Back in the 1990s, when I taught creative writing in Northeastern University’s old night school, I found similar problems with the poetry and the autobiography students: cliché and vagueness. The poets wrote things that sounded like bad pop love songs and the autobiographers covered large swaths of time with things like, “I would go to school and then I would come home and after I would do my homework, I would go out with my boyfriend…”
Q: How much would would a wouldchuck chuck if a wouldchuck could chuck would? A: None. Smart Writer Woodchucks use simpler tenses and more riveting detail.
To solve this dilemma, I had both classes write about food before they took on any other topic (and, following the advice of a colleague, I said they were not allowed to write about Love until they had earned it). Food is a great topic for a few reasons. Everybody eats, everybody has an emotional connection to food (both positive and negative), and food stimulates not just the visual sense, but also the smell, taste and tactile senses. It is the perfect topic.
During these years, the English department of the night school sponsored an April poetry reading every year to showcase the teaching poets in honor of National Poetry month. One year I read a poem I had written about a tomato, sunning itself on my windowsill like a Buddha.
After the reading, a student came up to me goggle-eyed, and said, “I am never going look at tomatoes the same way again!”
Without thinking, I said, “That is the whole purpose of poetry.”
And the more I have thought about it, lo these many years, the more I believe I was right.