We are pleased to welcome Lou Freshwater to our Tuesday Serial site with a series of two posts. Lou is a writer, poet and freelance editor we have had the pleasure to come to know through the #FridayFlash community. We hope that you enjoy her posts and find some way to incorporate these insights into your writing. Welcome, Lou!
Last week we talked about two of my favorite books on writing fiction. Now I am going to share a book I fell in love with during the time when I was writing poetry and had not yet imagined being able to write a short-story, or even a piece of flash fiction.
Let’s start with The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser. Now, I can hear all of the fiction writers in the house tuning me out and preparing to surf the internet. Poets? What do they know? Well I’m hear to tell you they know a lot and any fiction writer who does not think exposing themselves to the craft of poetry will help their fiction is flat-out wrong. I will always be grateful my writing journey began in poetry and progressed into fiction. Having the skills of a poet, even if you don’t ever write a poem, is like having a deadly sharp knife in your writing toolbox. Kooser’s book in particular, is a book which writers of any form can benefit from. For example, the chapter on details is wonderful and there is no writer of fiction who shouldn’t be paying attention to detail. Kooser writes:
“Just keep in mind that it won’t be the birthday cake covered with twinkling candles that will make readers feel that you were really at the party, but the bone-handled serving fork with one tine missing and the place where the lace has pulled loose from the hem of the tablecloth.”
It also helps that I love Ted Kooser’s work. He reminds me of Billy Collins as he tends to sneak up on you in his poetry. In this book, he never talks down or condescends, and he chooses wonderful examples of mostly prosy and accessible poetry in order to help illustrate his points. So there you go fiction writers, take out a knife and get to sharpening.
I also wanted to make brief mention of a few more books which I have found to be helpful in my constant quest to better understand and improve my craft. Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook is a more work-a-day poetry book, but like Kooser’s there is much to be gained no matter what your form. Ray Bradbury’s little treasure Zen in the Art of Writing is brilliant and fun and something I return to again and again in order to remind myself why I love writing and all of the magic and joy it can bring. Finally I find great sources of timeless wisdom in reading artist’s letters. Although not specifically about writing, Van Gogh’s letters to his brother will put you in touch with the heart of an artist and all of its passion and thunder and terror, and likewise Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet is a wonderful thing to turn to in this age of the internet where introspection and solitude often elude the modern writer. I’ll leave you with a quote from a letter I found in Sherwood Anderson’s book, another intimate look at a writer and his thoughts on craft, A Story Teller’s Story:
From Petrarch’s Letter to Giovanni Boccaccio
Continued work and application form my soul’s nourishment. So soon as I commenced to rest and relax I should cease to live. I know my own powers. I am not fitted for other kinds of work, but my reading and writing, which you would have me discontinue, are easy tasks, nay, they are a delightful rest, and relieve the burden of heavier anxieties. There is no lighter burden, nor more agreeable, than a pen. Other pleasures fail us or wound us while they charm, but the pen we take up rejoicing and lay down with satisfaction, for it has the power to advantage not only its lord and master, but many others as well, even though they be far away — sometimes, indeed, though they be not born for thousands of years to come. I believe I speak but the strict truth when I claim that as there is none among earthly delights more noble than literature, so there is none so lasting, none gentler, or more faithful; there is none which accompanies its possessor through the vicissitudes of life at so small a cost of effort or anxiety.
Continue the work, enjoy your journey.
So I’ll turn it over to you:
- Did you start out writing poetry and move into fiction, or vice versa?
- If you write both, do you find the process vastly different or similar in nature?
- Can you see how the line is often blurred between a prose poem and flash fiction?
- Do you agree that learning poetry craft such as using concrete language can help your prose?
About Lou: Lou Freshwater loves literature (American in particular) and Existential philosophy, but not as much as she loves spicy food and the Delta Blues. She considers herself to be a life-long student of these and other things. She wrote a screenplay long ago, and she writes poetry and fiction at her blog and at Fictionaut. Her creative work has been published in numerous journals, and she has also published an essay on the Existentialism of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams in the Arthur Miller Journal. Her freelance writing and editing site is Not On A Map.
Poetry forces you to consider, not just every word, but every syllable. The cadences of writing poetry serve writers of fiction most immediately when writing dialogue, but broader fiction writing benefits from the distillation process inherent in poetry.
I wrote poems first as a kid, then prose later. Now, I spend most of my time on prose, but always make time for poetry. It's a necessary thing.
Flaubert weighed every syllable, every comma too. Fiction writers should, but Tony is right, poetry forces you to because that's what poetry is. Reading poetry is especially good for writers of short-short fiction. There's a new eJournal out called 5X5 that publishes stories consisting of exactly 5 sentences and 25 words. These kinds of constraints are similar to those of verse forms.
About prose poems and fiction: if you read the classic prose poems of Baudelaire they look just like today's flash fiction; some of them go on for 2 or more pages,are broken down into paragraphs and tell a simple story. What's the difference then? That's a very complex question, and there are probably many answers. But the primary differences for me are that prose poems most often do not rely on narrative whereas fiction most often does. Poetry often focuses on a very precise discrete moment. It can be a fleeting sensation or a hard-to-define emotion. The lens of fiction is often wider.
I've always written fiction as well as poetry but I feel more at home with poetry and I find the processes to be very different. In a nutshell, the poetry process feels much freer to me; I welcome much more ambiguity and abstract thought. This feeling of freedom extends to prose poetry or poetic fiction. I struggle more with story-telling, it's like putting a puzzle together.
(Ray Bradbury once compared writing to being "drunk and in charge of a bicycle.")
Well said, Mark and Tony. And thank you for the comments.
Just found this:
"I hear via a couple of attractive grapevines, that you are having trouble writing. God! I know this feeling so well. I think it is never coming back—but it does—one morning, there it is again.
About a year ago, Bob Anderson [the playwright] asked me for help in the same problem. I told him to write poetry—not for selling—not even for seeing—poetry to throw away. For poetry is the mathematics of writing and closely kin to music. And it is also the best therapy because sometimes the troubles come tumbling out.
Well, he did. For six months he did. And I have three joyous letters from him saying it worked. Just poetry—anything and not designed for a reader. It's a great and valuable privacy.
I only offer this if your dryness goes on too long and makes you too miserable. You may come out of it any day. I have. The words are fighting each other to get out."
Lou – This is a wonderful addition to your already terrific posts. Thanks so much for guest posting for us and adding this little gem to the discussion. I, for one, have mostly steered clear from poetry but you've convinced me to learn more about it and perhaps even try my hand at it. Thanks! -PJ