Updated: Oct 28, 2019
By Gillian Kessler:
I first read Ruth Gendler’s “The Book of Qualities” when I was a senior in high school. My acting teacher used her personification poems as acting exercises, and I went on to weave them into my valedictory speech. Since that time, I have choreographed dances to her texts, heard original music inspired by her poems, and watched artists craft characters to her words. Over the years, the writing inspired by her artistic style has proven to be one of my tried and true exercises. Not only does it teach about the vital poetic device of personification, it unlocks creative doors that hinge on detail and imagination.
Below are a few excerpts from Gendler’s book, though I highly recommend finding it, reading it from cover to cover, and then playing with her form.
Inspiration is disturbing. She does not believe in guarantees or insurance or strict schedules. She is not interested in how well you write your grant proposal or what you do for a living or why you are too busy to see her. She will be there when you need her, but you have to take it on trust. Surrender. She knows when you need her better than you do.
Honesty is the most vulnerable man I have ever met. He is simple and loving. He lives in a small town on a cliff near the beach. I had forgotten how many stars there are in the midnight sky until I spent a week with him at his house by the sea.
In my time I have been afraid of so many things, most especially of the heights and of the darkness. I know if I had been driving anywhere else, the road would have terrified me. Knowing I was on my way to see him softened the fear. And in his presence the darkness becomes big and deep and comforting. He says if you are totally vulnerable you cannot be hurt.
Joy drinks pure water. She has sat with the dying and attended many births. She denies nothing. She is in love with life, all of it, the sun and the rain and the rainbow. She rides horses at Half Moon Bay under the October moon. She climbs mountains. She sings in the hills. She jumps from the hot spring to the cold stream without hesitation. Although Joy is spontaneous, she is immensely patient. She does not need to rush. She knows that there are obstacles on every path and that every moment is the perfect moment. She is not concerned with success or failure or how to make things permanent.
At times Joy is elusive—she seems to disappear even as we approach her. I see her standing on a ridge covered with oak trees, and suddenly the distance between us feels enormous. I am overwhelmed and wonder if the effort to reach her is worth it. Yet, she waits for us. Her desire to walk with us is as great as our longing to accompany her.
After you’ve gained a sense of her style, go through a list of questions about a certain quality. If this quality were a person, what gender would it be? Where would he or she live? What would he/she like to do in their spare time? How would he or she accessorize? What would their occupation be? Play with it—the more detail, the better. Then pare down and really look at what details clearly show you what this person is all about. This is a great exercise for showing versus telling.
This example was written by the remarkable Abigail when she was in the second grade:
Self-Conscious is shy and open-hearted.
She has a clear, bright, spirited but calm
In the classroom, she doesn't speak out
in small groups and she's afraid
to call attention
In her free time,
Self-Conscious loves to read
chapter books about adventures.
She always includes people in
games and activities.
She's also always open to
playing with her best friend, Truthy.
She loves sitting under
one of the
great trees in the
She is a solo orphan who lives on her own.
Self-Conscious absolutely adores sports,
but she's scared of
winning, and losing.