I Judged A Writing Exercise By Its Name, But Tried It Anyway

I love The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. The book offers a range of exercises that compliment my other favorite poetry text, Thirteen Ways of Looking for a Poem by Wendy Bishop. While I have my favorite go-to prompts from each book, I like to find something new each time I teach poetry writing. I do this mostly for myself. I don’t want to get bored midway through a poetry writing unit. I want to have fun.

My copy of The Practice of Poetry (I think of it as PoP) is flagged with sticky notes. Some notes are even labeled: GOOD, SUPER GOOD, DIFFICULT BUT FUN!! No label on page 111 though. Page 111 is Linnea Johnson’s exercise called “Personal Universe Deck.”

For years I flipped right past that one. The name! The name! When I think “Personal Universe Deck,” I picture a swirling purple sky and multiple moons over a surrealist desert scape. I really don’t like the name. I spent last week trying to think why Linnea Johnson decided to call her writing exercise that. I have an idea. But first, her exercise (some paraphrase by me, modifications noted after):


Make a list of 100 words:

16 words each of the five senses
The words must suggest taste, touch, sight, smell and hearing. For instance, frozen might suggest touch to you; birdsong might suggest hearing.

10 words of motion
The words must mean, suggest, motion to you. They do not necessarily need to be verbs. Baby could be a motion word to someone.

3 abstractions
Like love or truth or freedom.

7 anything else
Names, days of the week, any word with meaning to you which does not fit into the other categories

All words on the list, in the deck must
1. have significance to/for you
2. be specific; that is, the word must not be “bird” but “robin”
3. sound good to your ear

Use no adverbs. Use no plurals.

My modification: 10 for each sense for a total of 70 words.


Linnea Johnson herself modified the exercise from a 1975 workshop with Anita Skeen. I only know that because she says so in her short PoP chapter.

Here’s what we can do with our Personal Universe Decks. (Every time I type that title I think Do NOT mess up the vowel):

We can make skeletons of poems
We can mine for wild, unlikely images or expressions
We can use colored paper and make patterns and hope the words offer something, anything
We can pull one card out and say it describes us perfectly
Or make someone else choose their word (A student did that in my class. I drew “police” from his words)
We can use a single word as a WP prompt
We can toss them in the air like confetti

And we can make a new list of 70 or 100 words again in another couple of months because our lives – our personal universes, if you will – tend to shift! So maybe the words I listed in October aren’t mine in January. I think that’s the draw of this exercise: it’s versatile and can sketch an unexpected outline of our current personal universe.