It was a steaming hot June day on Main Street in a tiny north Georgia town, and my friend and I were in a used bookstore, browsing, and touching, and smelling to our heart’s content. She picked up an old book and said, “I’m going to buy this to make blackout poetry.”
I’d seen blackout poetry on Pinterest before, and I had only a vague idea of what it was. I nodded and kept browsing.
When we finished shopping, we went back to my friend’s college dorm to sit on her floor and draw. It didn’t occur to me until she picked up a paintbrush what she actually intended to do. I watched in fascination and horror as she confidently covered nearly an entire page in black paint, somehow leaving a beautiful poem layered with meaning from the page of a children’s storybook.
Blackout poetry is an unorthodox art form: You open a book and scan a page, looking for any words or phrases that catch your eye regardless of whether they’re connected. Then you use a marker or paintbrush to fill in everything except those words. The result might look something like a letter from WWII, with text redacted by a censor.
Once I got over the feeling that I’d be condemned forever for taking a paintbrush to a book, blackout poetry became my new favorite thing. Here’s why it’s a great activity for professional writers who may have lost their love for language in the 9-5 workday.
Although the origin of this art form isn’t exactly certain, Austin Kleon, the author of Steal Like An Artist and a social media blackout poetry pioneer, has tentatively traced it to a man named Caleb Whiteford from the 1700s.
Whiteford, Kleon says in a 2012 TEDxKC talk, took some of the first print newspapers, collected poetry and puns from them and published a broadsheet with his findings. If this is accurate, it means blackout poetry has been around for over 250 years.
After Whiteford, blackout poetry made the rounds among multiple French and American poets, painters, and writers before evolving into the latest social media craze.
Newspapers don’t last, Kleon points out; their final resting place is the recycling bin. But artists, he feels, collect things that mean something to them. The job of an artist is to read and to collect ideas they can save and perhaps repurpose later—an idea that will resonate with writers.
As a longtime writer, I’ve been saving words ever since I was little. My closet door is littered with scraps of paper on which are scribbled phrases, scraps of overheard dialogue, or individual words in various languages. It’s human tendency to save things that are important to us, and for me, words rank near the top of my priority list. Blackout poetry, Kleon says, is the perfect method of saving words that mean something to us.
There are several convincing reasons to try blackout poetry yourself, even if you aren’t an artist or a poet.
First, blackout poetry is a great stress reliever, and stress is definitely something that can get in the way of writing and creativity. Both painting and poetry have been shown to relieve stress; in one study, most participants showed lower levels of cortisol, a hormone that indicates stress, after making even simple art for 45 minutes.
Since poetry usually means writing about your emotions, it can also be cathartic, helping you to organize your thoughts and regulate your emotions. Pairing painting and poetry creates a powerfully relaxing duo for those days when you just need a break—which, for me, is more or less every day.
As a full-time freelance writer, I spend my days in meetings with high-profile companies based in New York, writing fitness articles that have to be exactly scientifically accurate and wondering whether my income will be consistent enough for me to pay my car insurance bill next month.
There’s rarely a day I’m not stressed or nervous. So I set aside time in the evenings to pick through a book and underline promising words in pencil, and on the weekends, I sit down and add paint to redact the rest of the text. Paired with my favorite movie soundtracks, the process is a fantastically relaxing activity. Unlike bingeing Netflix all weekend, however, blackout poetry is still productive.
Like many professional writers, especially those who are self-employed, I struggle to allow myself time to relax. But all of the benefits of blackout poetry make me feel like I’m getting something done: I’m giving my brain a workout, and I’m tricking myself into relaxing at the same time.
As I started doing more blackout poetry, I noticed something else, too: It restores my creative energy. Writing all day drains my creativity, but blackout poetry brings it back. Making a poem from the words on the page can be difficult; it makes me look at the words in a new way, and that’s a skill that translates to my other creative projects, as well.
Austin Kleon said he initially began doing blackout poetry as a cure for writer’s block, and I discovered blackout poetry is no fad diet—it really does work for getting through those moments when you feel stuck on an idea or just can’t write another word.
“I started making blackout poetry as a writing exercise about 7 years ago,” says John Carroll of Make Blackout Poetry. “[It] provided a vehicle for me to be able to create something quickly that was challenging and satisfying, but didn’t require hours of dedication. … [it] has taught me … everyone is creative.”
Blackout poetry enhances your creativity because it makes your brain work as you think about new ways to pair words. Similar to crossword puzzles or word searches—which have been shown to improve brain function, increase vocabulary, and strengthen problem-solving skills—blackout poetry stimulates your mind in a good way.
There’s a certain method to blackout poetry, a rhythm that your brain starts to learn after a while—I find a noun near the top of the page, find a verb a little lower, and look for an interesting or beautiful word to spice it up. Your method may be different, and that may reveal something about your writing, too.
Perhaps my favorite thing about blackout poetry, though, is that it’s so darn easy.
Normally, I can write just about anything except poetry—I’ve tried, and it’s not pretty. There’s nothing worse than staring at a blank page, waiting for the words to come to you (because, for me, they never arrive).
But with blackout poetry, the guesswork is gone: The words are already there, and you just have to decide how to order them. There aren’t any rules either—the poems you create don’t have to be a certain length, a certain number of syllables, or adhere to any set formula. Your poems can be as simple,or as complicated, or as structured as you want them to be. As you attack the creation of your poem from different angles, you might be inspired to look at your other writing projects a different way, too.
Some people create masterpiece poems that stretch over multiple pages, while I recently “wrote” a poem that was three simple words in a sea of black paint: “Surprised by courage.” Blackout poetry is a painless way to relieve stress and enhance creativity.
Blackout poetry also helps enhance focus because of the precision it requires; if you paint over a word you wanted to use, there’s no going back. Sometimes, I tend to self-diagnose myself with writer’s block when I really just need to sit down and get it done. Blackout poetry helps hone focus and concentration, which, in turn, might help you push through a case of writer’s block.
Blackout poetry was traditionally done using a page from a newspaper, but today, many people simply use old books. My go-tos are a small blue book from 1930 intended to train librarians (which now contains lots of love poems to books) and a 1952 volume on archaeology and ancient history.
If you don’t get the newspaper, pick up an old book at a thrift shop or on eBay. You can also buy books that are a collection of texts specifically meant for blackout poetry.
Black paint may feel a little boring to you, so feel free to mix it up: Use a marker in order to leave white space in-between the lines, or use whatever color of paint you’d like. Some people even draw intricate pictures around their poems. Remember, there are no rules … this is the time to let your creativity run wild!
Blackout poetry doesn’t require a huge time commitment, either. If you’re having a stressful day, spend a few minutes perusing pages on your lunch break, and then come back whenever you have time—whether that’s days, weeks, or even months later.
Initially, I was unsure about the blackout poetry trend, but now I’m a happy convert. As a professional writer, making art is my job. But in the day-to-day grind of marketing, and invoices, and meetings, often I forget to view myself as an artist.
Blackout poetry allows me to match my imagination with someone else’s work to create a beautiful piece of art. In the end, blackout poetry reminds me why I became a writer in the first place. Somewhere in the busyness and stress of writing 9-5 every day, I lost the part of me that remembered why and where I began. But blackout poetry takes me back to the words, stories, and art that will always be part of me … and that’s why it’s the best productive leisure activity I can think of.
Blackout Poem by Chris Lott via Flickr
Hailey Hudson is a full-time freelance writer based out of Atlanta, Georgia. When she isn't working, she's coaching fastpitch softball, writing her latest YA novel, or snuggling with her beagle puppy, Sophie. Learn more at Hailey's website or by following her Instagram @haileyh412.