Notes on Writing “Accident” by John Calderazzo
September 18, 2008 § 6 Comments
John Calderazzo shares some thoughts about his essay “Accident” in Brevity 28:
A funny thing happened to me a few years ago as I sat in the back row of a beginning creative writing class taught by a Colorado State University graduate student of mine. He’d invited me to observe him so that I could write a letter of recommendation that spoke to his teaching skills. So I sat in the back, in silence, taking notes and doing whatever he asked the class to do. Which on this afternoon was to write a poem that grew out of some very good sound exercises he had just run us through.
Once, in my twenties, I considered myself a poet, and I’d even published a chapbook from those intense and confused young man days. Then I decided that prose was my bag, the natural register of my writing voice. First it was fiction and then, overwhelmingly, nonfiction, and I had been writing magazine pieces, essays, and books ever since. “Ever since” meant a good twenty-five years.
So I have to say that I was shocked to see, and then feel, the poem that I dutifully started morph line by line and image by image into something that I could feel with my entire body. It was like watching a muscular stallion clop tranquilly by, then climbing on and taking off with him over the countryside, leaping ditches and flying towards the horizon, even though I barely knew how to ride. Scribbling very fast, I wrote right past the bottom of my legal pad and onto the desk top—well, maybe I put another sheet of paper down first (I’m writing nonfiction here, after all). But it sure felt like I’d flown off the page.
The next morning I was up before 5, writing more poetry. Same thing the next morning and the next . . . and now, a couple of years later, I have a poetry manuscript, culled from about 200 new poems, that I’m about to send out. I am still shocked by this.
But I’m not shocked that, along the way, a few of my poems came out sounding like narrative nonfiction. I mean especially some of the ones in which the “I” is “really” me and the facts are all verifiably true. This was almost the case with “Accident.” Based on an incident that occurred about two weeks before I sat down to write, I conceived it as poem. All the facts were true except one: the overturned, gasoline-smelling car never burst into flames. In my poem I made it do that because that was exactly what I thought might happen at the time. So if I wanted that car to burn, it would burn.
But when I decided to see what the piece looked like in paragraphs and then decided to make it nonfiction, I had to douse those poetic flames, so to speak. Thus the phrase, “In my mind’s eye . . .”
And thus this nonfiction short-short for Brevity.