Friday, June 18, 2010

The Craft of Pigeonholing

When I was twelve, I used to write stories. The narratives mostly revolved around a twelve year old girl living out all the adventures that I could not. Those adventures usually included boys that liked me. I was a little boy crazy. Ok, a lot boy crazy. I would let my friends read these stories and some enjoyed them. I distinctly remember a friend being disappointed that I hadn't written more yet.

In high school I transitioned to writing poetry to express myself and left fiction by the wayside. I thought of myself as a poet, not always as a writer. I'm not sure if that meant I was busier as a teenager and had less time to commit to full plot structures. Or if the brevity of poetry held my short attention span. But whatever the reason, I have not seriously tried writing fiction until last week, for an assignment in my summer class. We already wrote poems and a personal essay and I had a foundation of craft for those genre, and while I know a good story when I read one, there always seemed to be something mysterious to me about a good short story. How does one balance character and plot? When is too late to introduce a new character? How can I write realistic dialogue? How much is too much symbolism?

Luckily my professor demystified some of this during our class discussion on craft last night. Short stories should focus on character. Symbolism comes secondary to a solid plot structure (I tend to write mythical narratives packed with metaphor and symbols, perhaps at the expense of everything else). Don't end a story by killing the hero. These are all elements I've sensed in good works of fiction, but could not articulate.

During the discussion I seemed to have an epiphany about writing. It's hard work. I knew this before, but I really felt it when I wrote my story for class. Nothing was easy about developing my characters. I had to go back and change things a million times. I steered clear of dialogue. Each paragraph was a slow climb up a mountain that seemed to get taller by the minute. I thought I would never reach 1500 words. I got to 1502.

This is not to say that poetry and nonfiction are simple to write. They just happen to come more easily to me. Poetry is hard work, especially during the editing process. I can't help but feel like I've never finished one poem. I never trust myself to know when a poem is finished. But there is something manageable about the length of most of the poems I write. I can see it from beginning to end. It's a container that holds exactly what I wanted to say. A poem thrives on that moment of "ah ha!" - that inspiration, the impetus that forces us to pick up a pen before we lose it.

Fiction can start with that spark of an idea, but ultimately you have to have a lot of confidence, focus and coffee to sustain you through to the end. You have to trust that more sparks will come to you, and if they don't, you have to keep plodding along until it does.

Nonfiction makes sense to me because it's real. The circular structure and meandering connections reflect the way my mind works. I spend a lot of time thinking about my life, my relationships, my work and society, culture, the world. I can weave these ideas together into prose that can also be lyrical, pulling in my poetic sensibilities and yet also having the freedom to be direct and specific about what I'm trying to say.

Fiction is not real. It's completely made up characters. The plot, setting, structure, tone, metaphors, characterization, conflict, conclusion - all of these things depend on me. That's a lot of juggling. Juggling while balancing on your head in a thunderstorm. While I wrote my story for class, I found myself unsettled by the power I had to create - and then destroy an entire plot twist or character or line of dialogue.

And yet, at some point, it became real to me. Somewhere in between the 1200th and 1502nd word I saw my character take shape. I saw the underlying themes that I didn't purposefully create. But I also saw the hard work I put into it. So perhaps it was 5% magical talent and 95% hard-ass work. But I liked the world I created and I'm looking forward to editing it. In fact, I've actually started a new story last night after class, armed with the discussion on craft.

In my MFA program I chose to be dual genre in poetry and nonfiction. I write both anyway, but I've been so drawn to poetry, I thought about dropping the nonfiction. But since this class, I'm realizing that I'm mostly just really drawn to whatever it is I'm doing at that moment. I also needed a break from poetry. I think the prose I've written for this class has been much stronger. And I'm surprised at how good it felt to have written a short story. I'm sure I've made a lot of rookie mistakes. But I can't think about myself as a poet. I have to open myself up to the notion that an idea might take a different shape. That I can't write myself into a certain camp and never leave. That isn't the kind of creative life I want.

Sure, we all have our talents. Maybe I'll discover that no matter how hard I write, my poetry will always be better than my fiction. But I can't accept that. Not yet anyway. I'm still learning how to be a writer and I have to believe that the hard work and development I'm investing in knowing craft can be applied to all kinds of writing. I won't limit myself, especially not just because something is hard. Besides, I'm in grad school. It's supposed to be hard.
Post a Comment