Several years ago, I was handed a prompt by one of my writing teachers. The assignment was to write a cento, a form of found poetry where one builds lines out of or around scraps of texts from other writers.
I’d known for a long time that I had an interest in monsters, specifically those coded as female or for whom gender seemed a part of their monstrosity. I started thinking about the myth of the minotaur. It had always seemed like there was an undercurrent of sex, desire, of queerness in that myth. He fed on humans, and hadn’t I and so many other queer writers heard we were not quite human?
I started pulling pieces out of the scraps my teacher had given me, and a figure appeared. A minotaur, one who was half-girl, half-beast. A teenager, like the young people thrown into her cave. I realized I’d been hungry to write about my own coming out for a long time, but I needed a door in. It had felt perhaps too close, too slippery, at times too frightening to put into words.
That first poem turned into 5, which turned into 20. Here’s what I learned about writing what scares you.
1. Constraints can open you up, instead of shutting you down.
I needed the cento form to unlock what Emily Dickinson calls a “flood subject.” Having to use borrowed language, a set meter, a hand-me down image, or a strict form can fire synapses in your writing brain you didn’t even know you had. When we’re dealing with writing the tough subject, that’s vital for getting started.
2. Find an image that obsesses you, and give yourself permission to obsess.
Once I started thinking about the minotaur, I couldn’t stop. How could the king imprison his own child? What did a creature sent as punishment for a lack of faith say about God, and how did this connect to present day ideas about sin and queerness? What about chosen family: how often had I and my friends felt like monsters living among humans?
I made the minotaur my starting place for daily writing for a month. I was surprised what turned up when I tried to approach the same image every day. Our brains crave both repetition and difference, and having a fixed point gave me space to wander.
3. Write like no one is watching.
The deeper I dove into exploring monsters, the more layers I peeled back on my own story. I couldn’t think about this monster I was trying to redeem without thinking about one person in particular who had been monstrous to me. If the minotaur had humanity, he must as well, but that was almost too painful to think about. Naming him a monster in my life had in many ways, saved me.
To write what’s scaring us, we have to be willing to scare ourselves, to write things we would never show anyone. This is how we build bravery while writing, and from the brave idea, we can make art.
4. Let myth and magic be your guide.
When we’re trying hard to hold onto a vision of ourselves in the present or past, it’s impossible to follow the writing’s lead. The things that haunt us are things we’ve thought of so much that committing them to just one piece of writing or one version can feel impossible. So we write nothing at all. Or, we write lots that feels false, wrong-footed, cliché.
When this happens, it can be useful to lean into the speculative, the magical, and the weird. Poets have been holding multiple contradicting truths in our work since Sappho, and the multiverse is real (we think.)
Maybe in one version you escape the horrible home you grew up in, or fight back at the moment when it matters most. Maybe in another, the addiction is not to alcohol but to jitterbugging. Maybe in another, you are the monster. How does that make you feel? What powers might you have? Feel free to blend the real with the fantastic as it feels natural to do so. I love this example by Natalie Diaz, “How to Go to Dinner With a Brother on Drugs.”
Sometimes we have to find a new way to look at the story, even a new creature to inhabit. If we free our writing from telling the most difficult thing exactly as it happened, the emotional truth of the moment is free to come forward.
If you have a monster or two that needs to be leashed or unleashed, come to Writing Our Monsters at Hugo House on Thursday nights. Class starts February 14 (the bloodiest day of the year!) and you’ll find community, new imagery, new frameworks, and innovative forms lurking in the dark. Your story will find you, one way or another. It’s up to you how you tell it.
Sara Brickman is a queer Jewish author, performer, and community organizer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. The winner of the Split This Rock Poetry Prize, Sara has received grants and scholarships from the Lambda Literary Foundation, The Yiddish Book Center, Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture, and more. She is a BOAAT Writers Fellow and the recipient of the Ken Warfel Fellowship for Poetry in Community. Sara’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Adriot, BOAAT, The Indiana Review, Muzzle Magazine, and the anthologies The Dead Animal Handbook and Courage: Daring Poems for Gutsy Girls. A nationally renowned performer, she has collaborated with musicians Mary Lambert, Hollis Wong-Wear, and Led To Sea. Sara received her MFA from the University of Virginia, where she taught poetry and rhetoric, and currently teaches with Writers-in-the-Schools and other community arts organizations. She lives in Seattle with her partner and her cat Latke.