Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


2 Comments

Grace in Few Words

The Writers Circle has been graced with the voices of several poets this session, some who declared themselves as such and others who have, unintentionally or out of sheer desperation, stumbled into this most challenging realm of brevity, nuance and meaning.

It’s a miraculous thing to be able to distill words to their most compact and powerful. I’ve toyed with poetry for years and have rarely succeeded. I seem to prefer to wallow in the luxury of prose, all those words with which to play, expound, expand, express. See, I use far too many!

But poetry’s spareness packs a wallop. In a few magnificently chosen phrases, the entire sweep of life or a single moment can be intimately shared. I’ve always been amazed when I’ve reached a good poem’s finish, feeling that visceral pressure in my heart as I take in its meaning, usually going back to read it ever more carefully, again and again.

April is National Poetry Month and there are plenty of venues for celebration.

From The Academy of American Poets come 30 Ways to Celebrate, from taking a poem to work or out to lunch to writing one on the pavement. (Must do that with the kids!)

In New York City, the Pen American Center is holding its 7th Annual World Voices Festival from April 25-May 1, featuring great writers of all ilks, including poets, from around the world.

The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, host of possibly the best poetry festival ever (held right here in New Jersey!), is posting daily videos from the 2010 festival at NJPAC.

Similarly, The New York Review of Books is posting a daily poem from their awe-inspiring archive.

Check out all of these offerings. If you know others, please share them with us in the comments below.

Most of all, I challenge each of you to take a moment out of your April and write a poem. Whether you have never tried it before, do so every day or every once in a while, the effort will transform you.


Leave a comment

Musing with Aristotle

For me, the older the better as far as reading tastes and research go. For my latest novel, I’ve nearly memorized parts of Herodotus’ Histories. (Book IV is fascinating – really!) I’ve regularly perused Pliny the Elder, Strabo and Tacitus. OK, maybe I’m just a little weird, but I love hanging with the ancients.

I recently returned to 2360-year-old roots for a clearer understanding of the elements of good fiction. Aristotle’s Poetics details six critical pieces: Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle and Song.

In our many discussions about writing, particularly on Thursday nights, we have argued over terms like “character-driven” and “plot-driven”. Both are essential and inextricably intertwined.

Aristotle calls Plot “the first principle” and “the soul of a tragedy.” For him, character held second place, as he compares it with painting: “The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait.” In other words, we need to know the structure surrounding our characters’ existence and what’s happening to move them forward. The most beautiful, poetic, well-observed characters must be propelled by a reason-to-be, something that answers the ever troubling questions, “What’s happening here?” and “Why should I care?”

Aristotle perceived Character as “objects of imitation… personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought…. These – thought and character – are the two natural causes from which actions spring.” (Part VI) So character causes action. And action, or plot, affects character. Some stories are propelled more by external forces (plot) than internal forces (character). But you absolutely need both. Otherwise, per Aristotle, you end up with a lot of beautiful colors but no form.

Of course, we live in the post-modern era. We’ve seen Jackson Pollack splatters and monochrome canvases. In literature also, we’ve grown to appreciate writing that intentionally veers from Aristotelian parameters. But at least when starting out, we are wise to attend these ancient guidelines. Before Picasso played with Cubism, he painted quite a few realistic works. The same should be true for new and developing writers.

Aristotle continues with Thought, essentially the story’s big ideas and thematic motivations. According to Poetics, Part XIX, “dramatic incidents should speak for themselves without verbal exposition; while effects aimed at in should be produced by the speaker, and as a result of the speech.” Thus the hackneyed literary adage, “Show, don’t tell.” Show the inherent themes and motivations, don’t explicitly tell them through long winded explanations. Easier said than done.

Next comes Diction, which he defines as “the mere metrical arrangement of the words”. In Part XXII of Poetics, Aristotle speaks about the perfection of style. He goes on at length about parts of speech (Part XX), the use of meter (Part XXIII) and metaphor (Part XXI). After more than 2000 years, the questions and tools remain the same. Well-crafted language is an vital overlay, bringing uniqueness and specificity to characters, and musicality to plot and exposition.

Aristotle also wrote that Song – literally music – “holds the chief place among the embellishments.” Of course, he was writing primarily about drama and stage craft, not prose; but it doesn’t hurt to imagine a soundtrack to your writing. I’ve been known to play certain music to bring the mood of a scene more strongly into my thoughts as I write. Song or music express emotion, excitement and energy that can subconsciously infuse your prose.

Finally, we come to what Aristotle calls Spectacle but that we’d describe as special effects. Lots of shooting, explosions and chase scenes are eye-catching and exhilarating, but they’re better when compelled by reasons inherent to the plot and characters. “The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry…. Besides, the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.” (Part VI)

The elements are all there – one through six. Simple, right? Not! As we each struggle to cultivate a voice, we should think of Aristotle’s “Diction”, striving for the sense of music in our words, even if they are never meant to be read aloud. We should validate the use of spectacle, without getting carried away. But we should lean most heavily on the dual elements of plot and character. One without the other cannot really exist. Both together, well wrought and intricately tied with language, music, spectacle and rich ideas, we can only hope and pray will result in a story that’s completely engaging, able to hold our readers’ attention for, say, a couple of thousand years.

Special thanks to The Internet Classics Archive for access to the S. H. Butcher translation.


3 Comments

Peeling the Onion

In his insightful essay, Found in Translation from last Sunday’s New York Times, author Michael Cunningham peels the many-layered onion of the authorial relationship.

His initial premise is translation, which one immediately assumes means language to language. And it does. Every book is re-formed into something completely new when it is translated, effected by the subtle shifts of meaning and even comprehension that come from refocusing through a different cultural lens.
Peeling the onion
But the layers of translation go deeper than that. Cunningham points to the truth that all of us are writing works in translation – that our conception can never be wrought in concrete form without undergoing a kind of transformation. It is never pure, never precisely what we’d original felt or witnessed in that perfect vision that lives in our minds. Writers learn to accept that we can never quite midwife our imagination into existence here on earth as it is in heaven.

And then there is the translation of our words by our reader. How many of us have discussed a character or scene we’ve enjoyed, only to discover that another reader envisioned the moment quite differently?

I was sharing the experience of a young adult novel, called Fish by L.S. Matthews, with my son. It’s a fascinating, simple story of a family’s escape from a nameless, war-torn village in Africa. What’s interesting is that the narrator is also nameless. About fifty pages into the book, I asked him how he imagined the character. “Oh, he’s a boy, about 7 or 8.”

“A boy?” I said. “I saw it as a girl!”

We both had shared the same words, the same journey. Yet our experience, our translation of the author’s intent (which was, no doubt, a translation of her own archetypal vision) was markedly different.

Our best hope in the struggle to achieve the purity of our vision, is to paint our tales with all the lushness, distinction and visceral truth that we can. Though we cannot create our perfect world here on earth, or in the minds of our readers, the vision they each experience as they read our words is the perfect merging of our imaginations and theirs.


Leave a comment

Mediocre Books and One-Time Wonders

We all hope and pray that the writing we’ve been slaving away at for weeks, months or years is brilliant, publishable, praiseworthy.

Sometimes we’re right. More often than not, it seems, we’re wrong.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re bad writers. I found two links this week that brought home the point that every writer, no matter how skilled, talented, lauded or adored, sometimes misses the mark. And some of us (God help, please no!) have only one really good book within us.

Take note of “Great Writers, Bad Novels” in last week’s Wall Street Journal. I particularly love the honesty in Flannery O’Connor’s quoted letter to a friend: “It appears that I have finished my novel [“The Violent Bear It Away”].…Just in that state of not knowing if it works or is the worst novel ever written.”

We all feel that way, sometimes afterward, but more often than not right in the midst of creation. Some days the words don’t flow. Some days they do, until we go back the next day and realize everything we thought was brilliant really was just a pile of lard!
A Writer's Obsession

How do any of us stack up in our earnest efforts to get our hearts on the page? As Robert McCrum muses in his column in the U.K.’s Guardian, “Writers who flourish at the peak of their powers for longer than a decade, or even two, are rare birds.”

Indeed! How many of us struggle just to get a few words on paper, to complete amidst the daily demands of our busy lives, a single short story or a somewhat lengthy essay? Wouldn’t any of us give our right arm (or perhaps more critically, each of our ten fingers) to have written one of the novels in The Huffington Post’s list of “Great Literary One-Hit Wonders“?

Writing is struggle. Perhaps that’s why I witness such incredible reluctance in some of my younger students. Writing IS HARD, especially if you have nothing particular that inspires you, as is often the case with essays that are required for school.

But some of us “rare birds” (in a less rarefied form than above), feel a literal pressure within our bodies as a story forms and pushes upward, forcing itself upon us, demanding with such force that we cannot refuse it.

So we write. We have a passion as powerful as any new-found love. If we neglect it, even for a day or two, we feel guilty as if we’ve forgotten to feed our infant. After a while, we can no longer separate the story from ourselves. We carry it around with us and listen to it, think about it even when we are occupied with something else, take notes at odd hours of the night, in the middle of meetings, when we’re chatting with someone on the train. We know we cannot give it up no matter how tired we are, no matter how bored we are with it, or how frustrated with the awareness that our love, our soul, may never find its way to a wide, appreciative audience, that we are all almost inevitable victims of what McCrum calls “the murderous cannon fire of indifference and critical disdain”.

None of that matters somehow when we’re in the midst of writing. It is creation itself that drives us. If our effort is mediocre, we know we will try again, searching forever for the unforgiving truth that something’s living inside us and we are its slave, not its master. Our stories are our essence. They inform our existence and give us our sense of self. If they were anything less, why would we bother?

We write until the well runs dry. Then we rest until we’re ready to take up the challenge again. We are grateful for our mistakes. We learn from them and slowly, with plodding certainty, we actually get better.

But no writer travels a straight or steady path. This is not a staircase; it’s a mountain. Sometimes we trip up. But that, too, is part of the journey.

In The Wall Street Journal essay, perhaps the most poignant thought comes at the very end: “No writer sets out to produce a mediocre book; sooner or later, most do. Forgiveness is in order. As Aldous Huxley once said, ‘A bad book is as much of a labor to write as a good one, it comes as sincerely from the author’s soul.'”


Leave a comment

The Poet in All of Us

I am not a poet. I would never claim to be. If writing were music, I prefer to play conductor to soloist. My fiction would be a symphony, not a piece for solo piano. But the craft of a prose writer also involves cadences, subtle pauses for thought, deeper undercurrents and expressions that run just beneath the written words. There is a great deal that all of us can learn from poetry, particularly brevity (something that obviously escapes me at times in these blog posts!).

Since 1996, the month of April has been National Poetry Month. I was reminded of this when my third grader came home with an assignment to pick and memorize a poem for school.
National Poetry Month

Almost simultaneously came a scattering of poetry messages to my inbox: yesterday on NPR: ‘Who I Am’: Poetry Not Wasted On The Young from which I discovered “Arithmetic” by Carl Sandburg, a good one for my son, though I’m doing my best to reserve judgment at least until he’s read it.

Poetry is immediate. In just a few short lines, a well-wrought poem can raise the emotions of visceral experience. It can share the commonality of human existence – sorrow or elation, melancholy in the passage of time, humor, guilt, irony. It can draw the shape of an entire character, the journey of a complex life. It is truly amazing that such breadth and complexity can be twisted into such an incredibly compact creation.

When I read poetry, I am always anxious for that heart-tapping “ah-ha” when the message of the poem comes breathlessly clear to me. Inevitably I read a poem once, twice, three times, then return to it again over years.

I remember attending poetry readings at the 92nd Street Y in New York City where the poets read slowly, purposefully without inflection, but always – always read their poems twice as if the repetition would remove any lingering veil from their richly insightful meanings.

And for nearly a decade, I’ve forgone the pleasure of attending The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, a biennial event that I recall with much passion for the freedom of my pre-motherhood days, when my husband and I strolled from tent to church to woody grove at Waterloo Village, New Jersey.
Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival

This year, The Poetry Festival is moving to Newark. And I think my boys are just old enough that I might risk dragging them along. I remember first discovering the festival from a documentary by Bill Moyers in the early 1990s. In a recent redux, Bill Moyers Journal revisited the festival as I remember it. Check out the wonderful video on PBS’s website, though I wasn’t able to embed the code to post it directly here: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/03062009/watch3.html.

Besides the glory of the greatest works of poetry presented in our own backyard, we in New Jersey have access to countless offerings in New York City. Another great annual event – PEN World Voices – starts next Monday and runs until Sunday, May 2. I have always loved both PEN’s festival and mission to draw attention to the vast body of world literature and to promote freedom of speech in countries where authors are at risk to do what we all do freely every day.
Pen World Voices Festival
American contemporary literature suffers from chronic naval-gazing, an almost isolationist self-importance that frequently ignores the wider world. PEN’s World Voices Festival includes writers that are unfamiliar to most of us, but whose writings have affected the broader society of global readers and bring a taste and perspective that’s as intriguing as it is unfamiliar.

It reminds me of the scents of cumin, curry and sweet tamarind sauce, the first time ever in my life I smelled or tasted Indian food. It was at the apartment of my friend Swati Dasgupta. We were seven years old and everything about her life was exotic and new – her mother wrapped in silken saris with a red dot on her forehead, their magical appearance in my dull Massachusetts community from someplace halfway around the world. It opened my eyes to new magical possibilities. From that moment I was hooked. Imagine if I’d never tasted anything but hamburgers?

If you have time, take a taste at one of these incredible festivals. You never know where your imagination, your writing or your life might take you.


6 Comments

The Best Gift for Writers

You may have noticed that I don’t often blog about technique. For me, this forum is more about sharing the experience of writing.

The truth about craft is that it’s all in the doing. We each confront the blank page or screen time and again. We learn to accept struggle, failure and critique, then go back to do it all over again.

Colum McCann, winner of the National Book Award for his novel Let the Great World Spin, is apparently fond of quoting Samuel Beckett: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

How utterly true!

Time
But we all learn from each other. Certainly in this Writers Circle, we’ve done that week after week, sharing our perspectives, making suggestions, taking them as often as we throw them out. Then trying again.

We can also learn from writers more experienced than ourselves. We’ve all heard grateful praise for Natalie Goldberg’s life-changing Writing Down the Bones. It’s a terrific book of freeing prompts and exercises whose goal is not to produce finished work but to express and observe moment to moment both the outer world and the inner life of the writer.

There’s also Anne Lamott’s classic Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I love her metaphor – taking it word by word, step by step. It reminds me of that hiking piece I wrote for all of you a couple of years ago. I’ll post it here, since not everyone was around back then.

Stephen King’s book On Writing is supposed to be excellent though I’ve only read it in excerpts so far. And of course, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer nudges me to link to several lists of Best Books:
Books are some of the best teachers

Reading the finest writers with a critical eye to how they manage to create their prose is perhaps the very best way to learn the literary craft.

But if you must ask for a holiday gift this season, what any spouse, child, parent, boss, friend or neighbor should know is that the #1 choice any writer would ask for is TIME.

Writing well truly doesn’t require an MFA, a trendy concept or even particularly abundant talent. What it needs more than anything is exorbitant amounts of focused, uninterrupted time.

Happy holidays, everyone. I hope you all get the gift you most desire. I look forward to hearing from or seeing all of you in the coming year.


Leave a comment

Lessons from Poets

Poetry can feel, at times, as rarified as air, precious for its purity, its essentialness, its glittering, fluid, whimsical magnificence. It gives weight to simplicity and simplicity to weight, nourishing on levels more ephemeral and yet more visceral than prose.

As I write my novels, I have often pondered the poetry in my words. All writers work with rhythms, whether they intend to or not. There’s an inherent flow that makes a sentence or paragraph just right, or that forces us to half-consciously cut out a word or add one, that lets us know that there’s something missing right there – not necessarily a bit of action or a detail’s flourish, but a sound, a sensibility, a feeling. We search for it, hoping and trusting that our more prosaic muse will eventually find the perfect mix of meaning and form.

Poetry can teach us how to sift out that pure perfection. It’s like crystal. Like diamond. Dazzling, but hard to come by. Can we dig down that far inside ourselves to uncover those flawless jewels?

Since I first heard Jane Hirshfield read years ago at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, I’ve been fascinated with her work. Her free verse moves with cadence and deep meaning, rather than following a prescribed meter or rhyme. Yet somehow she encapsulates the essence of her thoughts – of some of life’s deepest thoughts – in a few carefully chosen words. I often listen or read her work in wonder, longing to distill my own to such purity.

Ms. Hirshfield read again at the Poetry Festival last September. And though I wasn’t able to attend, we can all hear her now, thanks to YouTube. I particularly love her very brief poem, “A Cedary Fragrance.” In an expression so pure, she aims her words with a embroiderer’s delicate needle. As she speaks the closing line, I feel the precision of her thought piercing directly to my wisest mind.

Listen to her words. Enjoy them for their essence. And try to apply their lessons to your own work – embrace that semi-conscious awareness that each word effects your work profoundly, and that rhythms and careful phrasing aren’t merely troublesome necessities, but the most powerful tools of your craft.

Read more about Jane Hirschfield and other extraordinary poets at the GR Dodge website. Or subscribe, as I do, to Poetry Fridays.