This last Monday evening I had a great conversation with one of my colleagues, the poet Mark Lilley. Mark was gracious enough to read a few of my poems and one of my short stories. I in turn had the delight of reading a couple of Mark’s unpublished poems. (They’ll not be unpublished for long. Trust me on that.)
The core of our conversation was spent in uncovering and discussing, via these samples of our work, some of the similarities between crafting prose and poetry.
I wish you had been there to listen in, but since you weren’t here are four take-aways.
1. The goal of both genres is to produce scenes in which things happen, are observed, or are learned by characters and readers. It is always a weakness to tell the reader what has happened rather than showing them what is occurring and letting them come to the conclusion you had in store for them. In both genres this slight-of-hand is at work, thus allowing the reader the sense of control.
2. Beginning writers think that conflict is found in either fever-pitch emotion or in a rut of depression. What is learned as one practices these crafts is that conflict is found not in high or low emotion, but in the balance of everyday life, where characters walk the narrow ledge of making due, of somehow just holding their lives together.
3. Word choice matters, always. During a reading here in Indianapolis on November 8th Billy Collins said that he writes a few words at a time and that this is the best way to write. Both Mark and I were at that reading. Billy is right. It acts as a rule of thumb…the faster the pace of putting words on paper, the narrower the vocabulary that is employed.
4. There is a place for elaborate, highly produced writing. But direct, concrete concepts tend to carry more weight than high and lofty proclamations. Concrete and Specific are the two vehicles that will take you where the reader lives. Meet your reader there. The alternative risks inaccessibility, where meaning may be veiled or muddied.
So there you go. From Mark and me to you, four points that will take all of us the rest of our writing lives to master.