Friday, December 16, 2011

Charles Waters: I've Got a Vat of Phrases

My notebooks have been a complete blessing to me. I can pinpoint the day I first received one - December 15, 2005. It was my birthday, and my former Poetry Alive! touring partner, Anita Ross, gave to to me. She knew I had started writing children's poems a year-and-a-half before and said, "A writer needs a notebook." How right she was. I wrote my first haiku and senryu in it.

Whenever it was Anita's turn to drive to our next poetic destination or if I were walking in a park, visiting a museum, or eating at a restaurant, I would watch and jot down whatever would catch my eye. I don't use my first notebook much anymore, but I still keep it for sentimental reasons. And occasionally when I go to acting and/or poetry workshops, I still jot down notes in there.

Since then, I've used smaller notebooks which are easier to carry. It's been fun looking in on an old poem of mine written in what looks like Sanskrit and to check it out later all typed up looking fresh as morning light. If for some reason I'm at work and my notebook is not on my person, I've been known to jot notes down on my hands, forearms, or any available scrap of paper I can muster.

Sometimes when spending time with friends I may say a phrase or they may say one, and I'll blurt out, "That rhymes!" or "That's a poem!" And immediately I write it down. It seems some ideas come right before I go to bed or just after I wake up, so more than once I've gotten up half-asleep and grumbling to write down whatever thought popped into my noggin.

If you fancy yourself a writer, having a notebook is as vital to you as blood. One does oneself a true disservice to not have something handy to write down a thought that might work in your future scribbles. I've got a vat of phrases in my notebook that don't make any sense, but you never know when that diamond in the rough will be something you can look back on and say to yourself, "Thank goodness I had my notebook with me."

A great exercise to get your juices flowing is something called diving. Pick a subject such as brushing your teeth, and then for 2 - 5 minutes, write about that experience. What toothpaste do you use? What's a good metaphor for what your teeth look like? Do you brush first thing in the morning or wait until after breakfast? Keep your pen on the paper. Don't censor yourself. Write down the first thing that comes to mind. It doesn't matter if your handwriting looks funky or it doesn't make any sense at all --- write, write, write! 

When you're done, I guarantee there will be a phrase that will be unique, something that wouldn't have come to mind if you were self-conscious. I don't know much, but I do know that the key to writing besides the discipline is getting out of your own way. Just let it flow, so go for it...go! Believe in yourself because your Uncle Charles believes in you.

Weak Constitution

I have a weak constitution
When it comes to food
My problem is it all tastes so GOOD.

Mac 'n' Cheese,

If someone offers I say
"Yes please!"

Beans 'n' rice,

To win a jackpot
Wouldn't be as nice

Cookies 'n' Cream,

Is this real or
Is it a dream?

I can't help but
To become unglued

Food puts me
In a great mood!

© Charles Waters 2001, all rights reserved

Before writing this poem, the line, "I have weak constitution when it comes to food. My problem is it all tastes so good" came to me. I quickly went to my notebook, wrote it down, and then thought about what kind of food that would be. When writing poems, always think specificity for the win. The more specific you are with what you write, the better the reader can relate to what you have written. So I thought about the kinds of food that hopefully EVERYONE can relate to.

After the foods, I thought about rhythm - how would the words flow? I read the poem slowly, almost as a vocal metronome, then I performed the poem with different vocal inflections - in an excited way and yearnng for the food to magically appear in front of me.

If there's one thing that children's poets love as much as verse, it's our love of a good meal.

P.S. - When writing, I mostly use a BIC Pro Gel. It glides on the page. It can leave blue smudge marks on your digits, but I compare that to a gardener having dirt in his fingernails. Really getting down to the nitty gritty is vital to excavate the goodness that lies within.

Charles Waters has performed professionally in theaters across the country since 1997. He dedicated three years of service to Poetry Alive!, a performance and teaching theatre troupe that reaches an estimated 600,000 students nationwide each year. With Poetry Alive!, Charles performed in 38 of the 50 United States, and he now performs his one man show, Poetry Time with Uncle Charles, to elementary and middle school audiences.

Charles' poems will appear in the forthcoming anthologies: AMAZING PLACES edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins, and THE ARROW FINDS ITS MARK: FOUND POEMS edited by Georgia Heard.

To learn more about Charles and his work, please visit his website.


  1. This is fabulous! It really shows how you use your notebook and how precious it is to you. I can use this with kids. Thank you!

  2. thanks! this is great food for thought...

  3. Thank you Amy for having me here at SHARING OUR NOTEBOOKS and thank you Karen and Sue for your kind words!


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