Writer as Sculptor

November 22, 2017 § 22 Comments

Jennifer Lang small head shotBy Jennifer Lang

After “So,” my 100-word story about a spontaneous moment when I hugged a stranger in a department store, appeared on Thread literary journal, I emailed the editor to thank her, explaining that I’d written it years ago, in a much longer version, but always found the story flat and uninspiring. For months, I’d worked on it with my writing group, seven CNF’ers who urged me to dig deeper, to reflect, to describe what had motivated me to open my arms to an inconnu. I edited, revised, tweaked: two pages turned into three then four and finally five. Initially, I titled it “Nothing to Lose,” reminiscent of my mother’s motto encouraging me to take chances. Eventually, I rewrote it in second person and called it “How to Hug a Stranger.” Regardless of how many times I described the scene or strengthened verbs, the heart of the story remained the same: lost.

Recently, a fellow writer shared her 100-word story, “Eighty,” on Thread. Her sparse prose sizzled with words like sweaty torso, toenails, lovemaking. I had a rare writerly epiphany, opened my stranger story, copied it into a new document, and went to work.

Like a stone carver, I began to chisel at my words using new and unfamiliar tools. With a point in hand, I removed the primary bulk material, the excess about my mother’s maxim, about the steamy summer weather, about another woman who had addressed the stranger and me during our embrace. I removed all the forced reflection, the blah blah blah behind my boldness. Next, I aimed the rake—a flat, straight chisel with slightly beveled teeth—at the setting to scrape away unnecessary words, leaving the basics: the base of a Macy’s denim display. I repeated the same raking movement with the stranger, describing her minimally: head bowed, sunglasses shielding her eyes, crouched, dark circles, disheveled hair, hospital visitor sticker, rumpled t-shirt. Then, I wielded the flat straight chisel, the finishing tool with a slight bevel, to rasp and sand the action: I open my arms. She steps into my embrace, and we are like awkward teenagers, slow dancing. I scraped and scraped at dialogue, deleting what I said as I approached her—that she looked like she needed a hug that I couldn’t leave the store without knowing if she was okay that she could squeeze me harder that I wouldn’t break. I scraped more, deleting what she said repeatedly: “You’re so sweet.” By the end, I was left with the six words the stranger said in my arms: “My mom’s dying. I’m so sad.”

After each phase, I counted words and watched them dwindle from 1236 to 484 to 255 to 139. I started anew—carve, chisel, scrape, finish, rasp, sand—until I reached my word-count goal. Each one depended on the next. Each one carried its own weight. Each one mattered. Together, they surprised me in a way most of my longer prose doesn’t.

This month, while aspiring novelists participate in NaNoWriMo, I’m participating in a unique flash forum: an exercise in accountability with a small group of English-speaking writers of all genres around Israel. I didn’t initiate it; I don’t even know the other writers. Every day, we email with the date and under 1000 words. There is no obligation to read or respond, simply to show up and share. For thirty days, I will put forth my best flash with no expectation except of myself: to sculpt my prose once, twice, probably a few more times until the heart story sparkles.
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Jennifer Lang’s essays have appeared in Under the Sun, Assay, Ascent, The Coachella Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Full Grown People. Honors include Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominations and finalist in 2017 Crab Orchard Review’s Literary Nonfiction Contest. Find her at http://israelwritersalon.com and follow her @JenLangWrites as she writes her first memoir.

Stop Making Sense

November 21, 2017 § 26 Comments

Have we got an offer for you!

Black and white picture of David Byrne dancing in a boxy oversized suit from the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense

How did I get here?

Would you like to improve your writing craft today? By, say, 10%?

This doesn’t apply to everyone of course, but after editing essays and books and posts for the Brevity blog, for experienced writers and new writers and everyone in between, I’ve noticed a lot of repetition.

Not from book to book, although I see that. Not even from paragraph to paragraph, although I see that too.

Within the same sentence.

Sometimes it’s telling as well as showing:

He looked like an old man with his grey hair and gnarled hands.

Tell it once:

His hands were gnarled.

Better yet, show it in an action:

He ran a gnarled hand through his grey hair.

He picked at the tablecloth with a gnarled hand.

Sometimes it’s showing the same thing multiple times:

Jane patted my shoulder, gently massaging my arm to calm me down as she said, “Shhh, there, there.”

Show it once:

Jane rubbed my shoulder. “Shh, there, there.”

(Using an action as a dialogue tag is a great way to avoid repeating information.)

Sometimes it’s a festive riot of showing, telling, and over-explaining:

I picked up my phone and texted my boyfriend:

Mike rhutho wywugeybk ajboaubuo huhis ihi abidvyts

Although the only thing I spelled correctly was his name, when I sent him the text I thought it was very clear.

 Pare it down:

I texted my boyfriend:

Mike rhutho wywugeybk ajboaubuo huhis ihi abidvyts

I thought it was very clear.

Texting implies the phone is in the narrator’s hand. There’s comedy in the juxtaposition of the garbled text and “I thought it was very clear.”

As writers, we worry we’re not good enough to get our point across in fewer words. That our audience won’t “get it.” As memoirists, this hits even closer to home—what if someone reads my book and they don’t understand me? What if I don’t sound logical, or reasonable? What if I don’t make sense?

But spelling everything out distances the reader. Instead of offering the whole picture, spread out the pieces. Putting together clues to understand behavior, noticing dialogue and actions that seemingly contradict each other, guessing a character’s thoughts from their gestures—all these moments of detective work engage the reader more fully in the story. Don’t lay the evidence out neatly with an explanation—let them meet you on the page to investigate the scene of the crime.

This also applies to “filtering”:

I looked at James as he stomped over.

I knew his balled-up fists meant trouble, and I felt terrified.

I heard him shout my name.

“Looked,” “felt,” and “heard,” all remind the reader, “There’s a narrator seeing and feeling and hearing these things. You’re reading a book.”

James stomped over, his fists ready for trouble. “Caroline!”

Removing the filtering lets the reader imagine themselves in the narrator’s shoes. It’s subtle, but it puts the reader a tiny bit more in the emotion of the scene. It lets them feel for us, instead of telling them what we felt.

If you’re having a wildly creative day, by all means go generate new material. But if you’re having a day where you should do some writing…and you’ll feel better if you do…but it’s all kind of looking like a slog—start slogging. Pick some pages and use the Find tool to spot “looked” “felt” “heard” “thought” and variations on those verbs. Ask of each one, “Do I really need you here?” Scan your sentences for repetitions and over-explaining. Ask in each place, “Can I make the reader work a little harder?”

It’s not our job to make everything make sense. Our job is to lay out enticing clues and let the reader solve the puzzle with us. To immerse them in our world–but learning, feeling, and making their own sense.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Sign up for her bimonthly travel and writing newsletter here.

Photo credit: Cinecom Int’/Island Alive/REX/Shutterstock (5871592c)

Let It Flow: Writing Without Editing

November 7, 2017 § 16 Comments

Last week in my workshop on self-editing at Mid-American Review’s Winter Wheat Festival of Writing, writer Terry Korth Fischer asked a great question:

How do you stop editing as you write?

I was a little confused by this question, because that’s normally not my problem. (My problem is Ass In Chair.) But everyone else in the room nodded–How to avoid editing ourselves in early drafts? How to keep the writing flow going without second-guessing every word?

Online, there’s some common solutions to compulsive self-editing:

Turn off your monitor. I think I’d freak out and have to keep turning it on to hit “save” every minute. For fabulous touch-typists maybe?

Start each day with a fresh page–at the end of a writing session, copy the last sentence into a new document along with some instructions to yourself about what’s next. Next session, start from there.

Write with a timer. Don’t stop or go back until the timer rings. Suzanne Roberts does a variation on this: for dedicated writing time, she sets a timer for an hour. If she checks social media, gets lost in research or leaves the chair, she restarts the timer. Maybe restarting the timer on each edit could break the habit?

Write by hand. It’s harder to delete pen on paper.

…I don’t do any of those things. What keeps me from self-editing too early?

Replacement Habits.

Whether we’re quitting smoking or unhealthy eating or nail-biting (guilty!), it’s hard to replace a habit with nothing. First ask, what problem is the existing habit fixing?

Our brain nags to edit because we’re afraid. Anne Lamott says,

I’d write a first draft that was maybe twice as long as it should be, with a self-indulgent and boring beginning, stupefying descriptions […] and no ending to speak of. The whole thing would be so long and incoherent and hideous that for the rest of the day I’d obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft. I’d worry that people would read what I’d written and believe that the accident had really been a suicide, that I had panicked because my talent was waning and my mind was shot.

We’re afraid if we don’t stop and fix it RIGHT NOW, it’s going to be terrible forever. How can we reassure our tiny, frightened lizard brain, “It’s OK, I’m going to come back to it, I promise”?

What works for me:

  1. Edit first. For ongoing projects, I spend the first 15-20 minutes reviewing yesterday’s work. Tweaking words and sentences helps me get back into the flow of the story. I rarely do a massive rewrite–if something’s pretty bad, I’ll start the scene again from a different angle, or accept the challenge to write a new scene addressing the problems in yesterday’s work.
  2. Work on deadline. Most of my Brevity blogs get written about two hours before going live. My newsletter stories go out bimonthly. I feel worse about being late than being imperfect.
  3. Placeholders. More research needed? Type LOOK UP COURT MANNERS. Not emotionally ready to dive into a memoir moment? NEED SCENE WITH MOM IN KITCHEN HERE. Sometimes I highlight the placeholder, or put XXX on either side so it’s easy to find in the next draft.
  4. Look ahead. The work I did yesterday can be bad–terrible, even. Because I’m not promising every word a place in the next draft. I already know I’ll be cutting whole chapters and rearranging paragraphs. That lowers the “fix it now!” urge.
  5. Plan to practice. Musicians painstakingly learn plenty of music they’ll never record. Artists fill pages with drawings they’ll never work on again (in fact, they have pads full of newsprint to sketch without wasting expensive paper). Dancers who don’t perform classical work still show up at the ballet barre to maintain their technique. Why should writers be exempt from skill development? Why not write pages and pages of a novel or memoir that are simply “practice” and not an early draft of something great? Why not intentionally write some essays that never get edited, that stop at a first or second draft? Every other artist spends time on foundations that don’t directly build a final piece, why should we get to skip skill development?

Whatever tips and tricks we use to stop editing as we go, it boils down to this: Let go of the dream of being perfect. Inside all our hearts is a tiny hope:

I’m going to make something beautiful, on the first try, without working very hard for it. My emotional experience and love of story will compensate for any lack of skill or coherence. I’m entitled to have my thoughts come out exactly right on the page, the first time, and as long as I’m still messing with it, it’s still the first time.

It doesn’t work that way.

We know it doesn’t.

Let it go.

Let it flow.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her email essays come out twice a month, imperfect but on time–sign up here.

You Already Know

October 24, 2017 § 8 Comments

Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in the green velvet dress she made of curtains

This world situation is really interfering with her personal journey

(In which Katniss, Shrek and Scarlett O’Hara teach us about using larger social issues in memoir.)

Writer Stephanie Andersen and I were emailing about structure in memoir. We’d looked at the idea of ‘stasis’—that almost all books begin with an intolerable existing situation, something the protagonist must fight against and change.

Stephanie asked,

Is the intolerable situation the larger situation for the world, or should it be an intolerable situation for the protagonist?

For instance, is Shrek’s stasis the fact that fairy tale creatures are being bought and sold and mistreated? Or is his intolerable situation when the fairy tale creatures are dropped off in his swamp?  Is Scarlett O’Hara’s intolerable situation the fact that Ashley Wilkes is marrying Melanie Hamilton, or is it the Civil War?

We already know the answer, right?

It’s when it gets personal. When the bad world-situation personally affects the protagonist, giving them a strong motivation to act.

In a weird way, Scarlett survives the Civil War because she can’t let go of her hope to get with Ashley. Every decision she makes is based on the answer to “Will this get me closer to Ashley?” Many of the events of Gone With the Wind* happen in Atlanta because it’s a place where the war was especially bad, but the events are happening to and around Scarlett because she moved there to be closer (by proxy) to Ashley.

Scarlett’s intolerable situation isn’t “There’s a big war changing my life.” It’s “The one man I really want doesn’t want me.” Ashley’s wife Melanie, the war, and Scarlett’s own stubbornness are all obstacles of about equal weight—i.e., escaping the burning of Atlanta stops her from getting to Ashley, but so does Melanie being super nice and sweet in a way that keeps unintentionally thwarting Scarlett.

The war triggers the plot, because that’s when and why Ashley chooses Melanie, but it’s not what Scarlett is fighting against.

Is the intolerable situation in All the Light We Cannot See the war itself, the savagery of the world?  Or is the intolerable situation Werner’s? That he cannot bear the thought of ending up in the coal mines? That he doesn’t want to die in darkness?  You see where I’m going?

I haven’t read All The Light We Cannot See, but as an editor, I’d go with the personal. Let’s take a big literary sidestep to The Hunger Games. “This is a world that kills children on TV” is a horrible stasis for the country. But what makes the book Katniss’ story—what interrupts the stasis—is “This is a world that picks my sister to be killed on TV.” If anyone else’s name came out of the bowl, Katniss would feel bad and the story would be over at the end of Chapter One.

If your memoir or essay deals with a larger issue—recovery, a tragic accident, poverty —look for the key moment where the badness of the world intersects directly with the protagonist’s life. Watch for the big-picture place where the hero’s personal breaking point leads them to take an action toward a personal goal that also leads to changing the intolerable larger-world situation around them. In memoir, this is often a change in the protagonist’s relationship to the world, rather than changing the world itself. For example, an alcoholic’s recovery narrative isn’t going to end in a world without alcohol—but the protagonist has changed their own relationship to the world, so their worldview now shows other options/other modes of living. They have changed the world as they see it, and they’ve broken the stasis that gave them an intolerable situation at the beginning of the book.

Stephanie got specific (and gave me her permission to write this post):

I’m thinking about my memoir about my mother’s rape and wanting to know if I should frame the story about discovering my mother’s rape within the context of a world where women are often silent about their rapes or within the confines of my own world–where I long for my mother’s truth, her story, and to understand her silence.

Gentle Blog Reader, can you hear it? Stephanie already knows the answer. It’s right there in the question.

My memoir…where I long for my mother’s truth, her story, and to understand her silence.

So powerful.

And the larger context is there, of course—we can’t have the Hunger Games without the Games—but her memoir is about the intersection where her life is directly affected by the way rape silence exists in the larger world. The bad stasis is not that all women are silent—it’s that she discovered silence in her mother. It’s personal.

If you’re writing memoir against the background of a larger issue, definitely set up that larger situational stasis. It’s world-building—another useful concept from fiction—but for nonfiction. But your story isn’t the story of the world. It’s the story of how that situation personally made your life intolerable, and how you fought for change.

If you’re wondering how to find that intersection, read your query, or your pitch, or a paragraph summarizing your idea. What’s the stasis of the world? How does that directly affect the narrator? Chances are good the answer is right there on the page. Inside the big picture is the key moment where the issue intersects your life and starts your journey. It may take some time and thought, but listen to yourself.

You already know.

*(BTW blog readers, GWTW makes a good example but is (as you also already know) hugely problematic. There’s a great essay at Slate about how modern cinemas are handling the legendary-movie-vs-huge-racism issue).

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Stephanie J. Andersen‘s work has appeared in Hippocampus; Brain, Child; and Stoneboat Literary. Find her on Twitter @StephJoyWriter.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and hosts the Brevity Podcast. Sign up to receive her writing&travel newsletter at TinyLetter.

Listen Up

October 19, 2017 § 12 Comments

Yes, I should pause there…

When I teach a workshop, I like to audiotape it. Partly so I can send the recording to the class, which takes some of the stress off taking notes and lets everyone participate a little bit more. But also because ItalkamillionmilesanhourifIdon’tstopmyself.

The same thing applies to readings–when I head up for the podium, I leave my phone voice recorder running at my seat. After, I can listen–did I pause in the right places? Was there audience laughter I didn’t make room for? Often, just glancing back at my chair, seeing the phone there, reminds me slow down. Take a breath.

It’s valuable to listen to our own voices. Find out how long that piece really is with audience reactions in it. See if we really sound like a dork (spoiler: usually no). If the recorder is in the audience, it often picks up the kind of supportive murmurs and agreement breaths listeners make when we’re enjoying a story. Those noises aren’t always easy to hear in the moment, when we’re stressed about getting through a piece. And it’s always awesome to re-listen to applause.

As well as being a great tool to improve our own reading, there are places to submit audio stories. The Drum is a fantastic audio literary magazine, and Story Club specializes in nonfiction performance, with the author setting the text after a live show. The Brevity Podcast will be calling for One-Minute Memoirs next week. For all of these, you don’t have to be an audio whiz, but a few simple tricks will help you sound your best.

Check your phone. Phones usually record better than computers if you’re not using a separate microphone, and you probably have a native Voice Memos or Voice Recorder app. On most phones from the last three years, the built-in mic is good enough to get decent live-audience audio, and decent-to-good private taping. Look up where the mic is physically located on your phone, and point that end toward the reader. Try a couple of test recordings to see how close you want to hold it to your face–usually 4-6 inches away is good.

Check your app. On my iPhone, the Voice Memos app keeps going even when the screen locks or if I open another app. But when I’m doing more sophisticated recording with a plug-in microphone and an app called Motiv, the recording stops if the screen goes dark. I found that out the hard, embarrassing, can-I-please-interview-you-again way. Now I turn screen lock to “never” and put the phone in airplane mode. Some phones also stop recording if someone calls or texts. Find out for sure–or just put it in airplane every time.

Pad your space. Recordings are better with less echo. In a public reading, this is out of our control. Setting the phone on a wooden or plastic surface is better than a metal folding chair (they give a slight echo), but it’s not going to make a huge difference for personal recordings. If you’re taping for submission–like, say, the upcoming Brevity call for One-Minute Memoir–test the first paragraph in a couple of spaces to see what sounds best. Rooms with carpet, lower ceilings, and soft furniture work best. Walk-in closets are great. In a pinch, I record in my car (parked and turned off, until it gets so hot I have to take a break) or with a blanket or towel over my head. (Table fort, anyone?)

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. I always bobble on a few words the first time I read an essay aloud. Plus, speaking into the recorder affects my pace. I try to tape a reading at least three times. Even if I can’t edit, I can at least pick the best take.

Whether you post or submit your work, or just listen for your own edification, taping is a great way to see how you sound. Often, extra lines or awkward phrases jump right out from the audio, or we instinctively smooth out a sentence as we speak it. Why not give it a test run? We’re hoping to hear from you soon, and we’ll tell you how and what next week!

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Allison K Williams hosts the Brevity Podcast. Her most recently available audio class is Write Better with Social Media.

Omit Needless Words: How I Learned to Write with Brevity

October 12, 2017 § 28 Comments

By Ryder S. Ziebarth

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., edited by E. B. White.

In 1974, my Journalism 101 professor gave only two pieces of required reading: the local city newspaper, and The Elements of Style.

One book. One daily.

What could be easier?

Turned out, a lot of things. Concise writing takes diligence, skill, and patience. Three things I lacked as a college sophomore. But I pecked away on my typewriter, practicing every day, until I finally scored a coveted reporter’s job, the first of many.

Thirty years later, resurrecting my writing career, I faced a no-nonsense adjunct teaching The Art of Flash Nonfiction. She required we start small—only 250 words written to prompts she provided the first week, 500 words the next week, then 750, until we reached a polished 1000-word essay by the end of the semester. Plus we would read a series of essays from a website called Brevity. We could email her brief questions only if absolutely necessary.

A thousand words. On-line reading.

What could be easier?

She passed out a Brevity essay, Debra Marquart’s Hochzeit.  “Read the essay to yourselves,” she said, “then tell me what’s different about it.”

The story swirled in front of my eyes in a whirlwind of colors, sounds, flavors and scents, as the author remembers a family wedding from her childhood. Thirty-nine sentences in seven meager paragraphs transported me to a Polka hall in the Midwest, the beat and bellow of pumping accordions, “whoops and yips” from spinning dancers in their flared skirts and beribboned finery, and the burning sweetness of “gold pools of wedding whiskey.”

Marquart’s writing was different from anything I’d read. It wasn’t your standard nonfiction piece, it wasn’t journalism—even if you could measure it in column inches, and it wasn’t the New Journalism the old me left behind decades ago. I needed to know why the piece left such a visceral impact on me.

When the instructor asked what we thought, my hand crept up. “The writer omitted needless words?”

“Yes. That’s one thing. Thank you, E.B. White. Anyone else?” The class tittered.

“The who, what, when, where, and sometimes why, are clearly up front,” I added, reaching back to the first rules I learned about newspaper reporting.

“Yes,” she said, “but what else. Anyone besides Ryder?”

I sunk back down in my hard plastic chair. What exactly was it about Marquart’s essay that had awakened me?

Our assignment for the week was to write two 250-word essays. If they were one word over, they would not be read or graded. We were given more essays from Brevity—Anne Panning’s Candy Cigarettes; Sarah Lin’s Devotion; Erika Dreifus’ Before Sunrise—to study for style, voice, metaphor, lyricism. Carefully. If we did not understand the terminology we were to email her—briefly—before the next class.

For seven long days, I slaved over my two pieces, editing and re-editing. I dissected the reading assignments like a frog in freshman biology, peeling back each story’s tiny skin layer by layer. First the story line, then the structure, finally the writer’s word choices. I searched for every metaphor, each simile, every omitted word. What was it about these little essays that left me with a feeling of such grandiosity in so few words?

It came to me on the seventh day—driving the twenty miles to campus alone, windows rolled down to bright September. My eyes took in the reds, golds and oranges of the maple leaves flickering across my windshield, backlit by a sky the color of the bluest sea. The sun shone on my arm resting on the open window, the last of summer falling onto my Shetland sweater. Finally, I understood. It was the smaller details that made the larger story.

After we handed in our assignments, the instructor asked what we’d learned reading and writing short prose. I shot up my hand.

“Yes?” she said, sighing a little.

“The words seemed hand-chosen, cherry-picked, then boiled down to extract only the most essential details. The writer shows the reader a dreamlike memory, crystal clear in the telling.”

“Bingo!” she said and smiled broadly.

Two semesters later, I entered a Brevity Blog contest and won second place. The first person I emailed was my instructor. Writing, I realized, is not just about following style books and memorizing classroom notes. When you omit the needless, you choose the necessary– and sometimes, that is one perfect ray of sun falling on the back of your hand.

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Ryder S. Ziebarth runs the Cedar Ridge Writers Series and blogs for Proximity. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and served as an Associate editor of Tiferet Journal. Her work has appeared in Brevity, N Magazine, The New York Times, The Writer’s Circle, Tiferet, and many other other blogs, newspapers and online journals.

My Affair with the Sentence

October 11, 2017 § 10 Comments

22282109_359766681112308_5299649755912659950_n(1)By Beth Ann Fennelly 

After many years of a fairly monogamous relationship with poetry, I began a flirtation with prose. Now it’s a full-blown affair. My newest book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, is a collection of little bite-sized stories about my life. Some of them are a sentence, some a paragraph, or a few. At times, when I was trying to publish them, my husband (also a writer) would call my attention to a prose poem contest, asking, “Why not send in your new pieces?”  My refusal was knee-jerk: my pieces weren’t poetry. “Does it matter?” he’d ask, genuinely curious.  It mattered, curiously. Memoir had allowed me access to material previously unavailable through poetry, and I wanted to credit the genre. Why, though, did writing in sentences as opposed to lines make a difference?

*

The line versus the sentence: this distinction would seem twee to those who aren’t obsessed with words, who assume lines are chopped-up sentences. But those of us who are obsessed with words know the distinction changes not only how but what we write. After all, if lines were merely chopped-up sentences, and line breaks merely visual, we could delete them with no change to the material. But when losing the line break, we lose the white space that shapes the way we process meaning. Line breaks provide a rest, so the words on either side of the rest can require more effort in the processing of lyricism, tropes, syntax, and sound. These resting places—like stair landings in a walk-up—interrupt the exertion with a breather (literally), and so give us the strength to keep climbing. Without them, too much is demanded of us, so our absorption is hindered.

The poetic line also affects the reader because it highlights the artfulness and artifice of the experience of reading, as opposed to the sentence, which distracts us from it. The line, followed by its white space, metes out comprehension, followed by its disruption. The power play of the line break is that of withholding. We’re never unaware that our experience is being modulated by another as we follow the choreographer’s orders to leap and rest, leap and rest. This is fundamentally different than how prose pours itself into the vase of the page. Here, says the line, Now we are here. Now we are here. But everywhere, says the sentence. You are everywhere and nowhere. The sentence is always pointing outside of itself. This is what Cole Swenson means, I believe, when she writes “Prose exists somewhere other than the page.”

And, lastly, the line’s tension is different from the sentence’s tension. Tension in the line occurs as the unfurling sentence is interrupted by caesura and line breaks. These two forces, the force that pushes and the one that retards, become the warp and weft on which the skilled poet manipulates rhythm. Let’s compare this to how the engine of the sentence moves us. With prose, the rhythms are steadier, the goal accumulation. Chris Forhan, another poet-turned-memoirist, says on LitHub that “When writing prose, I can often afford to work at a lower idle.”  Indeed, the locomotive and the long distance car trip are frequent comparisons for prose, which feels horizontal, not vertical.

And all this influences the “what” we write. Without the push-and-pull of line breaks, the act of reading becomes less conscious. The physicality of reading–the eyes yanking back to the left margin, while the ear and brain rush toward comprehension–is lessened. As a result we’re less bolted to the moment, which is to say, the lyric impulse. The tension of prose takes place on a wider tapestry, the warp and weft tightening not over the course of a single line but as momentum builds toward and is delayed from its destination. Prose is more interested with the future, and sometimes the past, connected to the present, which is to say, plot. Prose is less about relating shifting parts of a sentence into a coherent now, and more about relating the shifting now to a coherent then, and then, and then, which better accommodates the narrative impulse.
*

So, how did the rhythm of the sentence allow me access to experiences I hadn’t accessed with poetry?  I made that long-distance road trip into the past and stayed there longer than I would have with the line’s leaping insistence. By idling there, the past revealed its intricacies, fleshed out in a way that let me see how rich and detailed those memories were. The unfolding energy of the “and then” construction demanded these moments link up with a future, thus providing prospective. The person who lived those past moments, the “I of the then,” as Sven Birkerts terms it in The Art of Time in Memoir, intersected with “the I of the now.”  For example, my whole life I’ve heard how, when I was two, my four-year-old sister cut off my curls and eyelashes with safety scissors. This oft-repeated Fennelly family anecdote was not one I ever explored in poetry. But the fishing line of the sentence, cast back into the pool of 1973, lingering there, allowed me to sound the depths of that memory. As it turned out, there was something troubling about how that experience links up to our current relationship. There was a genuine question I needed to answer that the anecdote elided and the poetic line might have yanked me out of. The sentence got me there, inviting me to linger until I’d made the connection.

So I’m grateful to the sentence and all I’ve learned from it, all I continue to learn. Don’t tell poetry, but, at least for now, my love affair with the sentence shows no signs of fizzling.

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Beth Ann Fennelly is the poet laureate of Mississippi.  Her book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, is out this month from W.W. Norton.

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