How I Write a Poem Step 1: An Idea

A cream-colored mind

For a while now, I’ve been wanting to write about writing. This is partially because I so often think about my own writing process that I want to express those thoughts outside of my brain and partially because I want to engage other writers in a conversation about the writing process.

The way that I write now is quite organic. When I start a poem, it flows on its own, without any sort of plan. I frequently surprise myself with the finished product because my initial idea, which I thought would be great, was actually quite dull and limited compared to the finalized piece.

There are essentially two ways that I create a poem. The first is that it comes to me, more or less fully formed, and all I do is clean it up a little, maybe add some extra flair, and publish it onto my blog. This process takes maybe an hour on average from conception to publication, but can definitely be much less depending on the length of the poem and the amount of editing that it requires.

The second and much more common way that I write a poem is to start with an idea that I jot down somewhere and come back to sometimes moments or sometimes months later. The idea, which is usually just a line but can be anywhere from a single word to a full stanza, gets slowly added to over time. The actual writing process for this excluding the time between coming up with the idea and starting to work on it is usually a day or two during which I am constantly tweaking the poem, but has taken me up to several months.

In this series, I am going to break down that second process into steps and walk through what is happening in my head as I complete each of those steps. Here is my idea which will be the basis for the poem I will write throughout this series:

A cream-colored mind

It’s not much, and there’s a fair chance that that phrase will not even end up in the final product, but it’s my starting point.

This particular starting point has arisen from a question that I have had for myself: What do I bring to the table? My biggest difference (I think) from all of the other people like myself out there writing poetry is my aphantasia. I cannot “see” or “hear” my writing in my head. Imagery does not come naturally to me because I don’t think about the world in terms of my senses.

And since describing something accurately and describing something wildly incorrectly feel exactly the same to me, I want to create a collection of poems whose imagery go thoroughly off the rails.

How do you normally start working on a poem? How long does it normally take from the idea to the final execution?

Photo by Adrianna Calvo from Pexels


9 thoughts on “How I Write a Poem Step 1: An Idea”

  1. This should be a fascinating series! The whys and hows of an author’s mind are often just as interesting as the final product, if not more.

    The idea is imperative in any writing. I usually write a few thousand words a week for work and other projects so when it comes to crafting poems, I don’t put a lot of time in them. I’ll usually take 20-30 minutes from writing the first word to publishing on this site. It’s more or less an exercise to get the mind working. But the community is pretty good at giving honest feedback so it is not without its merits. The ideas themselves stem from anything and everything.

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  2. I am mostly influenced by something i might see, maybe by something while out walking, a photo I take, or another image. I’m also soetimes influenced by music lyrics I hear. Lyricists are excellent in turning phrases. Sometimes a poem might lay dormant in my notebook for months, maybe years, before I rediscover it and shape it into what I see fit.

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  3. That’s really interesting! All my poems are pretty much written the way you described your first method – jotted down with a bit of editing.
    My professional writing (papers, textbooks) is completely different – that’s much more like your second method. I also do a lot of physical editing – I literally cut out paragraphs and move them around, add scraps of paper with notes on what’s missing, then staple it all together when I think I have the right order before going back to the file. A couple of times I’ve been caught by colleagues sitting on my office floor in what looks like a nest of paper scraps.
    But I’m fascinated by your aphantasia – I think one of the reasons I do the physical editing is because I’m hopeless at visualising. I can’t picture a tree either unless I think of a specific one that is very familiar. So I tend to build physical models for my teaching, because it helps me more than my students. I even have a set of wooden vectors and cartesian coordinate system. I can’t visualise – I have to hold it in my hands.
    But you also said you don’t “hear” your writing. I met someone a couple of years ago who didn’t “hear” what she was reading, which stunned me. I hear what I write in my own voice, and what I read in my own voice unless I know the writer well enough, then I hear it in their voice.
    So, I’m wondering, if you don’t “see” or “hear” your writing, how DO you experience it? Maybe that’s very hard to describe…
    Thanks for sharing this, it’s really interesting.

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    1. Interesting! I had mental work arounds for every visualization-based activity throughout school, until I got to calculus my senior year of high school. My teacher really pushed for us figure out how to solve problems each time they were presented to us rather than memorizing methods, and that simply was not working for me. I had only realized about a year or two earlier that I was lacking visualization, and aphantasia was a few years away from being given a name, much less talked about the way it is now, so I found the whole thing super embarrassing and hard to put into words. It was my first time really struggling in school.

      I find it exceptionally hard to describe how I “hear” my writing. It’s not in a voice. There’s no pitch to it. When I have to relate my thinking process to one of my senses, I do go with the auditory one because that is what it’s closest to, but it’s still not the same. I can tell that “low” and “now” don’t rhyme in my dialect without needing to say them out loud. I find alliteration and rhythm really satisfying inside my mind, so I include a fair amount of them in my writing. Rhyming, on the other hand, doesn’t do much for me unless I read my own writing out loud. I can tell that I made two lines rhyme, but in my brain it “sounds” very juvenile regardless of the topic or vocabulary level, like all rhymes belong solely in picture books. It’s only when I hear it actually aloud that I find it pleasant. In other words, I’m not “hearing” the rhymes accurately inside my head, even though I am accurate in my evaluation of whether something actually does rhyme. I think I’ll forever be chasing descriptions and metaphors to put what is going on in my brain into words.


      1. I struggled with calculus too, and simply memorised methods. Mostly I just look them up in tables now, apart from really simple ones.
        Maybe it’s impossible to really describe one’s sensory experience meaningfully to anyone else. Any analogies rely on some common experience. And no two people really have exactly the same experience.
        Rhyme does seem juvenile sometimes to me too, maybe because the first poetry we’re introduced to is rhymes. I think also sometimes it bends a poem too much, nuance of meaning is compromised by forcing a rhyme. Although I enjoy the challenge of a rhyming form. But with my Australian accent I often have to replay in my mind poems by American bloggers in an American accent for the rhymes to work, which can be a bit distracting. But I really like alliteration too. 🙂 It doesn’t require any rewinding.

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