Translating Wonder Into Words: 6 Suggestions

Part One: 10 Things I Noticed

Making a list of 10 things you noticed to include in your movement log entry is a great way to get in the habit of noticing, and then remembering what you noticed. I like making it 10 because that amount of things is more of an effort to remember or keep track of than 5 or 6. This extra effort can lead to unexpected memories. Sitting down with my log, I often wonder how I’ll come up with as many as 10 things, but I usually do. And the act of finding those things, somewhere in my memory after my run, becomes part of the process, helping me to tap deeper into my passive attention (those thing I noticed without realizing I noticed). 

This exercise can be basic or have (almost) endless variations, like 10 things I heard, 10 things related to water, 10 things: wheels, 10 smells, 10 things that flew in my face, 10 colors, 10 strange characters encountered, etc. 

You can compose the list after you move, or in your head as you move, or by stopping every couple of minutes or blocks during your moving to add something to a list you carry with you on a piece of paper or that you’ve created on a voice memo on your phone. 

When trying it out in this first week, start simple. After you move, list 10 things you noticed while moving outside in a log entry. We will keep experimenting with this exercise throughout the six weeks.

With each list item, focus on describing the thing itself. No abstractions, interpretations, or metaphors. Here’s an example from the poet Marie Howe: “Just tell me what you saw this morning like in two lines. You know I saw a water glass on a brown tablecloth. Uh, and the light came through it in three places.”

Part Two: the Route

For the second installment of translation attention and wonder into words,  I’ll discuss writing about your route as you run or walk or ski or whatever you do while outside in the winter. First, here are some instructions for an exercise I developed a few years ago called, “Get to Know the Path”:

Step One || Go outside and move

Head to the gorge and move above it on the paved trail. Move at an easy or moderate or fast pace for as long as you want. 

Step Two || Prepare to pay attention 

Do not wear headphones or move with anyone else. Clear your mind. Breathe. 

Step Three || Pay Attention

Pick one of these three ways to pay attention:

Big Picture: Try to take it all in: the hills,  the landmarks, how crooked the trail is, how far it is from the road and from the river, where it’s the trickiest and most dangerous.

Details: Focus on only one thing about the trail, like:

How many times does the walking path diverge from the bike path? 
When is the path (too) close to the road?
Where does the shared path narrow? Widen?
Where do the worst traffic jams between bikers and walkers and runners occur?
Where are the potholes? The divots? The cracked and cratered asphalt?
When does the path dip down? Rise up?
Where does the path swerve slightly?
Where do the sides of the path drop down steeply?

Passive Absorption: Do not try to pay attention to anything. Go out for a run and be present on the path and open to observing. Absorb the details through your feet, your breath, your body. 

Step Four || Take notes

Speak them into your smartphone, write them in your log. 

Step Five || Repeat steps 1-4

Go out and move by the gorge several times a week for several years.

Step Six || Write about it

Experiment with writing your own route descriptions in various forms, such as: limericks, fun rhymes, an epistrophe, lyric essay, haibun, tankas. 

I did a lot of experiments in route writing in the first years of my running log. I used it as a way to try out writing forms that were new to me. Some of these poems/essays are rough and awkward, but they were fun to write and helped me play around with writing in new ways.  And, as I kept noticing my route and writing about it, my writing (and noticing) improved. In 2019, I created a map brochure, based on the National Park brochures, about one of my favorite 3 miles routes: the Trestle Turn Around. Even now, in 2023, I finding inspiration from my routes and continuing to experiment with how to write about them. 

Here’s a series of tanka poem I did about one of my favorite 5 mile routes:


Here are a few other examples:

  1. Lake Nokomis Loop, short
  2. Ford Loop
  3. Downtown Loop, long
  4. The Run to Lake Harriet
  5. Trestle Turn Around

Part Three: the Weather

Why record the weather?

To become more aware of your body moving through the world: From the very beginning of my log, back in January of 2017, I included the weather in the heading of every entry. At first, just the temperature, later the wind speed, humidity, dew point, the feels like temperature, and whether or not the path was covered in snow or ice. I did this partly because the weather seemed so present, such a character in my running story as I ran through it. I was obsessed with the wind, then the humidity, then how cold it was. As I added more miles and spent more time outside, I felt that wind! So much harder to run when it was blowing. Even as I lamented how it sapped me of energy, I liked how it helped me to be more aware of the world and its effects on my body as I moved through it. 

To tether you to a specific time and place: As I added more entries, then looked back at them months, seasons, years later, I appreciated being able to check what the weather had been — when the first snow was in 2019 (October 12), or how warm it had been February of 2017 (59), or how windy it was most of the summer of 2021. Recording the weather as part of each entry has tethered me and my writing about my runs to the physical world and to a specific time and place. This tethering is central to my practice of being a body, moving outside, and noticing the world. 

For your writing: Making note of the weather in your log provides you with helpful details for an essay or a poem. It also gives you an opportunity to practice different ways of describing the weather beyond just reporting the facts — What does the weather feel like on your skin, your face, your toes? How does it alter the landscape or your mood? 

You might start by just noting the temperature or the wind speed, but you can experiment with different words and different ways to express what this wind or that frigid temperature felt like as you write about them day after day, season after season.

In February of 2019, I decided to play around with the feels like temperature in my entries. In addition to making note of the temperature in degrees, I added a description of how the moving outside in the cold felt to me on that day. It was a fun exercise in paying attention to how I felt — my inner and outer weather — and then convert it into words. The next February, I returned to those “feels like” descriptions and turned them into a hybrid poem. 

The February Feels Likes 

Parts Four and Five: condensing (4) and finding new ways in (5).

In the first three suggestions for translating wonder into words, I focused on things you could add to your entries: a list of 10 things you noticed, your route, the weather. For parts 4 and 5, I’ll discuss ways to play around with words and use certain limitations to help you condense your observations/reflections (4) and to open them up to new meanings (5). 

First, condensing with the minison (mini sonnet):

Some time after you have written your log entry, read through it again. Pick some details and try to summarize them using the limits of a new poetic form I just found, the minison: 14 letters OR 14 words. 

As the creators of the form write on their site, the only “rule” is 14 letters. Achieving it in 14 words is a variation by the poet Seymour Mayne. The point of this experiment is not to craft a perfect poem, but to give more attention to your words as you try to figure out how to make meaning with only 14 letters or 14 words. It’s also to have fun. 

I tried this out with my January log entries and enjoyed it. Many of my minisons — I created both 14 letter and 14 word versions — are not brilliant, but a few of them are promising, and most of them offer a helpful and pithy summary. All of them allowed me to spend more time with my attention and wonder about the place I had just moved through.

Poets love to experiment with limits. Instead of the minison and limiting your letters/words, you could condense your entries with syllable restrictions, like

the haiku: 17 syllables (lines of 5/7/5)
the tanka: 31 syllables (lines of 5/7/5/7/7)
the lune: 11 syllables (lines of 3/5/3)

Second, finding new ways in with acrostics, abecedarians, and alliteration:

Turn part (or all) of your entry into an acrostic poem by picking one of the things you noticed and were in wonder of/wondered about and writing it vertically down the page. Each letter of your wonder becomes the first letter of a line in your poem. While this type of poem is often used in elementary school, it’s not only for kids. It can be fun and useful for forcing you to think more carefully about the words you chose. And, if you’re intimidated by poetry or are having writer’s block, it’s a wonderful way into more words!

Turn your entry into an abecedarian poem. Each line of the poem begins with a letter of the alphabet. You can start with a and end with z, or start with z and end with a. Variations to try: Find and list things you noticed or experienced as you moved for each letter of the alphabet. Or, be more specific: list 26 (a-z) forms of snow/ways to describe snow/textures of snow, etc.

Use alliteration. Read your entry and pick out a letter that you used most often. Make a list of words related to the place you moved through that start with that letter. Edit your entry to feature that letter. Do not use a dictionary when creating your list, try to think up the words on your own. Here’s an example from October 30, 2019:

Ran north on the river road until I reached the bottom of the franklin hill. Reversed direction, running back up the hill. Took a set of wooden stairs down to the rusty red leaf-covered Winchell Trail. With reluctance, resorted to walking most of it–too risky to run…so many hidden roots and rocks and ruts! As I carefully hiked the steep rim, more and more of the railroad trestle revealed itself. I’ve never approached it from this angle. Returned to the paved path by the road after climbing another set of stairs right by the rickety, rotting split rail fence. Listened to the sounds around me. Rusty, rustling leaves, rooting rodents. What a racket! Ended my run by the 2 big rocks. Before leaving the river, remembered to stop at the overlook and then the ravine to absorb the roomy view.

Part Six: make it strange

Like parts 4 and 5, part 6 is about wordplay. Instead of condensing with syllable/word/letter limitations or finding new ways in with the alphabet, it’s about making words and their meanings strange with anagrams and acronyms. 

Why strange? It’s fun and encourages you to be ridiculous, to stretch your imagination, to find new ways to think about words and meaning and what you’re writing about. It can make the mundane magical. And, it can allow you to shift words away from meanings that shut you down, close you up, make you worry. Take away their power over you. 

I started using acronyms and anagrams in my log when I struggled with injury and the limits of my body as it moved through outdoor space. Early on, I was deeply anxious that my wonderful new practice of moving and noticing would be taken away if I got injured. I felt like even mentioning an injury word might conjure that injury into existence. Later, when I did experience some injuries, I worried about how they would prevent me from moving. So I decided to play around with the words that scared me the most. 

When even reading the words patellar femoral pain syndrome made my knee ache in anticipation, I rearranged the letters for patellar femoral to describe a different sort of syndrome:   

For All Leap to Me Syndrome
Alter All of Poem Syndrome
Fall to Leap More Syndrome

When searching Dr. Google for an explanation as to why I was struggling to walk and couldn’t lift my right leg off the ground and learning about the dreaded straight leg raise test, I rearranged the letters to imagine some different actions. Not a straight leg raise, but:

Rise, starlight age!
Arise, great slight!

I light a grass tree.
I right a glass tree.

And when my IT band began acting up then kept acting up, I turned I.T. into a list of free band names that included I and T words. I called the list, Free (IT) Band Names:

Imperious Tina and the Intolerable Treaties
The Intrepid Toddlers
Intelligent Tom and the Incubating Theories
The Iambic Torsos

In my wordplay, I focused on scary injury words, but you could use any words related to your moving outside and noticing. 

For creating acronyms, find an acronym that you’d like to derange. Write the letters at the top of a page. Make a list of other things those letters could stand for.

In addition to I.T., I’ve used E.R., M.R.I., and R.I.C.E. Here are 2 non-injury related acronyms to try: F.M.R. (Friends of the Mississippi River) or D.N.R. (Dept. of Natural Resources — although it could also mean Do Not Resuscitate). 

And here are 3 options for creating anagrams:

One: Write it in large letters across the top of a page. Stare at it, then create a new phrase out of the letters that you write below the original phrase. As you use a letter, cross it out on the original. Keep repeating until you have a phrase that you like or the original phrase has lost its negative meaning.

Two: Type it in a big font across the top of a word document. Copy and paste it 8-10 times below the original, leaving space after each one. Stare at it, then create a new phrase out of the letters that you type below the original phrase. As you use a letter, delete it from the original. Repeat until you run out of original phrases or you feel better.

Three: Cut up a piece of paper into little squares. Write each letter of the phrase on one of the squares of paper. Spread the letters out on a table or the floor. Play around with arranging the letters into a new phrase. Repeat until you find your favorite phrase.

note: Do not use a random anagram generator. The slow and difficult process of trying to make new sense (or nonsense) out of these letters is the main point of this exercise. The strange and surprising phrases you create are just a bonus.