writing inspiration

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“Poems Hide”

barn

The single most common question posed to poets is this: “Where on earth do you get your ideas?”

One would be tempted to answer, “Poughkeepsie” or “Peru,” but it’s much simpler than that. A working poet who pays no mind to such myths as “block” gets his ideas from those rare bits known as “what’s around him” and “what’s happening every day.”

Naomi Shihab Nye tackled this precept in her poem “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” which opens with these two instructive stanzas:

You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.
 
Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment 
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

 

In other words, the problem lies not in elusive ideas that would germinate into poetry if only we could find them, it lies in the way would-be poets approach their daily lives. If you’re open to the mundane and attuned to possibilities in the quotidian, you will find poems abundant as zucchini in August. You will never lack.

 

Consider a familiar autumnal sound: the scratch of a mouse above me in the attic. Ah. Winter approaches! I once started writing a poem about (you guessed it) mice in the attic, creatures that, when sighted outside, are actually cute and beyond harmless, but when they become a sound in your attic or walls are worse than ugly–a threat, even. From a humorous angle, it’s amazing how resourceful mice are. Buy a mouser or hire a pest management company and see who wins the game. Right. The whiskered wonders who can squeeze through paper-sized cracks, every time. The Lord works in mysterious (and often tiny) ways!

 

If you are a “blocked” writer and this all sounds too obvious to you, survey your own published poems (or, if you are unpublished, poems you are proud to have written) to see if Occam’s Razor does not apply. I looked at opening lines of poems in my book, The Indifferent World, and one after the other, they spoke to Nye’s Undeniable Truth: “Poems hide…What we have to do is live in a way that lets us find them.” Some examples:

 

“Barnstorming the Universe” opens with a decrepit barn, one I just happened to see while running past a Maine field one summer morning. It sparked a fanciful poem predicated on the idea that a barn might lean not from time, but from a crash landing from outer space:

 

The big barn must have landed
overnight, the jolt of its descent
crippling one side so the whole
structure leans south.

 

“Crows” comes from the sound of my dark friends on the roof. I was hunting ideas one day when they hunted me, cause for joy:

 

From my cedar-walled study,
I hear them–the scratch
and claw of tar-colored talons
against asphalt–and consider
the tiny avalanches, schist
granules riding there roof’s slant.

 

“Momentary” had its inception in the sight of a small boat, the first to appear on the early morning mirror of a quiet lake:

 

Drone of an outboard,
then, out of the cove, trout-scale
glint of an aluminum boat
unzipping the water.

 

I even channeled some Naomi Shihab Nye by naming one piece “Hunting the Unwritten Poem,” which begins like so:

 

You see them in the mercury
light of water, the expanding
orbs of silver where trout
breathe. You hear
them in the sleepy kiss
of rainfall on pine
needles, smell them
as if they were snow
to the west.

 

You get the idea. First drafts as journal entries, almost. Your daily life, experienced via the five senses, via imagery, becoming the lifeblood of your poetry. Yes. Really. Start there. And excise the entry “block” from that Dictionary of Poetry Terms while you’re at it.

 

Poems hide not in Poughkeepsie or Peru, but in the not-so-rare air around you.

Contrasts: Making Juxtaposition Work for You

phaethon

In Maine we are going through another hot and humid stretch. In town, people will complain of the heat. But on Saturday, the high is forecast to be 68. In town, there are bound to be people who will complain of this coolness in August. 

Contrasts. They’re everywhere and, as a catalyst, they generate interest and irony.

In writing and poetry, contrasts always make stronger points than they ever could were only one side of the odd couple being described. I found a perfect example of this in the collected poems of Charles Simic:

 

My Weariness of Epic Proportions

I like it when
Achilles
Gets killed
And even his buddy Patroclus–
And that hothead Hector–
And the whole Greek and Trojan
Jeunesse dorée
Is more or less
Expertly slaughtered
So there’s finally
Peace and quiet
(The gods having momentarily
Shut up)
One can hear
A bird sing
And a daughter ask her mother
Whether she can go to the well
And of course she can
By that lovely little path
That winds through
The olive orchard

 

Nota bene: jeunesse dorée (literally: “gilded youth”) is French for “wealthy, stylish, sophisticated young people”

Here Simic gives us an effective juxtaposition between Greek gods and heroes and the everyday lives of ordinary people like you and me. Enough already with Homer and his hotheaded heroes slashing and slaying, conquering and crowing! A little girl wants to go to the well. When her mother grants permission (how sweet of the girl to ask first!), the daughter chooses a path that winds through an olive orchard. Can you inhale the lovely, warm smell of olives right now? Can you hear the leaves moving softly to the wind?

And pardon my hubris, but isn’t that what it’s all about? Isn’t that what matters in life–the little things? If you want such simplicity to loom large, park it next to something epic. Epically tiresome. See if your weariness doesn’t get more bang for its buck.

Of course a modern reader of this poem cannot help but compare Greek and Trojan heroes to headline-hogging politicians. Don’t they incite your weariness to epic proportions? Don’t you take refuge by turning off news sources and focusing on the simple, everyday things and people you love? And, if not, what are you waiting for?

What a contrast the songs of the morning mockingbird make with presidents and Congressmen, for instance. As Wordsworth once said: “Come, hear the woodland linnet… There’s more of wisdom in it.”

Moral of the story: As a writer and a poet, look to contrasts early and often. Singly, they may be strong, but side-by-side, they are much, much stronger.

If Every Word Is Suspect, Your Writing Will Be Arresting

szymborska

Here’s something I learned from the late Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska: If every word is suspect, your writing will be arresting.

What does this mean? It means writing–especially poetry writing–cannot always be a prisoner of denotation. Of course, specific language serves the creative writer’s purposes for imagery, but there has to be more: not only connotation, but something even more unusual at times.

Sometimes you need to stare at a word for an hour until it begins to change shapes like a Protean gift from the Muse. Sometimes you need to consider angles and caroms that wait like a bounce in inertia’s clothing. Sometimes you need to take chances with words and be willing to write something awful on the faith that every pan of mud might contain a chip of gold.

Consider these three words: future, silence, nothing. Wislawa Szymborska did. And from those rather tired, heard-them-before-and-maybe-even-too-often abstractions, she found gold.

How? By simply handing them to her brain to play with for an hour or so while she made dinner. The result? “The Three Oddest Words.” Enjoy:

The Three Oddest Words

When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.

When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.

When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no non-being can hold.

 

By Wislawa Szymborska
Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

And look what happens to words when they return to their natural habitat in “The Joy of Writing”! We even get a cameo from the word “silence” again–still breaking the rules, still escaping the bullets of denotation, still doing what writers do best when they see not only the world, but words themselves, differently. Enjoy again:

The Joy of Writing

Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence – this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word “woods.”

Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they’ll never let her get away.

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

They forget that what’s here isn’t life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.

 

By Wislawa Szymborska
From “No End of Fun”, 1967
Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

 

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Memorable Lines: They Want To Be a Poem

Sometimes the genesis of a poem is an innocent but memorable remark someone once said to the poet. Many of my poems come into the world this way. 

For instance, “The Morning After,” which appears in my new book Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, sprung from something my mother once said the morning after a party at our house. She woke up, came out into the kitchen where my brother and I were eating cereal, saw all the liquor bottles still on the counter, and asked us to put them away.

But it’s the words she chose that struck my young mind and lingered to the present day. The words had to out somehow. They chose poetry as a way to do so.

Here’s the poem I wrote to recollect that moment. It originally appeared in South Florida Poetry Journal.

 

The Morning After

by Ken Craft

 

The kitchen ceiling is a soft cirrus of cigarette smoke,

and the white globe light Mom loves glows like a full

gaseous moon. Below, a table of highball glasses, cards,

coin kitties, napkin-bedded baskets, chips and Chex mix,

 

ashtrays of butts bent 90 degrees, some ringed with lipstick, 

some slipped off the edge. Sounds tinny and thin through 

the tube of time: radio jazz, Kennedy halves, quarters 

sliding like silver pucks across polished wood. In memory,

 

hours and minutes sprint by, stopping only for Sundays. Talk

and laughter grow louder as we grow little-kid groggier, falling

asleep in our beds up the hall, dreaming of family, friends, and

neighbors who never grow old and never feel pain and never die 

 

of lung cancer or cirrhosis of the liver or, God save us, natural 

causes. In memory, we eat Trix or Cocoa Puffs or Frosted Flakes 

as Mom comes out of her room in a housecoat Sunday morning. 

She’s squinting against a sunrise of empties and glasses half-filled 

 

with dead ice, the accordioned remains in ashtrays, the wounded 

bottles of liquor, brown and green and clear. She’s turning back

for the refuge of her room, saying: “Boys, could you put the bottles 

away for me, please? I can’t stand looking at them in the morning.”

 

Talking With George Saunders: Part 2

In his most recent book, George Saunders quotes “movie producer and all-around mensch,” Stuart Cornfield, to make a point not only about movies but about writing – – “…every structural unit needs to do two things: (1) be entertaining in its own right and (2) advance the story in a non-trivial way.”

Doesn’t seem like much, does it? But for writers, the twosome may be more challenging than you think. To entertain should not be taken lightly. And you cannot do it randomly, either. At the same time it must advance your story, meaning “randomness” is the enemy!

Often this calls for variety in your story, but again, you face the danger of variety for the sake of variety. Chekhov, Saunders’ hero in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is a natural at this. Says George: “Chekhov’s instinct seems to be toward variation, against stasis. One of his gifts is an ability to naturally impose variety on a situation that a lesser writer would leave static.”

(OK, static sorts. Take a step forward and admit it. Or watch as Chekhov takes a step backwards, leaving you exposed.)

This brings us to these famous dictums for writers:

  1. “Don’t make things happen for no reason.”
  2. “Having made something happen, make it matter.”

You see, again, the relentless campaign against the random? A particularly contrary writer might wail, “But, hold on! Life is random, so why can’t I write random?”

Because, Saunders seems to be saying, writing is a controlled random – an exquisite, oxymoronic dance of sorts.

Thus, he writes, “In workshop we sometimes say that what makes a piece of writing a story is that something happens within it that changes the character forever.”

Tall, meet order.

To quote Chekhov (and Saunders does so, early and often): “Art doesn’t have to solve problems, it only has to formulate them correctly.”

Happy formulating, then. It’s what make writing such an enjoying challenge!

 

 

Talking With George Saunders: Part 1

In many ways, George Saunders’ new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, hits all my buttons. Chief among them is its use of short stories by four Russians — Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, and Gogol – to illustrate key points on the making and enjoyment of literature. I’ve been reading the Russkies since being knee-high to a praying mantis. Thus, being a Russophile (literary-wise, anyway) and a writer as well, I found myself doing something I seldom do with my books: annotating it as I went along.

Talking to Saunders, is what it amounted to, even though the odds of me ever attending his distant Syracuse writing class lie somewhere between slim and none.

I decided to share a bit here with other readers interested in writing and reading. First, I’ll provide the Saunders remarks that gave rise to some questions and thoughts. Then I’ll offer what I’d say if I were in Saunders class (if my classmates and professor kindy allowed, that is).

For Part 1 of who knows how many, here’s Saunders on one of the simpler “laws” of fiction. You know how laws get one’s ire up. Can you break them? Are they good laws? And what about the caveats, both mentioned and un-?

Saunders:

 

“Earlier, we asked if there might exist certain ‘laws’ in fiction. Are there things that our reading mind just responds to? Physical descriptions seem to be one such thing. Who knows why? We like hearing our world described. And we like hearing it described specifically (‘Two men in green sweaters were playing catch beside a wrecked car’ is better than ‘I drove through this area that was sort of bland and didn’t notice much.’) A specific description, like a prop in a play, helps us believe more fully in that which is entirely invented. It’s sort of a cheap, or at least easy, authorial trick. If I am trying to put you in a certain (invented) house, I might invoke ‘a large white cat, stretching itself out to what seemed like twice its normal length’ on a couch in that house. If you see the cat, the house becomes real.

“But that’s only part of the move. That cat, having been placed in that particular story, is now, also, a metaphorical cat, in relation to all of the other dozens (hundreds) of metaphorical elements floating around in the story.

“And that cat now has to do some story-specific work. Or, we might say, it’s going to be doing some story-specific work, whether it chooses to or not, by its very presence in the story; the question is what work it’s going to be asked to do and how well it will do it.”  (pp. 27-28)

 

On the surface, there seems little to debate here. Of course a more detailed description makes a scene more believable. The writer’s skill of naming things alone counts for much in his ability to create a sustainable dream for readers.

The catch lies in how much description. It might be “easy,” as Saunders allows, to deploy spellbinding description, but the difficulty lies in when to stop describing. Readers, though they may love description, don’t have infinite patience with it. Ditto editors.

I recall, for instance, my first attempt at a novel umpteen years ago. One editor, kind enough to provide a handwritten response, lauded the description throughout but said there might have been too much (for one) and that it often came at the expense of plot, which she found weak.

Then there’s the famous rule of Chekhov’s gun (rifle, what have you). Once mentioned as hanging on the wall over the hearth, it best be used before story’s end. Which brings us to another tricky concept: which details must play a role in the story and which may not?

A gun is fairly obvious. Why bring it up in passing? But the white cat mentioned by Saunders above? Is it equal to the green sweaters also mentioned above? Almost any detail from a setting can be integrated into a future plot development, but I daresay this will hold true for only a few.

Bottom line: the writer has a problem. Two problems, actually. Yes, your writing is richer through description, but when is enough enough? Salt lends flavor, no one will deny, but too much salt can kill a dish. Put description in a shaker next to pepper, and there you have it.

Additionally, it seems a case of overthinking matters to wonder which objects in any given description must do some “story-specific work,” as Saunders states, merely by dint of their presence. What if the description is implying something about a character, for instance? Does that count, or must it be woven into plot?

All of which brings me back to my own writing precept: Nothing is as simple as it seems. Even if George Saunders calls it a “cheap, or at least easy, authorial trick.”

Poetry as Suggestion

redleaf

Poems suggest themselves, even though they’re not there. By “poem,” I don’t mean the written product, although the suggestion may evolve to that. I mean anything that strikes you, that invites reverie, that slips some meta into your morning cognition.

This morning, the poem was the sound of rain on the roof. Ordinary, of course, but less so when it hasn’t rained for weeks — or at least not with the force needed for roof music.

Then as dawn turned black to gray outside the windows, I noticed a single red maple leaf rain-plastered to the window screen. In its minimalist way, it was like the calendar photograph for the month of October in New England.

Leaf as poem, in other words.

Sometimes even negative space can suggest poetry. How all of the songbirds of May and June have left. How the remaining birds are less musical: nuthatches scritching in circles around the tree trunks, chickadees flitting from branch to branch, the kingfishers out front with their forays over the lake.

But mostly it’s the quiet. The negative space left by nesting birds who have long forsaken us, leaving us to our fall and the coming cold.

Bird silence. A rare rain against the metal roof. A maple leaf framed by the window.

Poetry as suggestion, every one of them. No more, no less.

Berryman On the Value of Indifference

berryman

While spending too much time on the Internet (which is still holding up under a lot of weight), I came across this little quote from the poet John Berryman to wannabe writers everywhere (who, small thanks to the virus, should be doing more writing than usual by not spending too much time on the Internet):

“I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.”

Berryman also advised wall paper consisting of rejection notes from editors, but really, it’s too complicated nowadays, what with the cost of toner or printer ink or whatever you want to call that stuff apparently made of gold and frankincense and sold at Staples for about a quarter of your weekly salary (that is, if you are still employed during these Times of Trouble).

Yeah. That’s it for today. I have to go to that dystopian nightmare formerly known as a “supermarket” right now.

Pray for me. And have a good, anti-socially distant day.

Random Wisdom for Writers: Part Two

pencil

Here are a few more gleanings from Chuck Palahniuk’s estimable “writer advice” book, Consider ThisYesterday’s post featured the first group of ideas that might make you better at the trade. Today, the final set. Enjoy!

  • “If you can identify the archetype your story depicts, you can more effectively fulfill the unconscious expectations of your reader.” — CP
  • Readers relate when authors tell what’s known as an “awful truth.” Imperfect characters making mistakes are a reader’s delight. For one, the reader feels, “I’m not alone,” and for two, the reader feels, “Better him than me. What a train wreck! I can’t take my eyes off this!”
  • Or, as CP puts it: “People love to see others suffer and lose.” (If it helps, think politics, 2020.)
  • “Great problems, not clever solutions, make great fiction.” — Ira Levin
  • Know the difference between a story’s horizontal and its vertical. “Horizontal” = sequence of plot points, whereas “vertical” = pausing to deepen risk and tension because it is a key scene worthy of extra details and action. Too much of one (particularly horizontal) over the other will lose your readers’ interest.
  • Your plot should have a metaphorical (or sometimes real) “clock” or “gun” that readers are aware of. These may disappear, but readers should, in the back of their minds, be worried about time running out or the threat of some weapon. There are many variations, but these “plot drivers” keep the writer honest and the reader on her toes. Think James Bond movies.
  • For tension, use unconventional conjunctions sometimes for a whitewater-rushing effect that carries the reader through a particularly suspenseful scene.
  • Tension can also be harnessed through the use of an object the author recycles throughout the plot. When it reappears, the reader says, “A-ha!” or becomes nervous and wary, or begins to sleuth a bit to figure matters out. Reappearing objects are tension devices.
  • Avoid tennis-match dialogue.
  • “Never resolve a threat until you raise a larger one.” — Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Do not use dialogue to further the plot.
  • No dreams! Ever.
  • “You don’t write to make friends.” — Joy Williams
  • To mix things up in a novel, change the setting. Take your characters on a “second-act road trip.”
  • Use joy and humor as occasional relief when the going gets rough or the plot gets particularly frightening or suspenseful.
  • It is OK to depict questionable behavior in a book. Just don’t endorse or condemn it. This is the reader’s task.
  • “Any time you deny a possibility, you create it at the same time.” — CP
  • “If you can’t be happy washing dishes, you can’t be happy.” — CP
  • One troika of character types frequently used by writers: a.) the character who follows orders, is shy and agreeable, is an all-around good boy or girl; b.) the rebel who bullies, breaks rules, brags; c.) the quiet, thoughtful one who often acts as narrator observing the conflict of the first two.
  • Do not let death resolve your story. Who do you think you are — Shakespeare?
  • Reject humdrum, believable material in favor of the actual wonders surrounding you in this world. This comes under the category of truth being stranger than fiction, so make those truths PART of your fiction.

 

Of course, there’s a lot of fleshing out of these ideas with examples from many books, so if the list piques your interest, pick up a copy of Palahniuk’s book.

Oh. And get yourself in a writer’s workshop group. Although Ken Kesey said, “All workshops suck at some point,” they do force you to write when it’s your turn to make copies and get critiqued.

Plus you learn from the writers around you—both better ones and worse ones.

Random Wisdom for Writers

chuck

When it comes to reading how-to books on writing, I always make sure the author is a success him- or herself before diving in. If it’s an unknown, you’re left to ask, “If this chump knows so much about writing the world’s great novels, why isn’t he doing it himself?”

Chuck Palahniuk’s book, Consider This, certainly fills the bill, though highbrows might sniff because he writes for the masses more than posterity. I’ve read only Fight Club, but I knew  he was prolific, so I picked it up and began reading.

When I read books like this, I like to highlight random pieces of advice or quotes. This book offers a rich trove and so might be worth your while. Granted, it focuses on novel and short story writing, but writing advice is writing advice, and there is always cross-pollination when it comes to effectively working among the genres.

Here’s a sampling:

  • There are three types of communication: description, instruction, exclamation (through onomatopoeia).
  • Little voice trumps big voice. “Little voice” refers to moment by moment events, facts, objective information. “Big voice” refers to musing, meaning, a character’s subjective take. Keep big-voice philosophizing to a minimum.
  • “Action carries its own authority” — Thom Jones
  • Use physical action as a form of attribution.
  • Use actions and gestures that go against the words a character says. The contrast can speak volumes.
  • “Dialogue is your weakest story-telling tool.” — C.P.
  • Keep a journal of people’s sayings, tics, gestures. Embed them in your writing.
  • Use lists now and then to break up the action. Readers love lists, for some reason.
  • Make up rules like little kids do when they play games. Home base. Poison patch. Time limits. Requirements. Exceptions. Author Barry Hannah says, “Readers love that shit.”
  • Put your dialogue in quotes, use attribution (readers skip over “he says, she says,” so don’t worry about variations so much), and embed gestures with the attribution.
  • Avoid Latin words, abstractions, received text.
  • If you get the small stuff right and use it up front, you can get away from some pretty crazy stuff after the fact because you’ve bought the readers’ confidence (or impressed the hell out of them).
  • Use your own magical aphorism early on and win the readers’ hearts. Think Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. It sold like hot cakes.
  • Answer these questions about your protagonist before you start: “Who’s telling this? Where are they telling it? Why are they telling it?”
  • Do not write to be liked. Write to be remembered.
  • Write from within character. Instead of writing “He was 6 feet, 6 inches tall,” a character might say, “He was too tall to kiss.”
  • Write via the characters’ experiences and descriptions.
  • Don’t be afraid to be outlandish, provocative, challenging.
  • Subvert the readers’ expectations. They’ll love you for it.
  • “No two people ever walk into the same room,” said Katherine Dunn. Think of that the next time you describe a room or tackle any setting, especially with point of view in mind.
  • Answer these questions before beginning or continuing your writing project: “What strategy has your character chosen for success in life?” What education/experiences does he bring? Will he be able to adopt to a new strategy or dream?”
  • “Going on the body” means describing through the five senses. Make your readers experience the senses your characters do.

 

Of course, Palahniuk expands on all of this and makes it much more entertaining with anecdotes, but some of this gives you an idea of wisdom he’s gleaned from the writers’ workshops he’s attended and from writers he’s met along the way.

My next post will offer Part Two of CP’s pearls of wisdom.