I’ve been burning the midnight writing oil, cranking out over 3K/day for the last week, bringing the WIP to a dramatic finale. As a result, my brain is mushy, and you get a little something from my archives. It’s one of my favorite pieces, and something I still mightily believe. Enjoy!
The moon, the dried weeds/ and the Pleiades
Or, How Reading Poetry Improves Your Writing
My day began out on the patio with a cup of coffee and William Carlos Williams. So many great poems, so many great lines, but this one really struck.* Why? I don’t know for sure, but I was right there. With eight short words, Williams pulled me from my warm, madly blooming garden and transported me to the dark edge of a winter-struck field beneath a vast sky.
Poets are masters at capturing a moment, a feeling, an image, and bringing it to life on the page. They have all sorts of tricks up their sleeves – the so-called poetic devices – like syntax, meter, alliteration, symbolism, rhythm and metapors (extended or not). As novelists, we can tap these too, using them (wisely) to enrich our prose and strengthen our voice without (hopefully/ideally) overwhelming the narrative.
But the poets I love most have a certain genius with imagery. They’re the ones who can, with often the most spartan and simple language, trigger a visceral response – a physical or cosmic Ah-hah! – in me. With a few swift, sure strokes, they can paint a mental picture so vivid and pure it nearly knocks me breathless. When I come across a line like this *points up*, I pause. Re-read. Think about it. Read it again. If I can’t figure out why it hit me exactly the way it did, I still come away from it with a newfound respect for the power of words, and for those who wield them like masters.
I try to hold onto that sensibility when I’m setting a scene. Thanks to my poetry habit, I know how powerful even the simplest and cleanest of words can be when they’re put in the right contex. I believe the ones you choose can and should convey tone, sense of place and the emotional state of the protagonist, not just describe the room or the street or whatever – in as few words as possible. Sure, I could take three pages to describe a wagon passing by on a dirt road ala Faulkner in Light in August, but since I’m writing genre YA, I’m likely to lose my audience by the third paragraph. So I challenge myself to keep my imagery tight and sharp, with just enough sensory input to tow the reader completely into the scene. I try to pull this off in two sentences or less, somewhere in the first paragraph of a chapter. I can sprinkle more imagery in as the action rolls forward, but if I’ve done my job, I’ve snagged you right there at the beginning. I’ve pulled you out of your reality and into mine, and you find yourself standing at the dark edge of a winter-struck field beneath a vast sky…
Poetry. Read it, people. It’s good for your soul, great for your writing, and nothing on earth goes better with that first, steaming cup of coffee. 😀
*From “The Descent of Winter, 11/1”