I myself started writing spoken word three or four years ago. Over the years, I’ve turned some of my pieces into YouTube videos, and some of them have gotten pretty popular.. In fact, that’s probably how most of you found this blog.
Ever since I started making videos with The Anima Series, I get a lot of questions about spoken word poetry.
How do you write it?
Where do you get your ideas?
Write a piece for me to give to my girlfriend on Valentine’s Day! (This one isn’t really a question, but it was a real request)
It seems there are enough of you interested in spoken word to warrant doing a post on the subject. Since spoken word is an extremely general topic though, I figured I’d split things up and tackle them one section and question at a time.
Today, I want to focus on where I get my ideas.
Inspiration is a rare and tricky animal. We’re often so grateful when it comes along, that we forget to take note of where it came from. This is foolish. I know, because I do it all the time. It’s like finding a piece of gold in a field and immediately running off to sell it without taking time to remember where the field was. You may make a small profit from that one little nugget, but you’ve lost the field. You’ll never be able to find your way back and find the bags full of gold you left sitting underneath the surface.
It’s a common misconception that inspiration is something to be waited on rather than something we must seek out. When we take note of where inspiration comes from, then we know where to go looking for it next time we’re running low.
So now, after deep reflection and soul-searching, I have composed the five “sparks” I draw inspiration from. In this post, I’ll break down all five sparks for you, as well as provide examples of the poems that sprouted from each of them. Let’s begin.
Any great artist, leader, or businessman will tell you that experience can be our greatest teacher. It has been from my personal experience, both good and bad, that I have drawn inspiration for some of my most popular pieces.
Many of you know the story behind Not Qualified. Shortly after starting The Anima Series, I had received several emails, texts, and Facebook messages basically calling me a hypocrite. The senders of these messages held the opinion that because of mistakes I had made, I shouldn’t be appearing in the types of videos we were creating. Experiencing this type of adversity brought on many challenges, but also many lessons. Writing Not Qualified helped me to not only deal with the adversity from an emotional stand point, but to really let those lessons sink deep into my spirit, and turn those painful past experiences into a vehicle for good. Tell Your Story was written much in the same vain.
Two quick warnings on using experience as inspiration:
1) Be cautious of over sharing.
If you’re just writing for yourself, and you’re the only person who will ever see it, then by all means, bare it all. But if you plan to take the piece public in any way, think carefully about how detailed and specific you want to get. Spoken word can be very therapeutic, but in my opinion, it should not be public therapy. Also, make sure to consult your loved ones before you publish any personal experience piece publicly. Them being comfortable with what you share is just as important, if not more important than your comfort level. It’s never fully “comfortable” to share personal experiences, especially publicly, and especially online, but it’s important for your family and loved ones to be on the same page as you. This is a lesson I had to learn the hard way.
2) Log your experiences
Experience has the same challenge as inspiration. We get so caught up in the moment, that we forget to record the experience in our minds as possible inspiration for future work. Now obviously we want to be present in the moment, rather than being that friend who whips out a notebook every five minutes. I’ve been that friend. Trust me, it ruins the fun for everyone. This struggle can be easily combated in through journaling, daily reflection, or even just a quick log in the Notes app to serve as a reminder when you go to develop your thoughts later.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it is the lifeblood of a poet. A question that you, or someone you know, has been struggling with can prove to be an extremely effective spark when writing a spoken word piece.
Many of my pieces were born from questions. What Are You Afraid Of? was born out of a conversation I was having with a friend. We were watching basketball one night when out of the blue he asked, “Jon, what do you think the opposite of fear is?” I was pretty into the game, so I sort of brushed it off at the time. As the days went on though, I couldn’t get that question out of my head. Eventually, I started writing down every word that came to mind as an opposing force to fear. This list later became the poem.
Seven Days: A Creation Story had a similar process. That piece stemmed from the question, “what would a modern day version of the Genesis creation poem sound like?
For other videos, like What is Grace? and What is the Church Really About? The question itself ended up being the title.
A question is a great spark for a spoken word piece. And conversely, writing a spoken word about a question is a great excuse to start discovering an answer. Having to create something from that question forces you to think more critically about it than you otherwise might have.
Instead of stopping at the question, the key is to let the question spark an investigation, allow the investigation flow into imagination and eventually, a work of art.
You know how you get a song stuck in your head? You can seem to stop humming it, singing it, and dancing to it, even in completely inappropriate circumstances. That doesn’t happen with just songs, does it? Sometimes we hear a word, or a phrase, and even though we’ve heard it thousands of times before, it sticks in our mind. For some reason, it’s as if we’re hearing it for the first time and we begin to see it in a different light. We begin to search it for its true meaning.
This is what happened to me with the word “encounter” one summer. My sister and I were leading a bi-weekly worship gathering in our basement we called “Basement Worship.” How original! One day, as we were rehearsing, the word “encounter” fell onto my heart. I could have shaken it off, and maybe I did in the moment. But the word just wouldn’t go away. Later that night, it hit me. That word, “encounter” is really what worship is all about. When we show up to a worship service, small group, Bible study, prayer meeting, wherever it may be, we come to have an encounter with God and all that He brings into our lives. If you haven’t figured it out yet, this word was the spark that led to the creation of Encounter: A Call to Worship.
Pay attention to the words and phrases people use, especially the ones we overuse without really thinking about what they mean. These words can be the perfect spark for a future poem.
I wrote a post here on the blog last May called Finding Your “Why”. Your why is essentially your purpose in life, your reason for creating what you create and doing what you do. This “why” is often born out of frustration or righteous anger.
All throughout high school, I went to my fair share of youth gatherings and Christian summer camps. While these times were some of the most transformative of my life, one element always left me feeling frustrated and unfulfilled. Every time a Christian adult would talk to me and my teenage friends about the subject of purity, their focus was almost solely based in the physical. It was all about, how far is too far, and what exactly constitutes sex. As my friends and I all struggled down our own path towards purity, with several detours, I grew increasingly frustrated with all the advice I was getting. I was sick of hearing about tricks for behavior modification. It became clear to me that what I, my friends, and anyone who was struggling in the area of purity really needed, was a revolution of the heart and of the spirit. Purity is not first and foremost a physical pursuit. Purity is an emotional and spiritual pursuit. This is why David prays “create in me a pure heart, O God.” (Psalm 51:10) It begins in the heart, and from a pure heart flows pure actions.
It was my frustration around this purity conversation, mixed with my frustration towards the hurtful media messaging directed at young men and women that led me to write both Who You Are: A Message to All Women and Who You Are: A Message to All Men.
A Godless Generation was very similar. This piece was born out of a frustration I had with how “spiritual elders” were dealing with the issues and struggles of young people in the church.
A short word of caution on this frustration spark:
It can be very easy for a frustration based piece to become very “ranty” and selfish. Some people make a living through creating rant based art. For me, personally, a frustration piece that I’ve written is only successful if it offers some sort of solution and is created with the hopes of encouraging others to make that solution a reality.
This last one might be my favorite. If you’re not a Christian, or you’re on the fence about the Bible, that’s fine, this spark can be applied to other books, songs, or even historical events.
I’ve always been a big fan of Joshua and the battle at Jericho. I love how insurmountable the enemy was. I love how completely counterintuitive God’s battle plan seemed. And I love how God waits until the last possible second to enact it.
While I was thinking about this one day, I started to realize that God does that same thing all over the Bible. In almost every book of scripture, you can find a story of some insurmountable enemy, a counterintuitive plan, and a God waiting until the last possible second to bring the hope that is needed. This realization led to what became The Wall: A Hopeless Situation.
When you find a theme, whether it be in the Bible, a song, or life in general, start training yourself to ask where else that theme might pop up. I bet you’ll find it in more places than you ever thought. This specific technique is what helped me to write The Little Things, as well as our entire More Than A Metaphor series. Again, this spark is fertile ground for planting the seeds for your spoken word poem.
There you have it, my five sparks of inspiration for spoken word pieces, blog posts, video ideas, you name it. I hope these have been helpful for you, and more importantly, I hope you use them in creating your next masterpiece.