Thursday, September 13, 2018

Tobi Alfier - Don’t Kill Your Darlings

Don’t Kill Your Darlings, Tell Them to “Shut Up and Color, and Wait Their Turn
photo courtesy raw pixel 
How many times have you started a poem “with the perfect line”, and when you finish the poem, you realize that your perfect line doesn’t belong? What do you do with that line?

My husband used to say he “dissolved it in solution”. NOOOOOOO!!!!! To quote poet and teacher Brendan Constantine, “put it in your woodpile”.

Do you have a woodpile? It could be a notebook, a file on your computer, anything. In our case, it’s a 66-page word document! We use it for lines, for prompts, or just good old inspiration. It is an invaluable tool for reclaiming your trash and your treasures. I couldn’t live without ours.

Sometimes, especially if I’m not feeling excited about writing at the moment, I’ll go through the pages. I might find a perfect place to start, or a perfect place to end. Often I’ll find a couple words, taken completely out of context with the woodpile line, but perfect for the poem I’ve now decided I want to write.

My husband’s woodpile lines are generally written from a male pov (point of view). Sometimes I’ll leave them that way; I write from a male pov all the time. Sometimes I’ll change the woodpile line about the down-on-his-luck guy with the twenty-five year old car—and now, that line is about a waitress with a twenty-year-old car, who gets a flat driving over glass and gravel in the parking lot of the diner where she’s late to work. Again.

by Lizi Rudolf
We laugh about this all the time. We do not write the same, but we can take inspiration from the same place and write two completely different poems. And for the record? If a line includes “bourbon”, it’s not necessarily his. If it includes “grace” or “mercy” it’s not necessarily mine.

When we went to the Catamaran Writer’s Workshop last year, we both workshopped with Joe Millar. Every day Joe gave us a list of words to use, or refer to. NONE of our poems were remotely similar. We each wrote three. Every one of them was published. I am all for inspiration.

I love the dictionary. “The Synonym Finder” by J.I. Rodale never leaves my desk. Neither does the stack of woodpile pages. And even though my desk looks like a storm swept through, I know where these references are (The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo is on the table in the living room. I know where that is too).

If you are not currently keeping lines, words, thoughts, ideas, scraps of overheard conversations, observations, descriptions of colors you’ve never heard before (especially blue, the most ridiculously described color in the human language), anything…please keep them!!! I guarantee it won’t be two weeks before you refer back and find exactly what you want for what you’re writing.

*     *     * 

Poem written about 85% from some version of our stockpiled lines:

Out of My League in Honfleur

Try as I might, I’m tainted,
shamefaced and lowbrow,
a face at the window
that leans into absence.

I contemplate the blue/gray
of enamel sky, compare
it to the bleu-noir of the rented
room, I turn numb,

follow a trail made of instinct.
Lacking in grace. I’ve drifted
far out of my league,
I am the late snow’s thickening

silence, the tick of a metronome
behind walls crackled with time.
I need a belt of something
ill-advised, and a man to drink with me.

Dump those dying wildflowers out
of the jar and pour. Don’t claim
my icy words are foreign, warm my
non-drinking wrist with your breath.

(Forthcoming in Picaroon Poetry)
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Tobi Alfier's most recent collection of poetry is Somewhere, Anywhere, Doesn't Matter Where. She is also co-editor with Jeff Alfier of the San Pedro River Review. Don't miss Tobi's columns on the craft of poetry: insert your email address in the "Follow By Email" box to the right of this article and you'll be notified every time a new article appears.


  1. What a fab-gear idea! I write thoughts, lines & ideas on envelopes and bits of paper. The good news is that I recycle paper. The possible bad news? I tossed out my best line ever!

  2. Oh no!!! Hopefully it will come back to you. One time in the middle of the night my husband wrote a line on the (wooden) floor. In the morning he couldn't read his writing. Now he writes notes on his phone and transfers them to the ginormous file in the morning.

    Thanks for reading the post!! Tobi

  3. Thank you so very much! I'm sorry I didn't read your comment sooner. I try to write once a week - I figured that's a nice amount of time between posts so they don't get boring. A pat on the back? Your comment is my pat on the back, truly. Thank you.

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