Another Creative Writing Myth Debunked

Stories and Poems Were Written the Way We Read Them

This isn’t a myth we teach, which is one reason I didn’t included it with my previous post: 5 Creative Writing Myths Debunked. Instead, it is one I find a lot of students have when they come to my class. Maybe we all have it, but it’s one we constantly need to remind ourselves doesn’t have to be so.

Stories and poems usually aren’t written from the first sentence to the last in the order we read them. Yes, sometimes that happens, but often the first sentence of a story or the first line of a poem may be moved or discarded before a draft is finalized. The conclusion may be written first, or the first written paragraph may end up somewhere in the middle of the final piece.

Writers don’t sit down with a poem or a story in mind. We sit down to write. We write some things on the page, and we find the story or poem in it. Revision is about more than  ‘fixing the problems’ in a draft. It is about re-envisioning that draft and finding the best way to write what we discover.

It’s probably easier to write down a poem in the order you want it because it’s easier to carry a poem around with you in your head for awhile before you ever write a draft. Many poets work this way, and they may have a pretty good sense of the final poem before they ever commit it to paper. That doesn’t make that the best strategy! Sometimes it’s better to just write words on paper and not worry about how to start a poem. Many poets don’t even think about line breaks or stanzas in their first draft. They just write the words and worry about the form later.

Many times, writers block seems to come because people don’t know how to get started, but if you start in the middle or if you start before the beginning, then the pressure is off. Of course, we want a great opening line to a poem or first paragraph to a story! But the pressure to start with that great opening makes it nearly impossible to write. So just start writing, and worry about what the opening will be later.

In the same way, we want to keep writing until we get to the end of a piece. But often I talk to students who are stuck at a given point in a story, and I encourage them to take a scene they do think they know and write it. Don’t worry about how to get from point B to point G. Just write what you know you want to include and connect the dots later, if you need to.

A poem is the same way. It might be written in perfectly reasonable stanzas and lines, yet lack energy. Taking those lines, rearranging them, changing the line breaks, cutting out the dead wood, finding new connections between images or just allowing the images to resonate without any explanation, putting the poem through the blender, in other words, and then sorting out the pieces, all can lead to a better final draft.

But the myth comes from the fact that we tend to read finished stories and poems. We don’t see the messy process that led to the final product. We think that the writer had an idea, wrote it, then refined it, and ended up with the final draft. What often happens is that a writer has a vague idea of what he wants to write, stumbles towards it, gets lost, finds another path, discovers something worth pursuing, then comes back later and tries to make sense of all the mess. What we see when we read the final draft is the sense that was made. We don’t see the messy process that led the writer there. So when we sit down to write, we criticize ourselves for the mess we produce, rather than digging in, rearranging, sorting and sifting to find the meaning and the form that will reveal it, and obstinately stumbling forward to that final product.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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