But, It Doesn’t Make Sense!

by Matt Gano

“You have permission to write something that doesn’t make sense!”  This caveat for 9th graders is both liberating and debilitating.  We are discussing Shakespeare and the evolution of the English language.  Shakespeare invented somewhere around 1700 words that we still use today.  He did this by changing nouns to adjectives and adjectives to verbs, by adding prefixes and suffixes to existing words, and by straight up just inventing his own ways of phrasing.  This mode of invention and manipulation of language is one of the aspects of writing that fuels my excitement as a writer, reader, and a teacher and something I feel is crucial for our developing young writers to understand.

Now when I say, “you have permission to writing something that doesn’t make sense,” the general response is a bouquet of wry smiles mixed with guffaws and bewilderment.  They say, “What do you mean it doesn’t have to make sense?”  Well, what I mean is, we don’t always have to write to convey a logical sense of meaning. We have this miraculous ability as humans to assign meaning to the abstract, to find form in something that is essentially formless.  The way we look at clouds, being able to read words that are missing a majority of the letters, assigning human characteristics to inanimate objects etc.  It is this powerful sense of imagination that also allows us to visualize and interpret metaphors and juxtaposition of phrase that might sound on the surface like they “don’t make sense” but in context, and for the sole purpose of affecting an idea, seemingly nonsensical metaphors can be a powerful tool for creating imagery.

Often, it is a challenge to pull really creative ideas out of the minds of high school students, so steering them in that direction and hoping for the best is sometimes all we can do.  But man is it gratifying when you get their best, especially when they do it unknowingly then realize later what amazing writing they’ve created!

I have borrowed a workshop from renowned poet Rachel McKibbons that sets up a word bank where unexpected metaphors and images can be generated by simply combing words.  We start with three columns on the page, the first column is a list of inanimate objects, the second column is a list of animals determined in relation to the inanimate objects, and the third column is a list of sounds or actions these animals make.  Students are giving a series of questions as writing prompts to write about their inner child, or their imagination, or their ego.  Since the subject of the poem lives in the imagination itself and is abstract, it is not out of the realm of possibility for the subject to be able to do silly or impossible things.

This lesson takes a fair amount of trust and established rapport in order for students to follow in the process.  The writing from this exercise comes out pretty weird, but in that awesome sort of weird way.  Without really knowing it, they are experimenting in surrealism, using synesthesia, and beginning to shape their style and voice.  The whole point is to push them over the edge and get them writing without boundaries with fully engaged imagination. This lesson can be challenging for young writers and I’ve had mixed results, but my 9th graders at Ingraham are dang smart; here are a couple fantastic free-writing examples from today. I’ve highlighted some of my favorite images and stylistic choices with some side commentary:

She sits on a globe singing her pterodactyl song,

back-flipping from a chalkboard to a music stand,

on strong kangaroo legs.


She’s a tripping, tumbling songbird

            a ballpoint pen in her elephant trunk.

            She sails the sea on a rubber-duck boat,

            gliding through the water like a blue whale,

            scribbling her thoughts on a t-shirt’s hem. — (Love how unexpected this is!!)


            She has flamingo fingernail polish that squawks for attention, (YES!)

            a doll trailing from those rainbow fish fingers.

            She settles in a cardboard box,

            curled like a kitten,

            yawning a dinosaur roar.


            She swings from a guitar-strap vine,

            feeling like an octopus bouncing through the water,

            She’s the only one who can pounce on an idea,

            the way a cobra strikes,

            or a kingfisher grabs its prey.


            She died and was born again,

            surging from the depths of the ocean,

            leaping like a dolphin for air,

            pulling me home like a horse with a chariot.


                                                            – Sofia T.,  Ingraham High School



            My inner child’s hair flops in the wind

like a skipping wedding dress bathing in the ivory fur  —-(Great clarity!!)

on a summer night.   Her hands tremble, although small,

like the clutching orangutan-panda eating his favorite lion meal. 

Her legs smell like a walking gold chain —- (Fantastic!)

thrusting diamond earrings along with him.

Her eyes are blond like Ellie’s hair but ginger like Allison’s… 


                                                            – Noor, Ingraham High School


My inner child festers in the drama

and trauma of cackling lockets. 

She flaps narwhal-nose-petals in my screaming crow heart.

She smiles her sweet sunset smile at the fawning lamb

canoodling next to my frontal lobe and howls

an agonizing witch-whimper at the Twin Towers of the world.  —- (What?!!!)


My inner child catches blood-splattered snowflakes

in her mouth and absorbs them like moaning dewdrops into her soul. 

She puts the sunrise into the giraffe’s eyes.   —- (GREAT phrasing!!) 

The sparkling sapphire into the crow’s soul.  My inner child is dying

to reach out her soft peanut butter hands and caress the raw,

rainbow scars on the side of your face. 


Her sweet blonde hair, wispy like a passing cloud

carried away by life’s whirling wind,

curls around your rotting lungs and cushions

your aching purple feet.  A moose stretching

its claws across a black keyboard.  — (What a cool and bizarre image to end with!!)


                                                                        Jaime B., Ingraham High School


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