Posts Tagged ‘writing process’

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.

New Year’s Resolution: A New Book of Poems

This title is a little misleading. Last year one of my resolutions was to finish a book of poems on the Mississippi artist Walter Anderson. As is so often the case, it didn’t quite work out the way I planned. It worked out better.

While I didn’t finish the manuscript of “Barrier Island Suite,” I did make some good progress on planning and writing some of the poems that would go in the added sections, on researching the biographical details I would need to complete those sections, on making initial contacts with the family, and finally on working out an agreement with my publisher, Texas Review Press. Paul Ruffin and I started talking about the project in November. He asked to see the manuscript, and in January, he wrote to say he was interested in publishing the collection in 2016 and was on board with the additions that I had outlined in my proposal. Now I’m hard at work and making good progress on those poems I’ve been working on for the past year, and I need to get back in touch with Anderson’s family to work out the details of the book, since we’d like to use some of the artwork, along with the poems.

For those who don’t know Walter Anderson, he lived in the first half of the 20th century in Ocean Springs, MS. He’s best known for his watercolors of the flora and fauna on the Mississippi gulf barrier islands, though he also did numerous drawings and sketches, sculptures, block prints, and three major murals — two that were in public spaces (the Ocean Springs high school and community center) and one that was very private (in his cottage) but is now on display at the Walter Anderson Museum in Ocean Springs. He also wrote logs of his travels to the islands and elsewhere, some of which were published as The Horn Island Logs of Walter Inglis Anderson.

I originally began these poems as a single poem, inspired by a talk given by Christopher Mauer at the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium. Mauer had written Fortune’s Favorite Child, a biography of Anderson, and it won our Welty Prize. I knew a little of Anderson’s work and was taken by his story, his bouts with mental illness and his many long visits to the islands that inspired him and seemed to help him manage his mental state. That poem led to a couple more on the barrier islands themselves, and I thought I ought to write some more. So I got a copy of the logs and started reading (while on sabbatical). A couple more turned into twenty, and I knew I had something, but wasn’t sure if it was a chapbook, a section of a book, or a book on its own.

Gradually over the years, I came to the decision that these poems were too different from my others to be part of a collection, and that they were a little too much for a chapbook, but not quite enough for a full-length collection. My initial idea for the book had been to focus only on the time on the barrier islands, not on the time on shore, but as I’ve considered expanding it, I’ve realized that some of the shore life needed to be included. So that is where I’m working now. Those poems will take different forms than the island sections, giving the suite a more varied tempo, and they will provide contrast and increase the tension in the work as a whole. At least that is the goal.

It’s exciting to return to this material, and it’s exciting to have something a little more concrete than a New Year’s resolution to keep me going.