Poetry and Prose

Historically these have been two separate genres. It seems even a handful of decades ago poets and fiction writers moved in separate circles, spoke divergent languages, sought different readers. In my creative writing grad school experience, a fiction writer couldn’t take a course in poetry. I tried.

This has changed. Evidence in the literature is clear. Poetry and prose are merging. And to the benefit of readers everywhere.

Here are a few exhibits of the evidence.

Apeirogon by Colum McCann, a novel. Published earlier this year, a personal and poetic telling of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, written in over 1500 short vignettes, some only a line long, others are lines repeated from another entry, one of them a simple outlined empty box.

“Only Child” by Billy Collins, a poem. The narrative, the longing-laden story of this piece causes the reader to forget its poetic form, even as its form carries weight.

Ru by Kim Thúy, a memoir in novel. One page chapters layered with images and riffs on images, the narrative flowing far below, pulling the reader unconsciously along.

And these are only a few. Now that you’re aware you’ll see them all around you.

For Beginning Writers – Conflict Creates Story

Without conflict, there isn’t story. Conflict is when your characters are established and then bad things happen to them. The more bad things the better. Conflict drives action. Conflict molds characters. Simply having a character go about their routine isn’t action, isn’t story, and won’t generate conflict.

Write conflict into your story as early as you can. Write conflict into the first line if at all possible. Your reader will not be able to help but read the second sentence if there’s compelling conflict in the first.

Go re-read your favorite short stories or novels. Conflict is the engine. Sometimes it’s psychological and has physical results. Sometimes it’s physical and has psychological results. Regardless, the conflict is what drives the plot forward and alters the characters. And if the plot sags, conflict is what injects energy once again.

For Beginning Writers – How to Accept [or Decline] Feedback

Giving feedback and receiving it are skills. Your ability to develop these skills will directly impact your development as a writer.

Good feedback…

Supports what you are trying to accomplish with your project. Good feedback identifies a problem and then leaves it to you to determine a fix. Good feedback comes in a personal note or letter or in a one-on-one conversation. This is because it’s personal and must be thoughtful and thorough.

Bad feedback…

Is feedback that’s all appreciative, all praise, unbalanced. Bad feedback offers elaborate or invasive fixes. A good reader is nearly always right about the fact there’s an issue, they are always wrong about how to fix it. You are the only one who knows your work well enough to determine a fix—and if a fix is needed. Bad feedback suggests ways to make a piece something  never intended by the writer (e.g. “this story would be great if aliens showed up and foiled the bank robbery”).

What to do? 

Act on feedback that is coming from a source that seems to 1) understand your intent and the project, and 2) is coming in the form of appreciative and constructive feedback. Be open-minded. Recognize that this is a reader who has been kind enough to give you their time at this critical point in your project. If you have questions, talk to them about their feedback. And express your gratitude.

For Beginning Writers – Writing is Collaborative

In the last blogpost I mentioned a writers’ group. What is a writers’ group and why bother?

We are created to work in community. While the life of a hermit may sound inviting, such an existence isn’t good for the soul. All good writing comes of a community effort, whether it’s early in the project when a reader is engaged to help shape an idea, or later, when an editor gets involved to finalize it. Writing isn’t solitary. As a writer, you must spend time alone crafting sentences and redrafting the text, but in order to grow in your craft you must have relationships outside your immediate family and friends that are designed to specifically support your creative work.

A good writers’ group (I actually prefer the term writers’ workshop) is made up of 6-8 committed writers. Not people who are interested in writing. Not a book club. People who write as a habit and have demonstrated results. The group is led by someone with some credibility either via publishing credits, formal education, or both. They know the craft. This person also knows how to lead a group. They’re organized and attentive to the individuals as well as the group as a whole. 

Once you find a group that seems like a good fit, get involved. Attend and participate. Seek the group’s guidance and mentoring. Submit your writing and obtain feedback. Provide your thoughts on their work. You will soon find that between your readers’ and your writers’ groups you will have set up around yourself a creative trust and your work will benefit greatly.

A final thought—-don’t start a writers’ group. Join one. Your goal isn’t to start and run a successful writers’ group. That’s a skill you can develop later. For now you need to write.

For Beginning Writers – Should I Show Anyone My Writing?

The answer is yes, absolutely. In order to progress in your craft you will have to ask others for feedback. But be picky. (Of course you can show your writing to your mom and your spouse but these aren’t likely your sources of expert constructive feedback.)

There are two types of people you’ll want to share your writing with: readers and writers. 

Select three people who are readers, people who read A LOT, preferably in your genre. Now find three writers. Ideally, you’re already part of a writers’ group. If so, focus on them. If not, look for local authors with a few publishing credits. Take their classes at the local writers’ center. Read their books, reach out to them. Most of them would be happy to take a look at a reader’s work and provide some hard-earned advice.

Share your work with folks from these two groups, a few at a time. Ask them for specifics on your work. What you’ll have in the end is expert reader and experienced writer advice on your work, constructive criticism you can use to continue to propel your drafts forward.

For Beginning Writers – My Writing is Awful!

Of course it is. So is mine. This might be a great time to purchase a copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird and read her third chapter about terrible first drafts. And then read the rest of the book.

All writing starts with junk, stuff no one will ever see. No matter how accomplished a writer is, their early drafts are awful. We have to write the junk to get to the good stuff. This is the only way good writing occurs. Quality comes of quantity. 

Learning to write is just like learning to play the piano or learning French. You don’t play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 23 in your first six months of lessons. And you don’t read Les Miserables in the original language in the first few weeks. What you’re perceiving as failure is actually great news. You have a bunch of bad writing! This is iron-clad evidence of progress!

For Beginning Writers – How to Keep Writing

You’ve written every day for two weeks, 30 minutes each day. You’re on a roll. You’ve moved from your notebook to your laptop. You’ve also moved from writing miscellany toward the idea you had in the beginning. You’ll find your own way, but here’s how I manage the work.

  1. Write as much as you can of the story, personal essay, poem. Write your ideas about the piece. This is called metawriting. Write all your thoughts––interesting and boring alike. Get them all down on that screen.
  2. Once you’ve written all you can, print what you have.
  3. Take your pencil and hand-edit the printout. Sit with it, read it, mark it up with new ideas or thoughts that come of what you see. Take your time. Go over it a half-dozen times. Carry it with you for a few days.
  4. Sit back down at your device and start over. Rekey the piece from scratch. You’ll find that soon you’ll not be looking at what you’re rekeying. A new idea will have come and you’ll be running with that. Then you’ll return and continue rekeying your hand-edited draft.
  5. Repeat steps 2-4. Now you have multiple, progressively more developed drafts of your piece.

This process sounds inefficient but it’s actually highly efficient. It moves a piece forward.

For Beginning Writers – How to Start?

You desire to write. You have a story to tell. How do you start? 

I’ll tell you how I started.

  1. Go get a notebook and a pencil. I like a pencil because I can hear the words hitting the page. This is gratifying. 
  2. Sit down in a place void of distractions. You know what this looks like for you.
  3. Set a timer for thirty minutes. There’s a timer on your phone. Or ask Alexa to set one. Or use your grandmother’s old Sunbeam wind-up timer. 
  4. Write. It doesn’t matter what you write. The goal is not productivity but habit. Write your grocery list, the contents of your closet, the colors in a 64-count box of Crayolas. Or write that story your uncle used to tell at every family picnic, the one about the guy who got in a car crash, was thrown from his car and landed on his feet.
  5. When the timer sounds, stop. Put down your pencil.

Go about your day. You’ve written. The goal has been accomplished––to begin the habit of writing every day. Tomorrow you will do the same thing. And you will find, if you do this each day, you’ll have no shortage of things to write about. You’ll spend the time developing what you wrote the day before or starting something new. The ideas will flow. Your job is to simply show up.

Solely for the Writer’s Use

Earlier this week I was working on the second draft of a chapter of a manuscript. As I wrote I inserted bits right into the text [THAT LOOKED LIKE THIS. NOTES ABOUT THE DRAFT FOR RESEARCH OR FOR THE NEXT DRAFT].

This has been a long-standing habit for me in early drafts, but this time, as I did it, I had a realization. An aspect of the writing process crystalized for me, as it occasionally does.

Our tendency is to think early and often of the reader and to try to make a piece take shape as soon as possible, to take a form that will entice a reader. While noble, I think this is an error and a risk to the process.

The first three drafts of any piece of writing are strictly for the writer. Solely for the writer’s use. These early drafts teach the writer what the piece needs, what form it is to become, what elements need to be included––and what elements need to be excluded.

It is not until the fourth or fifth draft that the writer should begin to consider the contract with a reader. Not until this point, as these later drafts are created, is the piece starting to stand on its own. Only then is it capable of withstanding the scrutiny necessary to bring it before a reader. Only then does the writer understand it well enough to invite the reader to collaborate.

The Death Scene

I’ve been at a couple of deathbeds over the years, visiting family, attempting to comfort or joining in small talk to provide an emotional and mental break. But I’d never been present at the moment of death. This changed on February 21, 2019. Early that evening my wife and I watched my mother take her last breath. We watched as she slipped away—her life, her color––gone within moments.

This week I found myself working on an early draft of the first death scene I’ve written since. This fictional scene is the death of a patriarch, his wife and children all gathered around the bed. The eldest child, a son, arrives last. Conversation, the last words, the last moment.

Yet again, difficult life experience proves valuable when writing fiction.