Shaping our Creations, or Creating our Shapes

I am four months pregnant with my first child, and lately I’ve been thinking about keeping some kind of written record of this strange experience of being pregnant—a place to catalogue all the physical and mental challenges and joys I face each day. In thinking through this project, I’ve been particularly concerned about the shape this kind of writing would/could/should take. Should it follow an epistolary structure, and be addressed to my child? Should I address it to myself? To my husband?

I’ve thought, too, about following in the structural footsteps of Anne Lamott in her acerbic and wickedly honest memoir: Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. Lamott structures this memoir chronologically and sections are divided by date. Would this approach fit the type of writing I want to do? Perhaps dividing by month or trimester?

Or perhaps I might take my cue from a novel I’m currently immersed in: The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit, who divides her tale by topic (Husbands, Winter, Letters, etc.).

All of these approaches are feasible and seem appropriate for my topic, but how to bite the bullet and choose just one?

Aside from content, tone, point of view, figurative language, and everything else writers have to make decisions about, structure/shape is perhaps one of the trickiest and, for me anyway, the most nerve-wracking. Whether writing fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, there are so many options available!

As writers, we are bound by no real rules anymore—punctuation, grammar, spelling, structure and more are all up for grabs. Creative license allows us the freedom to break rules, dabble in new modalities, ignore quotation marks around dialogue, and so on. This is liberating, as much as it is potentially unnerving. We are faced with a wide, open, beckoning field of options, and all of them are calling to us.

So, I’m curious: When do you make structural decisions about your work? At the beginning, middle, or end of the writing process? Throughout? Are there certain writers whose attention to and awareness of structure inspire you?

Or perhaps there are those of you for whom a shape emerges for your work organically, without thought or coaxing, as if no other shape would even make sense.

Does your structure emerge after long hours and laborious consideration, or appear in one easy push? (Bring on the pregnancy metaphors!)

And how do you know when the shape is the right one?

 

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What’s Impressionism Got to Do With it?: A Reflection on Showing and Telling

In reflecting on this idea of showing rather than telling in writing, my first thoughts go to some of my favorite Impressionist painters like Monet and Renoir. There is something about the way these artists present their subject matter that seems to be more about showing than telling, and there is something that writers can take from their approach.

Think about Monet’s haystacks or Renoir’s dance or garden party scenes, or his depiction of sisters. These paintings have a smudged quality to them, a blurred and dappled quality, that hints at and intimates the subject matter, rather than bludgeons the viewer over the head with it. The Impressionists were concerned with the play of light on a scene, the influences of nature, and sensual colors. Impressionists gave the viewer just enough to go on, they hinted at deeper meanings beyond the painted scene, and they created a mood, an ambiance. What Monet and Renoir are doing is showing, not telling.

In my own poetry, I find that, consciously or not, I am aiming for an impressionist quality: less telling, less obvious narrative. I like to give my reader flashes of a moment, the texture of an experience, a window into a particular emotion.

The more poetry I read, the more I realize that many poets lean toward a sort of impressionist, nebulous quality that I am attracted to. My conception of what impressionist poetry looks and feels like is somewhat similar to what the imagists were trying to do—folks like Ezra Pound and H.D. But what’s interesting about imagism is that the goal was clarity and finding the precise image to represent the subject. To me, words like clarity and precision seem to not fully represent what these poets do in their work. Take, for example, the famous Pound poem “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Many of us probably studied this poem in high school, and many of us were probably surprised, or perhaps annoyed, at its brevity, and its inaccessibility. Yes, it is precise, in the sense that it uses few words, but is it clear? The descriptions here are blurry, smudgy, much like the work of the Impressionist painters. Words like apparition, crowd, petals, wet all point to a blurry reality, and an unclear—at least initially—message. Pound is definitely showing, not telling, here.

Perhaps in this reflection on showing and telling, what is important to remember is that the ideal viewer or reader is not dumb. The reader does not need to be told what a certain image means—perhaps it is enough to show the reader that image and let it sit there, blooming with meaning.

Ray Bradbury was a master at this sort of thing: he would often describe a scene, with characters and dialogue, and then suddenly swoop the reader away from that scene and show them something else: a bird flying over a mountain, a river winding through a canyon, a sunset on some distant shore that the main characters would never see. He would show the reader these things, and trust them to make sense of it, to connect them with the overall meaning of the story.

And maybe at the core of this showing versus telling discussion is trust in our readers. Do we trust our readers enough to make sense of what we show them? Can we trust that we don’t have to explain every angle, every moment, every reaction? Can we be blurry, in the best sense of that word, and show our readers something, and have faith that they will meet us half way?

The Ideal Reader(s)

It’s been said that every writer needs his/her ideal reader. Not the reader or readers who will eventually enjoy the book, poem, short story, essay in its final form, but the reader before those readers, the reader who the writer trusts to be kind, constructive, complimentary, but also brutal, if need be.

I have been searching for my reader since I started writing, hoping to find all those elements in one human, only to be too complimented by one, or too criticized by another. I started to think that the ideal reader is a bit like “the one” concept for love: there is only one person for us, and if we don’t somehow find that person, we might as well pack it in. Over time, I shifted my thinking a bit to acknowledge that maybe there was more than one reader for me, just as I came to acknowledge after my first heartbreak that there is more than one “the one” for me.

What I need from a reader varies, depending on what I’m writing. For poetry, I need a reader who knows something about poetry. It’s all well and good to give a prose writer one of my poems and ask for critique, but odds are, I’m not going to get the kind of line by line, genre analysis I’m looking for. So, if it’s poetry, I send my work to a dear friend of mine who has wrestled with this genre himself—he’s insightful, witty, and brutal, in the best sense of that word. It’s because of him that I renamed a poetry chapbook I’ve been working on for ages—to paraphrase, he told me the title was crap. It’s also because of his critique that I buried that same chapbook for nearly a year, because I couldn’t bear the thought of renaming it. I exhumed it recently, told myself to get over my title-related strop, and re-title it. And I did, and it’s way better than it was.

I also need a reader who will catch my grammar and punctuation errors, and give me a more bird’s eye view of my work—someone who enjoys reading and knows good writing versus bad. This position is shared by my parents, but depending on if I need a soft touch or a brutal one, I go for one or the other. I’ll take the 5th on identifying which parent fills which role.

And lastly, I need a reader who can just tell me that everything I write is awesome, it’s the greatest thing ever created, it rivals Shakespeare, Hardy, King, Atwood, and Oates, and every single letter should win a Pulitzer. That role goes to my husband. He’s the ego boost that I need, as a writer.

Each of these readers fulfills a necessary role for me; sometimes all four of these people see my work, and other times, only one or two. Often, my husband sees my work right away, because it’s important for me to receive that initial thumbs up to push forward into more rigorous editing. He puts an extra glow on my work, before I allow it be eviscerated, if need be, by my other readers.

Have you found your reader or readers? What qualities do you look for? Someone who will praise you ‘til the cows come home, or someone who’s got the red pen ready?

You: The Potential for Universality in 2nd Person Point of View

Last month, I wrote a post about second person point of view, and how this point of view is the ugly duckling to the ubiquitous and elegant 1st person and 3rd person points of view. Second person point of view is so sparingly used that I was hard-pressed at the time to find some examples of it, specifically in poetry. In the weeks since that post, I have found some 2nd person jewels.

For this post, I want to reflect on the value of second person point of view as a tool for rousing an audience, and inspiring a sense of kinship and unity. Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If—” does precisely that, using the second person pronoun “you” as a universal placeholder, as a way of welcoming the reader into a shared experience.

For those of you unfamiliar with the poem or who wish to revisit it, you can find it here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/175772

In this poem, Kipling does not use second person point of view as a way of imposing, in a negative or off-putting way, an emotion or experience on the reader (as this point of view so often runs the risk of doing); rather, his approach draws readers in, weaves them into a common experience. One of the ways he does this is by addressing pathos-driven topics and using emotive diction. He discusses dreams, lies, chaos, triumphs, disasters, self-possession, winning, and losing. He discusses our hearts, our desires, our deepest fears. Who hasn’t experienced fear? Who hasn’t dreamed of something larger than him/herself? Who hasn’t faced duplicity in another human being? The second person point of view works, in this case, because the poem deals with generalities, not specifics.

Take these lines as an example: “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken / Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools . . .”

Kipling refers to truth, generally; knaves, generally; the verb twisted, generally (we do not know in what way twisted), and so on.

It’s not: “If you can bear to hear your opinions about the Affordable Care Act / Made fun of by your cousin twice removed.” There is less there for readers, as a whole, to latch onto. So, through the poem’s generality, readers can be find an easy place for themselves.

It bears mentioning that the last line of the poem identifies the “you” of the poem as the speaker’s son. For me, this is where the poem loses its universality. Kipling falters there—the poem, its message, and its ability to connect with its readers would be better served without that final line. That final line shifts the all-welcoming, all-encompassing usage of “you” and turns it back into what it is often accused of being: a narrow, alienating, imposing point of view.

Last line aside, this poem exemplifies the use of second person point of view as a tool for engaging an audience, in a way that the first person plural “we” doesn’t quite do, or perhaps, does differently. “You” is rousing; it requires and inspires action, attention, and connection.

You: The Quest for Second Person Point of View, Part I of More

You have begun to wonder as you teach your writing classes each semester why you never talk much about the second person point of view. You mention it, briefly, cursorily, along with its weightier, meatier cousins: first person, third person (omniscient, limited, objective). You typically glide past it: “Second person is rare in writing, and is mostly reserved for manuals and advertisements.” End of story. But as this new semester gets underway, you think, well, what the heck, why don’t you spend more time with second person, why not get into you and your?

Maybe you feel like you’re not qualified to talk about second person point of view. For one thing, you’ve only read one novel in this point of view, and sadly, you can’t even remember its name. And the novel you’re forgetting is not the big one that everyone points to: Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. You haven’t read that one. You’ve read some manuals, sure, but that’s the terrain of the technical writers, and that, you are not.

You begin to think that ok, maybe second person point of view doesn’t serve creative prose, but what about poetry? Surely, you’ve written some poems yourself to an unnamed you. But you can’t find them. A Google search yields no quick and easy lists of poems written in second person point of view. You click randomly and neurotically at various poems at poets.org, hoping against hope that you will land on one amongst thousands that is in second person point of view. You fail.

You get a brilliant idea! Surely, aubades are written in second person; after all, aren’t aubades about addressing the missing lover, the one who has left in the morning, the pined after you?

The first aubade you find is by Philip Larkin, and it starts, “I work all day, and get half-drunk at night. / Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.” No luck there. John Donne’s famous aubade, “Break of Day” uses only one thou and then the rest is I and we. You abandon your search for you-centered aubades. It’s no use.

You stop your maniacal quest for a minute, and breathe. You think about the value of this narrative approach. What does you do? You tell your students that sometimes saying you can stand in for the narrator, or a character. Instead of being given a name, Prairie becomes you, or she or he becomes you. But it’s more than that: you is addressing the reader—the reader becomes a character in the story, is dragged into it, perhaps unwillingly. The barrier between reader and writer is diminished, if not obliterated, by the use of you.

As a creative writer, what makes you hesitant to use it? What makes you turn into the familiar arms of I and they? Do you worry that you’ll impose too much upon the readers, make them squirm, make them sit up straight and blink rapidly as though caught in the act?

Do you think you have that much power?

You decide it’s worth pursuing, this illusive you, and you make it your mission to find poems that use it. You make it your mission to use it yourself. You make it your mission to ask others if they use it. Do you?

Technology, Skimming, and the Future of Creativity

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been making my slow way through a nonfiction book called The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. The book is a fair and fascinating look at how our brains have developed over time in response to new technologies. Carr not only looks at more recent technological developments, like the internet, but he also ventures farther back, and reflects on how our minds have changed as a result of maps, clocks, and bound and printed books, amongst other innovations.

This book is not about bashing technology or bemoaning the state of “kids these days” with their iPads and Twitter accounts and Whosits and Whatsits. It is about doing some honest reflection about what this technology might be doing to our brains, neurologically speaking, and the way we think. Carr suggests that we have become more adept at skimming and quickly collecting data, and less adept at deep thought and tasks that require prolonged attention and contemplation.

I teach both traditional and online college classes, and I have noticed in the last couple of years that my patience for anything slow is nearly non-existent. I blame the online teaching. (I’m only partly joking.) I don’t seem to have time for peripheral information, that is, anything that doesn’t serve my immediate purposes. I jump from tab to tab at staccato pacing. I do not linger. But this was not always the case.

I used to linger a lot. As a lover of literature, I lingered all the time—over long Thomas Hardy passages, over the verbal trickery of Jane Austen’s characters, over “boring” texts assigned in college classes (even if I found them boring, I still read them). I don’t think it occurred to me to skip or skim over something; to me, that seemed taboo and tantamount to disrespect. I still believe this to be true of literature, but as far as reading emails or articles, I have become a skimmer.

Regardless of where you fall in this debate, and regardless of whether you are in favor of skimming or diving (to borrow Carr’s terminology), I think the ideas in this book have some interesting implications for writers. If we accept Carr’s premise that technology is rerouting our brains, and disallowing deep thought, then will this affect our writing? Will our writing suffer because we skim? Will we have less patience for polishing our drafts, for smoothing out the rough patches? Writing takes time, thought, and revision.  As I see it, writing is not an art form for skimmers.

I’ve noticed that in the last few years, when writing or planning what to write, I have been heavily concerned with finishing.  To address that concern, I write quickly to get everything out. I have to make sure I finished what I started. Even more lately, the fear that I won’t finish, or that I’ll become disenchanted or disinterested with my topic, has stopped me from writing anything at all. It’s as if I want to be assured of the finished product, and if I can’t be, then I won’t start. I seem to have forgotten that producing something worth reading takes many iterations.

My dad, who is enjoying a second career as a writer after having been an engineer (a job that demands a methodical and patient mind), has a term for what he does when he writes and edits: editate. It’s a cross between edit and meditate, and I think it accurately conveys what a writer’s job is after the rough draft has been constructed: to get into a contemplative place, and work through the problems the draft presents in a mindful, meditative way.

Editating sounds divine, but I can’t seem to bring myself to do it. It’s not quick enough. It’s not immediately gratifying. And therein lies the problem: the need for immediate gratification. I get this from the internet, from my phone, from clicking between tabs, from little noises that tell me when mail or messages have arrived or when a friend has updated her Facebook account. Carr writes that all these little pings and blips are pleasurable to receive, and the more we receive them, the more we expect them, and the more of them we want.

I have never thought of myself as someone particularly up to date with technology. I don’t get the latest and greatest of any product on the market. Yet, I think I want those pings. And I don’t get them after slogging through a cumbersome sentence. I don’t get them after connecting two previously disconnected ideas. I do get something else, I suppose: a sense of slow gratification, earned and prolonged, which should be better, should be enough, but sadly, doesn’t seem to be.

If slow food is something to be praised, then so should slow writing be. But slow writing seems like death to me—like paralysis. It feels this way, despite knowing what I know about the pace of some successful writers. In an article called “How Many Words a Day?” James Thayer writes that Graham Greene wrote 500 words a day. And J. R. R. Tolkien took 11 years to write the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, which comes out to a slow, and deliberate, 245 words per day. That’s a paragraph, folks. Per day.

Now, I’m not trying to say that pre-internet, writers wrote fewer words because they didn’t have all the distractions. Not so. Plenty of writers pre- and post-internet wrote/write very, very fast. Stephen King finishes a rough draft in three months (and bear in mind, his books often creep toward the 1,000 page mark). Victor Hugo produced 20 pages per day.

What I am saying is that the influence of technology’s pace may eventually show itself in our work. We may fall prey more easily to sloppy plots, quick cuts, bad edits, and misspellings. And so it’s worth asking, will a link eventually be seen between technology and the results of our (maybe) not so contemplative work? Will we be skimmers in writing, as many of us already are in reading? And what will that look like for the future of creativity?

Censorship: External and Internal

When I look back at the writing I have done in the past 20 years, I see that a lot of what I write has to do with my relationships, as well as interesting women, both famous and infamous. I have written about my broken heart, my happy heart, the failings of both myself and my friends and lovers, and various women whose stories I happened across in arbitrary, lazy Sunday afternoon Google searches.

By American standards, what I’ve chosen to write about is relatively vanilla: not taboo. Lots of people write about their feelings and their relationships. Lots of people write about historical figures. I don’t write Hunger Games-style, dystopic literature. I don’t write Orwellian subtext, or Bradbury-esque social commentary. I am, in short, not controversial.

In my view, that is.

Having grown up in this culture, I am used to my freedom of speech, and more than that, I rarely give a thought to my freedom of speech. It just is. I do not have to hide my art. I do not worry about being censored by others, though my self-censorship can rear its head from time to time.

In a previous post of mine, “Baring it All: The Challenge of Short Poems,” I mentioned a Pashtun poetry form called landay, which is written by Afghan women. What I didn’t mention then was that this type of poetry is typically written in secret. Women are punished for their self-expression. A handful of years ago, one such woman, Zarmina, was beaten by her brothers for sharing her landays on the radio. In protest of their violent disapproval, she set herself on fire, and later died. A horrific ending to what seems, to me, to be a fairly commonplace act of recording—simply put—feelings.

Zarmina and other women working in this form of poetry are writing about their feelings. They are writing about their experiences, their relationships, their joys, and their sorrows. To give you a sense of the content, here is one landay that was collected by journalist Eliza Griswold:

Your eyes aren’t eyes. They’re bees.
I can find no cure for their sting.

This is a poem about suffering at the hands of another; it’s potentially about rejection, anger, or perhaps even violence. From my vantage point, it is not a controversial poem. It is stark and striking, to be sure, but it is not something that warrants censorship or is particularly controversial. But that’s from my vantage point. For the Afghan woman who wrote this poem, this was most certainly a controversial poem; not only was the content controversial, but the act of writing itself was controversial. Punishable, even.

These women are writing, despite the potential for punishment, about their lives. When I think about my poetry, and I see that I am also writing about my life, I have to remember that it is a gift to be allowed free reign to write about it. And not only because of where I grew up, but also because of the time in which I grew up. Had I tried to write about my feelings some 150 years ago, or even 60 years ago, I would have found similar censorship as the women writing their landays, and potentially similar punishment.

As an offshoot to all of this, I also realize that self-censorship, which I would also call self-doubt, becomes an almost decadent and foolish thing to allow myself in my current situation, given what I know about the censorship that exists in other cultures. Self-censorship, whether because of fear or concern over who might be offended by my perspective, only really flourishes in a society that allows freedom of speech to begin with. To use a somewhat crude comparison, it’s like going on a diet: you can only do this when food is bountiful.

Disallowing and discouraging self-censorship (since I don’t typically have to deal with the external version of it) in myself, is one small way of asserting my voice and joining it with those who are experiencing the kind of censorship that is externally enforced and often accompanied by violence.

The Fear Chronicles: Which Holds are Barred?

I am a person who races to Google the moment I’m done watching a movie that is based on real events. I want to know what was true, what was embellished, and what was unabashed fabrication. I read about the events and the people, lingering over the photographs in particular. I go back and forth between photos of the actor and the actual person. How closely does the actor’s hairstyle match the person’s? How well does the 2010’s actress wear those 70’s glasses? What character is actually an amalgam of three people?

I like to think about why things get changed in the transition from reality to fiction, especially when reality seems interesting enough. I remember one particular movie (the name of which escapes me now), in which the main character had a daughter. In real life, she had a son. I wondered what the point was in changing the sex of the child—the child, who had no bearing on the story whatsoever. Was there a dearth of boy actors that day at the casting call?

Small or big changes interest me when it comes to playing around with nonfiction, and not just in relation to film. I recently finished reading 11/22/63 by Stephen King, which borrows from history. JFK, Jackie Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, Marina Oswald, and other real-life characters, are appropriated by King and interwoven into a time-travel novel. The basic premise involves the main character traveling back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination, in the hopes that other terrible events will not happen, such as the shootings of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In his afterward, King talks about the amount of research that went into this story, and he also mentions that he plays around with some events to suit the needs of his novel. He tries to be as true to actual events as possible, but there are things that he made up. There are some scenes in which he imagines what Lee and Marina say to each other, like when they give their baby daughter, June, a bath. He pushes his fictional characters into collision courses with Lee, Marina, Jackie, and even George de Mohrenschildt. Fictional and nonfictional characters meet, have conversations that never took place, and influence each other’s lives.

Now, you could say, “Of course all this happened. This is Stephen King we’re talking about. He writes fiction.” And that’s true, except usually he doesn’t write fiction based in and on reality, or some part of reality, anyway. Now, because I like doing the research when something is based in fact, and because I know that King is a fiction writer, I can come to the realization that how King is using real-life people is not “real.” It’s for effect, and for impact.

But I honestly don’t know how I feel about this. My conflicted feelings might be silly, considering how many “based on real events” movies I’ve watched and enjoyed, and considering how I understand that film is an art form, and sometimes real life doesn’t suit the art, so things have to change. Why should literature be any different? Why shouldn’t I be as on board with a novel or short story that borrows from reality, or a poem that borrows from reality? (Full disclosure: I have written such poems.)

I don’t know. There is something about looking at the cover of 11/22/63 and seeing a picture of the Kennedys in the motorcade in Dallas on the day that JFK dies that is strangely disconcerting, because it feels like I’m about to read nonfiction, but I’m not.

In Anne Lamott’s beautiful book about writing, Bird by Bird, she mentions a writer friend who basically says that everything is text, meaning, I suppose, that everything and anything in life can and should be used as fodder to write. No holds barred.

But still I am conflicted. Is it okay to put fictional words into the mouths of nonfictional characters? Is it okay to dress them up and position them like action figures to suit our own stories? Is it okay to imagine their lives—the parts that aren’t known by the general public, that aren’t recorded and cataloged— through our stories? And is it alright to appropriate an important moment (say, the JFK assassination) and paint around it with our own bright and fictional colors?

What do you think?

 

 

Boots on the Literary Ground

I recently finished reading In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. This book is purportedly the first creative nonfiction book ever written—in writing it, Capote created a genre that has seen continued success and interest (Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks are two such creative nonfiction books that have seen huge success in recent years).

In Cold Blood is a chilling book about a quadruple murder of a well-liked and prosperous family in rural Holcomb, Kansas in 1959. The book is novelistic in its presentation: Capote interweaves dialogue, description, and a fragmented storytelling structure to create suspense and tension. The novel is written in such great detail that you can’t help but feel Capote was right there in the room with his characters, and in some cases he was.

This brings me to the theme for this month’s posts: setting. Capote spent six years, on and off, in tiny Holcomb, and the slightly larger neighboring town of Garden City (where the two murderers were eventually tried). He stayed in motels, interviewed the town’s people and killers alike, waited around for developments in the case, and breathed in the atmosphere of that town, literally. His boots were on the ground.

For those of you familiar with creative nonfiction, you know that it is a more artistic form of journalism (no slight meant to the journalists out there). It takes elements of journalism and reporting (interviews, historical information, site visits, patience) and overlays an engaging narrative across all of it. Understanding a story’s setting, its place, is crucial to the development of a news story, and equally so to the development of a creative nonfiction piece.

In the opening paragraphs of In Cold Blood, Capote deftly sketches the town of Holcomb and the surrounding landscape. His description is precise, careful, and masterful—the reader is transported there. As the book continues, so does the depth and detail of its description. Capote introduces the reader to “characters,” describes their features, their mannerisms, their speech patterns; he shows us the few hours before the family of four was murdered: the weather that day, the moods of the family members, the lay of the family farm; he shows us into the lives of the two murderers, their motivations, and their character flaws. At times, Capote’s book is almost too intimate: we are so close to the characters, we are so familiar with the landscape.

None of this intimacy could have been created, I believe, had Capote not decided that he had to go to Holcomb. His art was elevated because of this choice.

As a poet, this boots-on-the-ground mentality is not one I’m particularly familiar with. Setting or landscape in my poetry often refers to internal landscapes or imagined ones. I suppose you could say my boots are on my ground (my mind, my emotions), if I can extend the metaphor that far, but not in the same sense as Capote, Krakauer, Skloot, or any other creative nonfiction writer might experience.

While it’s true that I’ve written some poems based in and on specific places, my representation of those places has, for the most part, been cursory and more impressionistic than realistic. A single fact about a town, or the way that light falls in an alley, or a scent, or my general mood in that landscape is enough for me to go on to create a poem, which in the end will only loosely be related to that specific place. It’s like a movie that’s “based on actual events,” which really only means that one or two things might be true.

I love creative nonfiction, and I have great admiration for writers of it, in part because it requires the writer to insert him- or herself into an unfamiliar setting and to make it so much his or her own that the reader is convinced the representation is true and coming from someone in the know.

In the coming months, I’d like to think about how to incorporate this element of up close and personal setting exploration in my poetry. I’d like to engage in site visits, and see how that intimacy colors and shapes my writing.

Who’s up for a field trip?

 

To Name or Not to Name: Reflections on Genre, Character, & Poetry

I’m currently teaching a research writing class, and this particular class is unique because it asks the students to explore and respond to various kinds of art (short stories, poems, plays, creative nonfiction essays, visual art, etc.) through their writing, all the while following MLA formatting, of course. It’s a fun class to teach, because, well, I love art, and it gives me an opportunity to introduce these students to an assortment of genres. For each genre, I discuss the various elements that are fundamental to that genre. For example, short stories employ setting, poetry relies on literary devices, creative nonfiction is based in fact, with a novelistic twist. And so on.

When it came to poetry, and I was putting my list of fundamentals together, I stumbled over whether to include character as a necessary element for this genre. Questions went through my mind: Does poetry require characters? What is the ratio of poems with characters to those without? What poems off the top of my head can I think of that include characters? What poems of my own have characters? What’s the virtue of adding characters? Is poetry more imagery based than prose? Who classifies what a poem is and what isn’t?

All of these questions led me to rediscover what the word genre means. In M. H. Abrams’ A Glossary of Literary Terms, it says that “Through the Renaissance and much of the eighteenth century, the recognized genres . . . were widely thought to be fixed types” and that mixing genres was considered abhorrent. Skip forward to today, and Abrams says “. . . genres are conceived to be more or less arbitrary modes of classification, whose justification is their convenience in discussing literature.”

So, basically, once the distinction and classification mattered, and now, not so much. Now, we exist in a more fluid space, where it seems that the writer determines what his/her piece is: It’s a poem, because I say it is! Never mind that the poem is novel-length, and doesn’t seem to observe other poem-y techniques, as is the case with Gabriel Gudding’s Rhode Island Notebook.

Or consider the six-word “short story” attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Certainly, this would seem to fall more within the realm of poetry due to its brevity, and yet, these six words contain fundamental elements of the short story genre: characters, setting, conflict, plot, tone, etc.

Consider also Bruce Holland Rogers’ “Three Soldiers,” which is a triumvirate of mini stories, each with their own title, under the larger title. You can read the “short story” here: “Three Soldiers” This might seem more like a poem, in part because it follows a strict form (69 words per story), but Holland Rogers has classified it as a short story, and therefore, apparently, so must we.

So, back to my dilemma of whether the genre of poetry includes character . . . in the end I decided that yes it does, but not always, which seems to be the way we define genres these days: Sometimes. Maybe. If the author wants to.

Running alongside my questions as a teacher are my questions as a writer of poetry: Why include characters? And if I incorporate them, should I name them? In a lot of poetry, there seem to be implied characters: the “I” behind the words, or the vague hes and shes. And in my experience, the named character doesn’t appear as often in this genre. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot comes to mind with its “I” and “you” and its coming and going women. But would we call these characters, in the same sense that we would call Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice a character? Yet, Eliot does something interesting by naming his character in the title, but that name is never referenced in the poem itself. So, what’s the value of naming the character at all?

Look at any haiku poem, and what you might see is an “I” here and there, but more likely you’ll see elements of nature. Are the natural elements characters? Are the implied wind or the leaves characters in Buson’s haiku?

Blowing from the west
Fallen leaves gather
In the east.

And another question to ponder, when we think about the “I” in poetry, is that really character, or is it narrator? When E. E. Cummings says “and what i want to know is / how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death” in his poem “Buffalo Bill’s,” is the “i” a character, or some omniscient eye (no pun intended)?

I certainly don’t think I know the answers yet to any of these questions. I’m not even sure I can articulate why I sometimes choose to name characters in my own poetry, and why other times I leave them murky and in the distance with generic hes and shes. But I think these are questions worth pondering, since writing is in part about intention, and understanding the reasons for our choices in whatever genre we are working in is crucial to good writing.

For all you poets out there (and non-poets, too), how do you deal with character? To name or not to name? And why?