2020 Writing Exercise Series #8 Inspired by the Public Domain 1

The Notebooking Daily 2020 Writing Series is a daily writing exercises for both prose writers and poets to keep your creative mind stretched and ready to go—fresh for your other writing endeavors. The writing prompts take the impetus—that initial crystal of creation—out of your hands (for the most part) and changes your writing creation into creative problem solving. Instead of being preoccupied with the question "What do I write" you are instead pondering "How do I make this work?" And in the process you are producing new writing.

These exercises are not meant to be a standard writing session. They are meant to be productive and to keep your brain thinking about using language to solve simple or complex problems. The worst thing you can do is sit there inactive. It's like taking a 5 minute breather in the middle of a spin class—the point is to push, to produce something, however imperfect. If you don't overthink them, you will be able to complete all of the exercises in under 30 minutes.

Inspired by the Public Domain 1

For today's writing exercise you will look at a short piece of writing that is in the public domain. Last year was a big one for the public domain in the United  States, and there were some gems this year too. One such book of poems that just this past week entered the public domain (or, in this case, in 2002 depending on your source) is Marianne Moore's collection Observations. And in that collection we have this wonderful little poem "Silence"


     My father used to say,
     "Superior people never make long visits,
     have to be shown Longfellow's grave
     nor the glass flowers at Harvard.
     Self reliant like the cat —
     that takes its prey to privacy,
     the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth —
     they sometimes enjoy solitude,
     and can be robbed of speech
     by speech which has delighted them.
     The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
     not in silence, but restraint."
     Nor was he insincere in saying, "`Make my house your inn'."
     Inns are not residences.

  • by Marianne Moore
Awesome poem. And a quick read too, now what?

Now, this poem is wonderfully ambiguous. This is merely my interpretation and it may be 'horribly wrong'. It may not be what your teacher is looking to read so... I'm not to blame if they have a wildly different idea of what this poem is about. They assigned it for a reason. But, yeah... If you just want to get to the exercise you can skip this explication and get right to the next bolded section and get writing.

Real quick let's see what happens in this poem. 

  1. Title: Silence. This poem is about silence in some way, the title is terse. OK, go. 
  2. We're talking about a dad who has been saying something for some time, as in, what is about to be said is a quote that the narrator has heard many times in the past. So they're old enough to be looking back at being told what's coming. We'll see how old that makes the narrator, depending on how mature the saying is. 
  3. Superior people as in people who are not only well behaved, but just better, superior, don't overstay their welcome. That's first. Implying that if you overstay your welcome you are inherently not superior. The narrator's dad said this a lot. Right away if gives you a feel for the guy. They also don't ask for directions because they're smart and cultured, but especially not to places around Hahvahd. I'm paraphrasing, but yeah—they're self-reliant like a cat. But not just any old house cat. Superior, better people, are... well, 
  4. Her dad's Jack the Ripper everyone. Damn, I just solved a mystery! Orrrrr, I guess, he's just the sort of person that sees people's behavior around others is indicative that they're of 'better'... well, they are just better. These people enjoy things, but they do it privately and don't show outward emotion. They're in control at all times etc, and don't gush or speak out of turn. They don't "speak their minds". The penultimate line is where we get the context of the poem. We are almost through, and all we know is that the narrator's dad is kind of elitist and cold. 
  5. Nor. Yep! The poem turns on a nor, it pivots, rotates on that nor. As much as that quote, which was retold at length, definitive of the father's character and his 'truth', so is the fact that his carefully chosen words are exactly that when he said "Make my house your inn'." Also very telling is the punctuation. The single quotes within the double quotes means that the father's words are being uttered by the poet aloud, not just recalled. There is an addressee for this poem. Quotations are tricksy hobbitses, and the reason why the majority of this poem is in just the one set of double quotation while the first line (as well as the last and half of the penultimate) has none, and the other quote has double and single quotes is that the first isn't a direct quote, whereas the second is. And the unquoted bits are the narrator addressing the, well, the addressee, for whom the reader is the surrogate. 
  6. 6? No, hold on. What does that mean? You may well ask. Well, think of it like this. imagine this poem happening like a play. There are two characters on stage, Ms. Narrator and Mr. Addressee. The unquoted first line "My father used to say" is Ms. Narrator speaking to Mr. Addressee. Then when you get the quoted section she stands up extra-straight, tidies her imaginary mustache, and imitates the saying her father was wont to say when she was growing up. Following the impersonation of her father, Ms. Narrator looks back at Mr. Addressee, breaking the 'fourth wall' within the confines of this play, she's done pretending to be (aka quoting) her father. To Mr. Addressee she adds "Nor was he insincere in saying" before popping right back into her impression, this time, directly quoting words he had recently said to them both (or at least, this time she's quoting the exact words, not just a 'recollection' of what he used to say which allows for some variation). The first (double) quotation marks indicate that Ms. Narrator is again at the level of conversation she was at when she first quoted her father, as in, she in conversation with Mr. Addressee and is imitating her father, but the second single set of quotations indicates that this isn't 'based on a true story' in the Anabelle movies are 'based on a true story' but the words are a direct quote, which indicates that Mr. Addressee was likely there to hear the words. So, remember to think to yourself at this moment—both quotes are meant to express the father at his most sincere, as the first quote was chosen, alone, among all other memories to illustrate that the father was very careful in the wording of the second, much shorter quote. The poem is cantilevered on that word "Nor", with the entire weight of the first 12 lines of the poem that had occurred before it just dangling off that cliff, depending on the massive weight (importance) of the bit that is above the ground to keep the structure together. 
  7. You lost me at the end there, simplify. What were you getting at? I ask for you (you might also point out that the typical caesura point of a 14 lined poem would also fall directly where silence comes up in the poem, but to that I say... shhh). Basically, the structure of the poem is kind of like a see-saw that the poet is balancing weights on. The whole long first quote is meant to be very telling of the father's character, and it is. The impetus of the poem, the moment which precipitated that first long quote was the second quote, the one with single and double quotes. It is a backhanded comment. A comment which sounds pleasant but which can be taken negatively. The narrator uses the majority of the poem to clue the reader into what sort of person that father is, and uses that as evidence that when the father says "Make my house your inn" he doesn't really mean it in the welcoming, "Mi casa es su casa", "What's mine is yours" manner which it might be taken. Rather, the narrator indicates that rather, it is a place to sleep, where they are welcome to stay but lacking the warmth of someone's 'home' or 'hearth'. The father prided himself on being cold and not outwardly showing emotion, and the result of that is the house in which the narrator was raised is more like an inn in which they are staying than the traditional nostalgic 'return home' that one might expect. Remember the title? "Silence", right? Remember how he said "the deepest feeling" is represented in silence—restraint (sounds very, monkish). Sounds like her dad was a believer in the Milford Academy's teachings that "Children should be neither seen nor heard," 
  8. But hey, that might be reading way too far into the poem. Could just be the poet saying "my dad was kinda cold and distant, here's some stuff he used to say and what he really meant by this other thing he said." Who knows. Either way there's much to admire—but I like to see it as a married couple back at the woman's parent's home, and her dad had just made that (exact) comment, and the husband, trying to give the benefit of doubt says "maybe he didn't mean it like that" and the woman says "I know that man, I know his so well I'll tell you a very detailed anecdote about just why he is meant it like that." But maybe that's too many rom-coms in my brain.
Inspired By Writing Exercises for "Silence"

1) Look at this list of backhanded compliments. You can do better than that, right? Take one of theirs and improve on it or write one you've heard or just thought of. Now write a poem in which you are explaining to someone who just witnessed a 'polite' conversation, the true undercurrent, the 'unsaids' of what just was witnessed. One way would be to follow the model of the poem "Silence" and use the last couple lines or single stanza to express that the negative meaning of that backhanded compliment is the actual intended meaning, and use the bulk of the poem to recount something about that person either being petty, selfish, whatever bad characteristic or moral failing would be the proper context for the witness to conclude that the backhanded complimenter had indeed meant it negatively. How sassy, how rude!
2) Title Mania: Write your own story or poem titled "Silence". Include at least one instance where one character is quoting something said 'off-screen'.
3) Write a piece in which one of the characters is the sort of cold character as the father. One that prides themselves on being cultured and knowledgeable and not outwardly showing emotions. Put him into some danger, test him. Does he crack? Or is he calmly smoking a cigar on deck as the Titanic goes under?
4) Structural Reproduction: Write a 14-lined poem in which the 7th, 11th and 13th lines are significantly longer than the other lines. For a bonus include a soft caesura between lines 8 and 9, and some sort of hard turn or especially surprising language in line 13.
5) Write a vignette or narrative piece about 'going home to visit the parents' either with a new significant other, an old friend, or a familiar significant other. Give vivid details and be sure to include at least one scent. Not that we got that here, but hey, this is 'inspired by' not imitating.
6) Set a piece in the "Glass Flowers" exhibit at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. It could be a class trip told from one of many perspectives. A visitor enthralled, a bored one. A museum docent leading a tour, someone recalling a childhood visit, whatever. But read a little about the place and write some good plant descriptions. Get some real botanical terms and good adjectives.
7) 5 Words from the poem: Reliant, Privacy Shoelace, Restraint, Insincere


If you'd like some background music to write to, try French reggae artist Naâman's album Deep Rockers