Chocolate chip cookies

Writing a Poem with the Help of Billy Collins

“Torture is a chocolate chip cookie”

“Torture is a chocolate chip cookie”

God in heaven, why start there?

It’s an unexpected hook. Emotional. Silly. But there’s something to it you just need to know more about. “Torture is a cookie? How is that possible?”

Okay, first of all: You’re not writing a marketing email. Nobody needs to hook anyone here.

Well if I don’t hook, how do I get them to read?

Purity. Authenticity. A fresh perspective. But never mind that for now. What’s the second line?

“…hidden in discarded Tupperware behind the cherubic barista at the counter.”

This is a lot.

A lot?

You’re taking something mundane, something altogether boring and “everyday” and forcing it to be something bigger.

Not forcing — it is.

Really? When you saw this angelic barista, did you really think him “cherubic” or was that Merriam-Webster whispering in your ear? Let me put it this way: What would happen if you leaned into natural observations and let the reader make of them what they will?

If I do that, they’ll miss my point.

You’re not giving your readers much credit, are you?

I’ve been trained to hit my readers over the head with a thesis, spelled three dozen ways — just so they don’t miss it.

Back to the contamination of academia, then. You’re not writing an essay here. And the people who read poetry are not typically those who do so at a fevered pace. They want to linger with it. Sit on the experience. Let it soak in.

So how would that change my cherubic barista and torturous chocolate chip cookie?

I’m willing to bet you didn’t draw conclusions about this experience until after it was over and you had an opportunity to think about it. Let your readers do the same.

Okay, so how about this: “I went to a coffeeshop on a Sunday afternoon, more interested in cookies than coffee.”

Better, but now it’s declarative and not descriptive. Poetry should be immersive: Bring your reader with you. Show them how the experience unfolds, don’t tell them.

“Sunday afternoons, the rainy ones, are often prime for chocolate chip cookies. The craving starts when the clouds turn gray—“

Yes, yes, just don’t spend too much time on the setup. What was the actual experience? Did you spend that much time and energy thinking about chocolate chip cookies before you even stepped out for the coffeeshop?

Mr. Collins.


I’m starting to think there’s nothing to write about here. Chocolate chip cookies? A rainy Sunday? Why would the reader care?

Because there’s extraordinary in the ordinary. You had an experience that sparked an internal conflict, right? Something small opened the door to something bigger — and the reader can see themselves in both. They’ve slumped in the drag of a rainy Sunday. They have been to a coffeeshop. They’ve craved a chocolate chip cookie. They have swooned in the presence of a “cherubic” whoever. But the way in which they experienced these things may not have connected the dots in the way you can.

Is it really that revelatory, though? A forlorn chocolate chip cookie. Wanting a comfort, but fearing that comfort will make me seem unhealthy — unattractive — in front of someone I’m trying to impress. The comfort then reinforcing the rainy depression it was meant to cure.

I hate to be cynical, but here it is: Most people live on the surface. Or, to quote one of my forebears, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation” — although it’s worse than that. They’re not even aware of the desperation. They’re capable of insights, self-awareness, observation, and analysis but they drone on like automatons in the day to day because it’s easier, safer. Nothing stirs them, challenges them, excites them. Your chocolate chip cookie may just strike a chord. Pull back from the grandiose — all you need to do is paint a picture, and give your readers the chance to unpack the story it tells.

Is this what you tell other poets?

It’s what I tell myself, every time I sit down to write a poem. That and something more existential: “Does this need to be written? Am I saying too much, too little? What difference will it make anyway?”

How often do you drop the pen and just walk away?

Nine times out of 10. But that 10th time feels good, feels right. Feels worth the letters put on the page.

Every 10th time? I’m not sure I have the patience for that. Every time I sit down to write, I feel the need to produce something worthwhile.

That’s not how it works, my friend. They’ll tell you a poet is aware, observant, curious, an outside-the-bounds-of-the-world thinker. But what they never tell you is that a poet must be patient.

That doesn’t bode well for me.

You’ve got the perspective, the voice, the words. The patience comes with time — trust me.

Until then, what do I do with my chocolate chip cookie?

Eat it. There will be other baristas.

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