"Poetry Is Like Pooping" And Other Writing Tips From A TED Superstar

Here's how poet Sarah Kay weaves inspiring stories into her writing, and you can too.

Three years ago, a young spoken word poet named Sarah Kay dazzled the TED Conference, earning two standing ovations. Her performance about writing poetry to entertain and educate has since received over 5 million views on the TED website.

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Kay believes that communication is about telling stories that people can learn from. She offers five suggestions on how to make writing a part of your work and daily life:

1. Poetry is like pooping.

That’s the analogy Kay uses when people try to put poetry on a pedestal or become intimidated by the process of writing.

"If there’s a poem inside of you, it needs to come out," she says. "I want people to think of poetry as more human, less sacred."

Kay says that there isn’t a right or wrong way to write, and there isn’t a correct amount of time it should take. Writers need to worry less about how they should be writing and just focus on getting the words out, she says.

2. You’re a poet or writer if you say you are.

You don’t have to get paid for your writing to be a writer. "I know many people who work nine-to-five in a cubicle and then come home to write for themselves," Kay says. "Their words are often just as powerful, moving, and valid as anything I’ve written, if not more so."

Kay notes that in some cultures everyone may be considered a poet. This doesn’t make being a poet less special, she says, but rather it makes being a poet more relevant.

She suggests making the time for writing—write a poem once a week and doodle once a day. "Create something that brings you joy," Kay says.

3. Don’t be afraid of bad writing.

Kay encourages people to write down their thoughts and feelings without worrying if the writing is perfect. She emphasizes that improvements and refinements come later.

"You would never sit down at a piano for the first time and expect beautiful music to simply pour out of your fingers," she says. "You would need practice and more practice. But one certain way to never play beautiful music is to never sit down at the keys."

Her process begins with sitting down and writing, even if it's bad. Then she looks at her writing and decides what makes it bad—she sees what isn’t working and finds the one line that is. Next, she takes that line or lesson and starts anew.

"Sitting down to write is never a waste of time. It is a process of learning, practicing, and growing," Kay says.

4. Consider writing an act of celebration.

Kay believes when we write something, we are taking time to celebrate. "We are holding up to the light whatever we write about and saying, ‘Wow, will you look at that?’"

She says that thinking of writing as an act of celebration is a helpful framework—it helps prioritize what you want to call attention to by forcing you to ask, ‘What is worth celebrating?’

5. Sprinkle breadcrumbs.

Staring at a blank page or screen is often dispiriting, so Kay recommends building a backlog of writing ideas.

"When we watch and listen to the world, there are things that startle, amaze, upset, and confuse us," she says. "When something penetrates your thoughts and feelings, jot down a one-word reminder or send yourself a text message. Later, when you carve out time to write, those words can move you toward writing ideas. It’s like breadcrumbs that head you toward inspiration."

It's important to get outside of your head every once in a while. Kay suggests making time for picnics with old friends, listening to movie soundtracks, reading authors you both love and hate, talking with your grandmother, and visiting museums and zoos for inspiration.

"The more we listen, observe, and reflect," Kay says, "the more we have in our inspirational toolbox—and the more we have in our toolbox, the more we can create."

Sarah Kay performs in communities and classrooms around the world. She is the founder of Project VOICE, an organization that uses spoken word poetry to entertain, educate, and encourage people to engage in creative self-expression. Her second book of poetry, No Matter the Wreckage, was released this month.

[Image: Flickr user jurvetson]

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4 Comments

  • John Jeremiah Smith

    Four out of five of those are pure nonsense -- kindergarten teacher talk.

    4 is good, the rest is schlock.

  • So true on the breadcrumbs aspect. If I write down enough reminders, I never have to worry about what to write about; I just have to pick a topic from the list. Sometimes, I even find that a topic has created itself from a collection of breadcrumbs!