vibration. Similar to how Maxfield Parrish layered glazes over each piece of artwork, one’s ethnic center and cumulative life experiences influence what one imagines when they read & write. For example, if I say “tree”, there are many types of trees – readers may envision the tree they used to climb in childhood, a giant redwood, a palm from a vacation. Generally, if I’m teaching a poetry exercise I leave it open & ask them to write about any tree. But when I’m writing I prefer to state the species of tree. However, one may still leave it open if they wish. In this way, readers bring their own nuance to the poem. Lately I’m trying to do something different. It is an odd technique I refer to as “Linguistic Impressionism” where I use the words on each line to be digested & discerned themselves. Then one may stand back & allow their mind to connect it all, as in impressionism where one gets a glimpse of a larger picture. It may not be as precise as a portrait or landscape – its “goal” is not necessarily to do anything more than lightly touch on something, or hint or suggest a feeling. It’s simply meant to convey an impression – something palpable. But still, this process though wonderfully shared is very intentional & thus, mechanical.
3) Spontaneously: I can have a memory, a dream, or a thought that can be fodder for writing. Lots of times when it comes spontaneously, I never know when it’s coming, so I always have to have pen & paper ready. I have pens & paper always with me. I’ve been awakened with the words coming to me. I’ve had to pull my car over on a road, or jump out of the shower to write. It’s like being on call.
4) Birthing: Sometimes I feel a poem or a thought germinating within me, it’s kind of like being pregnant. I will feel “fullness” in my spirit. Sometimes it lasts a while, other times it comes right out. But when it’s “germinating” sometimes it hurts a bit or bothers me. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s true. It feels like there’s something coming, but you can’t get it out until it’s ready. But those are the times it’s coming out of me from an internal place, like a seed growing within. I believe it’s miraculous.
I’ve generally found writers to be very sensitive people. Many times I’ve needed a word & I will close my computer & go somewhere & I get the exact word I need. It’s amazing. One time I needed a male character’s name from a certain African city. My daughter had a friend over, they jumped on her bed & broke her bed’s support boards & we needed wood to fix it. So I closed my computer (still needing that African guy’s name) & I took her to the hardware store right then. A store worker walked up to me & asked to help me (now, in South Orange County, we don’t have that many Africans). Anyway, he had an accent & was from the exact city I needed a name & information from! It was absolutely wild. That happens all the time for me. I can tell you tons of those occurrences. I look at it as a divine process. It’s important to remain aware of what is going on around you. Remember obstacles can lead to opportunities. So, when something happens, I try not to discount it as a horrible thing. Instead, I generally try to go with it and deal with it positively & often times there is a higher reason for everything. I don’t believe there are many coincidences in life. In this case, I could’ve blown off my daughter’s needs for later because I was busy. She could’ve slept in her sister’s room & I would’ve remained stumped at my computer. But by stopping what I was doing to serve her needs, I was perfectly supplied with what I needed. So, I try to be obedient to going where & when the Spirit prompts me to go & I always get exactly what I need for my writing. Being sensitive is the key.
5) Eternal Column: But my absolute favorite way that inspiration comes – now, I know this may sound odd, but sometimes poetry comes down as if it’s right out of the sky like music coming down from Heaven. It comes to me in a swirling tube shape in what I call the “Eternal Column.” I have also written piano music this way & I can hear all the parts of the orchestra – same process. I’ve always figured it’s similar to how people with Synesthesia process information. Perhaps it is related. I don’t know, but usually it comes to me as if I’m getting a download from outside my body into my head. It streams down & I get the words or impressions and use them. Sometimes it’s so easy I use exactly what I hear. It’s like taking dictation. Other times it’s just a word or an impression. Sometimes it actually surprises me; so I know it’s being dispensed to me, because it’s giving me new information I didn’t know before. Sometimes I have to look up the word because I don’t even know what the word means! So I believe it’s a divine process. Though this is my favorite method of writing by far. It’s really wild. There are lots of ways writers write & get inspiration, but these are some of the ways I write.
There are many professions where people are required to write as part of their job, and they may have even published many different articles. But this is very different from being a Writer. You don’t really choose to be a Writer. It’s a deep compulsion to write – a calling. It chooses you. I’ve seen some people who don’t even know they are writers because no one has ever said it to them or they don’t believe it or understand it yet.
No matter who you are or what you do for a living, even in business, it is helpful to know how to write well. If for no other reason, but to give you a deeper appreciation for everything you read and films you view.
That’s a little bit about my process. I hope this is helpful.
Next time I hope to tell you more about some of the other methods I use to trigger the creative process, & methods to organize my writing. I may covering different subjects from money saving tips, travel, parenting, cooking, health & fitness, art, business, etc. You name it! Feel free to comment & share this blog. And come back soon.