Creative writing with a word bank: The perfect place to start

Maybe you know how this is: You sit down to write, open a new document. You feel some rising tide of possibility and interest — maybe you would even dare to call it inspiration? The feeling of being ready to write a poem is sort of like feeling a sneeze come on. Anticipation, excitement, anxiety, swelling in a wave. You write down the first few words, the title or first line.

And then … hm.

It doesn’t … quite capture the feeling.

Something isn’t quite as good as you hoped. The energy begins to drain away as you realize: Oh right, I suck at this. I don’t know what I’m doing. My ideas are dumb. My poems are too weird. People have always told me I was too weird, that I didn’t make sense. Or that my poems were “difficult,” snobby, stuck-up. And besides, I can’t do it anyway.

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Maybe you save the document, even though it’s just a title or just a line. Or maybe, if you’ve gone through this the last many times, you just close it without saving at all. Because why bother?

The truth is, approaching the blank page is a tender and difficult moment. If you have high expectations of yourself, especially, there is a LOT of pressure on that first moment to prove that yes, you can do this, yes you deserve to, yes, your ideas are worth sticking around for. I had high expectations because, well, I had an MFA in poetry, had published a book even. I read lots of poems. I knew how to write them, or at least I thought I did at some point in the past. And I had high expectations because I wanted to be the Best Writer in the World, I wanted to Prove Them Wrong (who? about what? Couldn’t say!). And the Best Writer in the World never fails to write a perfect first line, right?

I’m sad to say it, but I repeated the above scene over and over for a decade, getting more and more bitterly depressed about poetry along the way. Depressed about mine, yours, anything ever published, you name it.

But in the last month, I’ve written about 10 new poems, and I love them. I have that old feeling. For me, writing a poem is one of the best feelings in the world. I’m not a millionaire, but I feel like one. The textures of the words and the worlds they spin me into dazzles me with the massive lush beauty and possibility of the world.

It feels like finding a hundred dollar bill on the ground, being presented with a surprise bouquet of cherry blossoms, smelling a new perfume. All of the above and more.

So, you may be wondering: How did I find my way back to the joy in the practice? How did I get past the fear, bitterness, and judgment that had been mercilessly blocking me?

The answer is so basic, it may surprise you. But it’s a beautiful tool that you’ll love, and I think you’ll find really useful too:

I used a word bank.

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What is a word bank?

A word bank, or a wordpool, is a collection of evocative words gathered for composition purposes. When I say “evocative,” I mean that they aren’t just randomly selected entries from the dictionary or the newspaper: They’re chosen for their juiciness, their poem potentiality. They’re the kind of words that suggest an image or a mood all by themselves.

You’re probably familiar with magnetic poetry, the collection of movable word magnets you can move and mix to compose brief assemblages on your fridge. That’s a perfect example of a word bank.

A word bank is a form of found poetry, the literary equivalent of collage. In found poetry, the author collects and arranges bits of language. Other types of found poems take whole texts from commercial or non-literary contexts and reframe them as poems, or involve removing words from a news article and forming a new text out of the remaining words.

Making a word bank is kind of like making a collage file. You cut out pictures you like, whatever they may be, and then juxtapose those images until you find a new arrangement that sparks an idea for you.

I first encountered the idea of a word bank in Susan Wooldridge’s book poemcrazy, something of a call to action and a poet’s memoir. In each chapter, she describes some part of her journey toward becoming a writer, whether that’s a favorite high school English teacher or the first encounter with a favorite poem. Following that, she gives an example of a tool, a writing experiment, or an activity.

Wordpools, her term for word banks, are one of the first. This is how she describes them:

“The great thing about collecting words is they’re free; you can borrow them them, trade them, toss them in or toss them out. … Words are lightweight, unbreakable, portable, and they’re everywhere. … A word can trigger or inspire a poem, and words in a stack or thin list can make up poems.”

In high school, I made dozens and dozens of word tickets, cutting interesting phrases and words out of magazines. Later on, I would also use a typewriter. Word tickets are especially nice because they’re tactile, colorful. And a ticket, of course, evokes the idea of passage to some special place or event, a fitting psychological prime for the way that writing can transport us.

But a word bank doesn’t have to be anything more than a simple list of words in a document which you save and refer to later. I keep a document (called “word tickets” in tribute) that I add to often. You can make your own, or hey, borrow one of mine! It’s easy.

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‌‌Why is a word bank helpful?

A word bank is helpful because it removes just a little bit of resistance from the writing process. Instead of choosing from the billions of words and word combinations, you have limited yourself to 75, 100, or maybe 200 at the most. If you’ve ever felt this vast gulf between what you want to say and what comes out when you start writing, you know that having access to any word in any order can actually freeze you up instead of spurring you on.

By contrast, you might find yourself accidentally tapping into something subtle and deep when you let your eyes jump from word to word. “My sister is an animal in sleep,” you might write, spurred by the phrases “in sleep” and “an animal.” Maybe you had no intention of writing about your sister, but suddenly, those two phrases spark the memory of a time you found your little sister asleep, and she looked like a wild thing. Maybe you didn’t even remember that moment until the collision of the two phrases jostled some random neural pathway. And then you remember, it was the summer your grandmother died, and all of the relatives were packed into a house for the funeral, and you felt both tremendous grief and the wonder that anyone is alive at all. Whoa. It’s a whole poem in there.

The way poetry was taught, at least when I was in school, frequently revolved around meaning. We talked about what Emily Dickinson meant, what Sylvia Plath meant, what these lines in Beowulf meant. We almost never talked about what they are.

And as a result, I suspect many people have grown up with the totally mistaken idea that a poet sits down with a list of Important Topics or Graven Memories, and methodically goes about bringing them into existence. Punch in for the day, time to write the Poem About Grandma, the Poem About Death.

But actually, in my experience, poems are discovered, not composed. You accidentally stumble across them on walks, in the shower, driving over bridges, or when two words in proximity spark against each other, and that spark briefly lights up a room of your mind which you may have never found if you only looked deliberately.

A word bank is helpful, then, because it gives you a methodology for discovering what you want to say, instead of saying what you want to discover. ‌‌

Isn’t that cheating?

No, it is not.

Maybe it seems like cheating because it makes everything so much easier. But I assure you, the poems you write with a word bank are just as legitimate as the ones you may squeeze out of your mind without assistance or prompting.

Also, I want you to consider something: Your brain is wired to keep you safe. That means that it wants you to continue doing all of the things that you’ve done often enough to create habit loops. Habit loops are great because they use little energy and they pilot you safely around your world. But habit loops are terrible for writing. And writing is a deeply threatening activity: You choose word after word and string them together; each word could be a mistake. Put them in the wrong order: mistake. Say something embarassing that gets you shamed by the village: mistake.

As such, you can and should expect your brain to offer up reasons to stop writing, and in fact to stop any potentially risky activity. Sometimes those reasons will be a growl in your stomach, and sometimes they’ll manifest as a sudden desire to reoganize the tupperware. And sometimes they’ll take the form of shaming nonsense.

The only way to cheat at writing is to plagiarize. Plagiarizing is a deep and horrible sin. I don’t even really believe in sin, and I still think plagiarizing counts.

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‌‌How do I make a word bank?

Start collecting words.

If you want to make word tickets, you’ll need scissors, tape, tickets, and magazines.

Just about anyone who subscribes to The New Yorker has a huge stack of unread (and guilt inducing) magazines that they’ll be more than happy to get rid of; libraries also unload back issues. Thrift stores are a great source for any kind of printed source material. While you’re at the thrift store, you might want to look for science texts, astronomy guides, technical manuals, or birding books. You can find amazing poem words in some of the most unusual places.

Cut out words and phrases that you like. Maybe you like ruby, jealous, eye of God, ivy. Maybe you like rattan, scabbard, handcrank, Miss Universe. It’s particular to you, which words you find to be sort of shimmery and elastic with possibility. Nobody would choose the same words as you, most likely.

Once you’ve cut out those words, tape them to the tickets. You’ll probably want to make a few hundred.

Don’t want to go to all the trouble of scissors and tape? It’s even easier: Type your chosen words into a document to save them for future use. I like to space my words out so they don’t feel or look like a vocabulary list; I also find that spacing out the words lets my eye bounce down the page randomly instead of allowing me to just read them in order.

You can also make a wordbank without any found material at all; just make a long words you like for their sound, the way they look, or because they just randomly pop into your head. Go fast so as to bypass your interior editor, the one who says, “swizzle stick? That’s a stupid word. Pick something pretty, or serious.” You can also trade word banks with a friend, or ask other people to help you. The words we like vary greatly; borrowing “flat top” and “appletini” from a friend might bring up images you would have never found otherwise.

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‌‌How To Use a Word Bank

Let your mind and body settle. Take a few deep breaths, or count backward from 100 to 1 with your eyes closed. Once you’re still, grab a handful of word tickets and spread them out on the table or open your document. Let your gaze go soft and allow your eyes to move over the words at random.

Pretty soon — maybe almost immediately — two words will sort of get stuck together in your head like magnets. I don’t really know how else to describe it; it really feels like the words leap off the page and collide in midair, along with an image.

Don’t think too hard about it. If you find yourself thinking, “ugh, don’t write a poem about cherries” or “OK, try to pick something cool,” you’re thinking too hard. Quiet yourself down again with some deep breaths or backward counting. Again, let your focus go slack and skim the page until two words jump together with an image between them. Once that happens, write it down!

It’s that easy!

You can make a poem out of strings of words from your word bank. You can use a single word as the title. Maybe you write about that first image is so full and interesting that you write a whole poem about it, or maybe you move on to another one.

Above all else, this can be fun. And having fun on the page is kind of contagious! But before you get cracking, there are a few serious considerations to keep in mind:

‌‌Plagiarism and Cultural Appropriation

As I’ve said, plagiarism, e.g. lifting whole phrases and paragraphs from an existing written work, is one of the worst things you can do as a writer (apart from using hate speech, coopting a story that isn’t yours, or replicating oppression in your work). It is, quite literally, stealing, and it dishonors you to the core.

Similarly, cultural appropriation, e.g. the casual use of a culturally significant idea, technique, or material that belongs to a historically oppressed group by someone who doesn’t share the identity of that group, is theft. Straight up.

So you might be wondering, well, if I’m harvesting all of these words from books, how is that not plagiarism? How is that not cultural appropriation?

Well, it could be either if you aren’t deliberate about how you havest your words.

To avoid plagiarism, make sure you’re havesting individual words — phrases of three words at the absolute most. Be particularly careful about this if you’re harvesting words from books of poetry and fiction. The way that things are stated in poetry in fiction is as much a part of the content as anything else; if you find yourself on the fence about whether a certain phrase is too particular for you to lift it, don’t.

Side note: If you ever wish to include a distinct phrase in a poem, that’s totally cool — as long as you note it whenever you read or publish that piece. Lots of poetry books include a section at the end that says things like “Poem X borrows the phrase ‘I still had two friends/but they were trees.’ from Larry Levis’ ‘Two Trees.’” Inspiration is always welcome, as long as it’s acknowledged.

But if you’re making a wordpool, you’re probably not going to include a source note on each ticket; you could, I suppose, but it seems like a lot of bother. I would rather be extremely ethical and deliberate about how I select words for word banks, and keep tabs separately on ideas that would require endnotes.

To steer clear of cultural appropriation, you will need to exercise some discernment about which words are highly identified and used by particular oppressed cultures. If you’re white, for example, African American Vernacular English is not for your use, especially because BIPOC people who use it are often censured and stereotyped for the same words that you’re considering casually peppering into a poem. Again, if you find yourself tempted to lift some words and phrases but something in your gut tells you they don’t belong to you, don’t use them. Casual theft of culturally meaningful signifiers is one way that writers can replicate structural oppression, intentionally or not.

Surprised that we ended up here? The thing is, language isn’t neutral. Our access to the use of words is political. Language can be marshalled to flatten complicated issues, to radicalize susceptible people, to deny humanity, to objectify. As writers, we are responsible for developing a lens for examining our work in the context of power. Because words are power. Using them demands the same sense of ethics and care as any other kind of power. We have to be honest with ourselves and willing to respond honorably when we realize we made a mistake along the way.

Sometimes writers who have never had to think about these things will respond very negatively to the suggestion that our words are never entirely neutral. In fact, some writers have full-blown public meltdowns over the smallest insinuation that some material may not inherently belong to them. Or they decry it all as a hopeless topic — too complicated, might as well give up or tune it out.

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But I hope that you won’t do that.

In fact, I hope you’ll see this as an exciting challenge inherent to the writing process itself. Because that’s what it is! Whether you’re thinking about it or not, making a poetry word bank is an exercise in considering language as a material. It is an exercise of tremendous freedom, but that freedom comes with an inherent need for the consideration of our relationship to the whole.

I’m so excited for you to try this technique that I made a starter word bank or wordpool for your use: Download it here. (Full disclosure, downloading the wordpool signs you up for my email list, where I announce new classes and keep you up to date on the writing/crafty/life-y things going on around me. I strive to keep it all killer, no filler, but you can unsubscribe at any time.)

Most important: Have fun!

I can’t wait to hear how the wordpool works for you! May it be the beginning of many writing adventures. Contact me here to let me know how it’s going or share your poems.

Sarah Elaine Smith is the author of Marilou Is Everywhere (2019), I Live in a Hut (2012), and Kerosene (forthcoming). She lives in Pittsburgh.

Novelist. Tarotist, poet, lazy Virgo. Nothing is real; magic is real. Writing is a way to see in the dark. sarahelainesmith.com, @braindoggies