Exercise in the Periphery

During a recent class workshop of one of my poems, my peers felt there were parts not contributing to the overall piece. As they identified each line in need of axing, I felt like I was losing something essential in my writing. I thought, these are the parts of the poem I labored over most. These are the lines I built and built the rest of the poem around. And, these are my favorite parts of the piece.

I had reduced my poem, in my mind, to a few lines—the lines now considered least effective in the poem by my classmates.  Granted, I am the poet, and ultimately I make my decisions regarding my creative work, but my workshop peers brought up an important point: I had forgotten about the other parts, brushed over them on my way to the life-blood I saw in my select prize lines. What I had forgotten is, at some point, I did generate those other lines, those other images, the rest of the work. I had given them thought, arranged them, made space for them.

Those marginal lines held value to my classmates. To them, the potential of the entire piece existed there, rather than the few lines I valued. I would have allowed the piece to stagnate if I had not looked outside of my crosshairs in order to locate the potential in the periphery.

This limited view of our work extends beyond the bounds of poetry. While constructing academic papers, it is easy to become attached and focused on a few favorite ideas and sentences. I imagine while writing a short story, novel, work of nonfiction, and really any other written work, it is easy to become distracted by a few ideas and get stuck, because we’ve neglected other aspects of the piece.

For writers in any genre or school, I propose an experiment intended to revive our work and cultivate every potential it has to offer. As an exercise, I urge writers stuck on poems or papers or any other work to unreservedly slash our prized portions in order to rip our heads from our ignorance and see the potential waiting in the shadows.

My suggestion is to take a pen, scissors, scythe, axe, whatever you have at your disposal, to a piece of writing that is giving you difficulty. You do not have to demolish these parts entirely. You may store them away in a distant cabinet or drawer or desktop folder to return to and perhaps integrate back into the work later. At present, though, you want to get rid of them so that you might improve the work as a whole.

Then, look into the corners of the piece you had forgotten about; listen to the sentences and lines you had used to prop up other ideas and fill gaps. Now, begin to write and brainstorm based on those thoughts and words. See what your mind can drum up with those lines you had initially composed so quietly.

Eventually, you may want to reintroduce the ideas, images, sentences, and lines, you needed to slash. But plugging them back into your work, after giving weight and thought to the rest of it, will add to the fullness of your piece of writing, rather than allowing these ideas to teeter on frail legs, or ignoring those interesting feet wanting a bit more attention underneath.

Some Notes: This exercise may compel you toward other exercises such as noting similarities in the parts of the poem or piece of writing you slash. See if you can improve your piece by comparing what those slashed pieces have that the other pieces don’t. Your favorite pieces may in fact be pulling the weight of the work. You might also think of eliminating the rest of the work and try to work only with your favorite lines, thoughts, or sentences.

Michelle Potgeter is currently earning her MFA in poetry at Virginia Tech.

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