The Triggering Townsend: On Writing the Actual Subject

When it comes to emotional events, I’m notoriously dry-eyed. I don’t get misty at funerals, or weddings, or graduations. I didn’t cry when my kids were born, or when my pets died. It’s not that I’m truly unmoved. I’m often a raging sea of emotions at these moments. It’s more that it doesn’t register in any visible way. Maybe that’s why I’m fascinated by how the human mind links objects or moments that seem so small to much larger, much more profound experiences. Take, for example, the time in the spring of 2018, when my son’s 5th grade music teacher dragged me into a dark alley and pummeled me within an inch of my life.

Emotionally speaking, I mean, though Ms. Spielman is certainly a woman not to be messed with. To this day, if I encounter the trigger that takes me back to the moment she destroyed me, I’ll still dissolve into goo.

The trigger is the song “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman.

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN movie poster (2017)

At the end of 5th grade, on the eve of moving up to middle school, my son and his peers gave a concert directed by their beloved elementary school music teacher. It ended with a finale number not listed in the program — “This Is Me” — performed, according to Ms. Spielman, “as a tribute to the wonderful people these children have become and all they have to be proud of.” First I got misty, then weepy, and finally full-on sobby watching Corwin belt the lyrics up on those auditorium risers. He’s not a magnificent singer. It was the principle of the thing. Something about a declaration of courage and pride felt singularly necessary in that moment, especially after the frankly exhausting school year he’d had. 

The local Meijer grocery likes to keep “This Is Me” at the top of its canned music rotation. It’s inevitably playing whenever I’m there, which means once every ten days or so I get to be the weird lady sniffling and snuffling in the sliced bread aisle. As you might imagine, that goes over just peachy with neighboring shoppers in a pandemic. I’ve started doing more curbside pick-up orders just to avoid the song, but it’s (hilariously?) also part of their “call to tell us you’re here!” hold music playlist.

The point isn’t that a show tune has laid me low so much as what this demonstrates about how the human mind works — and how thinking about this can improve our writing.

Cover of Richard Hugo’s THE TRIGGERING TOWN

In his 1979 collection of essays on poetry, The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo writes about how the connection between a poem and its subject is both more complex, and more simple, than it appears. Hugo’s essential thesis across all these essays is that rather than seeking to describe something or “communicate” about it in poetry, a poet should look at the world around them as a source of potential “triggering subjects” — that is, objects, ideas, images, and words that lead down an associative train that invites speculation and invention. That tulip you see on the first of May, for example, could feature in a poem you write, but it shouldn’t be what your poem is about, in the sense of being its only object of reflection. Rather, the way the tulip leads you to remember your grandmother’s gardening habit, or her chain-smoking, or maybe even her funeral and how the flowers set around her casket would have been a disappointment to her — these things are the actual subject, the place your mind should feel compelled to go when you free yourself from the tyranny of literalism and pure description. I talk about Hugo’s theory of the triggering subject and actual subject a lot when teaching my students to write poetry, but it’s also useful for writing fiction or personal essays or, really, just about anything. 

Hugo’s advice works as a method of brainstorming ideas, as a tool for revising writing that seems to have only glazed the surface of a moment, and as a lever for prying open and developing characters. Just as we, as flesh and blood humans, respond to ordinary things in seemingly extraordinary or disproportionate ways, compelling, realistic characters will have their own triggering memories and ways their experience of everyday life interleaves with them.

It should be noted that in talking about “triggering memories” I don’t think we creatives should immediately assume traumas. Even in my weeping over show tunes, I’m not weeping out of sadness or pain, exactly (despite my melodramatic lede). I’m weeping out of the powerful sense of my son being seen in those lyrics, and my equally powerful desire for him to feel about himself everything the song proclaims. It’s not a pain trigger, but a love trigger, and though the word “trigger” has been co-opted and proliferated in ways that have diluted its usefulness, we’re talking about a different associative experience, where the wiring of the brain doesn’t necessarily trip on trauma, but on a rhizomatic system of memories, associations, emotions, and musings.

I sometimes do an exercise with my students where I challenge them to walk around campus for awhile and find what I call “unpoemable objects.” By this time, they’re familiar with Hugo’s theory of triggering and actual subjects and have started to dabble with their own poetry. Still, they tend to worry that they’re not “doing it right” when they’re challenged to think about what they’re writing in terms of both surface and substance. The Unpoemble Objects exercise is meant to be fun — “Find me the worst, most aesthetically empty, most un-moving objects you can find! Take pictures of them, and bring them back here so we can do something weird!” — and also a lesson in modeling associative thinking. 

Here’s an example of things students come back with:

  • Toilet seat
  • “Not an Exit” sign above door
  • Weird stain on carpet
  • An abandoned tennis racket next to a garbage can
  • Lunch tray with stacked, half-eaten bowls of cereal

And so on.

Once I have the students shout out their absolute worst unpoemables, and I’ve written about ten of them on the board, I tell someone who looks mostly trustworthy to put me on a three minute timer. “In the next three minutes,” I tell them, “I’m going to brainstorm out loud how I’d use each of these objects as a trigger to help build toward an actual subject in a theoretical poem I’m not going to write.” 

I’ll tell them about the time I spent struggling to potty-train my kids, or maybe about the year I worked as a janitor in a ritzy health club as I talk about toilet seats and carpet stains. I speculate about what the door that isn’t an exit might actually be — and I go as deeply science fictional as I can get in thirty seconds. I talk about my father’s failed ambition for me to become a great tennis player, and my fraught relationship with the balls I could only ever seem to serve completely backward, rocketing off behind me in defiance of physics. I riff on my summer morning ritual of cold cereal on the front porch with my grandfather and how I can’t smell corn flakes without also smelling White Owl cigars. It’s a wholesale unpacking of the unexamined corners of my psyche, and — if I’m doing it right — a model that shows young writers that there is no hopeless object, no dead end, when you give yourself permission to wriggle free of literal constraints and let your triggered mind take over. It’s an exercise in hope, and imagination, and giving your brain credit for containing multitude because, well. . . it does. 

Usually, I don’t quite make it through all ten umpoemable objects, but I get close. My students are kind enough to believe that the effort still counts.

The next time you’re not sure what to do with a character that won’t open up to you, or how to make a scene resonate the way you want it to, it may be that you’re thinking too hard about what has to be literally present for something to be compelling. Have you thought about how to chase a small trigger, a little memory, a tiny detail down through a story’s rabbit holes or into a character’s life? Have you considered what might make them happy-cry in the bakery aisle? Have you considered the poignance, or even the comedy, of the abandoned tennis racket?

It may be that the answer to your next writing block, no matter what you’re writing, lies in something that at first seems unpoemable.