Why Good Writing Begins and Ends in Poetry

About 15 years ago, as I worked on the final stages of my dissertation, I often got stuck (as people working on dissertations tend to). Sometimes days would pass without my producing anything. But eventually, I would remember my foolproof method for getting unstuck: reading and writing poetry.

Let me note for clarification that poetry had nothing to do with my dissertation subject. I wrote a very social-sciency study of students in a freshman composition class. From a semester of observing, reading papers, and interviewing students, I crafted a set of case studies trying to explain why some of the students gained more than others. My final product reads way more like anthropology than it does like Nikki Giovanni.

Nevertheless, I turned to poetry while I wrote, as I have turned to it many times before and since. And wherever I see brilliance in writing, I find elements of the poetic. From the Preamble to the Constitution to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, from Dashiell Hammett to Lorraine Hansberry, from Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting to a Chris Rock monologue, where language engages and moves, entertains and enlightens, poetry is at work.

These days, we ghettoize poetry as the realm of emotional expression; poets, according to that thinking, are rarified “artists” who create through inspiration or some inscrutable gift. Poetry is a dense and tangled garden in which the creative hide “themes” and “symbols.” Or we denigrate poetry as “flowery,” forgetting that without flowering plants, much of the food we eat would not exist.

But ultimately poetry turns on precise language. And using language precisely means employing all of the facets of words, not only their literal or denotative meaning but also a word’s history, its connotations, its sound, and all the other associations it evokes. Whenever a writer concerns herself with how the reader will respond to the words themselves—that is, with aesthetics—she has entered the realm of the poetic.

For much of history and around the world, poetry served as the dominant genre, and not just in texts we would now call “literary.” Historians, politicians, educators, theologians, and cultural critics of every stripe and in every culture have used poems to argue, to advocate, to persuade, to philosophize, to rouse people to action. Even today, much of the multi-billion dollar industry of advertising used poetic strategies and techniques, if not outright poetic forms.

In fact, I believe that the false (and common) separation of the practical and the aesthetic (rhetoric from poetry, art from science, art from technology) constitutes one of the greatest disasters in human history. It has meant that we devise “things” (a machine, a policy, a law, a building, a system) to do something without considering how we (people, living things, our environment) will experience what’s being created or devised.

This was, ultimately, the brilliance of someone like Steve Jobs—like him or not. He relentlessly, obsessively considered how the users of his technological products would experience them, not just in terms of ease but in terms of engagement. He didn’t simply ask, “Does it work?” He also asked, “What kind of relationship with the user will it foster?” He thought poetically. The writing that I admire most does the same thing. It creates an engaging experience with the reader. It creates a relationship between the reader and the text that generates attention and trust.

For that reason, to this day, when my writing well runs dry, I turn to poetry. As in the days of my dissertation, I find that when I struggle to bring a stubborn concept to the surface, casting it in poetry and letting in sound and rhythm helps me clarify what I really mean. Or I open a book by one of my favorite poets (Dickinson, Shakespeare, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Stafford, C.P. Kavafy) and remember that language is much more flexible and expansive than I’m allowing myself to be.

I’m not trying to create great poems; I’m simply returning to the poetic heart of all good writing.

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Eight Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me, Part 2

We sat, about 20 or so of us, at our desks in a classroom high in Kansas University’s Flint Hall. A bank of windows offered a beautiful view of the Wakarusa River valley, but out attention was directed at our professor, Susanne Shaw, giving a mock news conference about a fictitious house fire. She provided a set of details, and we were free to ask questions to clarify or elaborate on what she had told us. Then we had the rest of the class time to type our stories (Yes type! On manual typewriters, no less!), which we turned in at the end of the hour.

I suspect that every journalist remembers vividly the first time his or her story went under an editor’s knife. For me, that happened in Prof. Shaw’s Reporting I class in early 1980.

At our next class meeting, she returned our stories crisscrossed with so much red ink that they resembled crime scene photos. And in a way, they were. Aside from the typos, sentence structure problems, and various inaccuracies, most of my frustration came from seeing the wide gulf between what I thought I had understood and conveyed, and what I had actually rendered on the page. In short, I had failed to create for the reader the drama and clarity I intended.

Often during my teaching, my students have made the same mistake. We’ve all had to learn that in writing what you mean to say or the experience you mean to create doesn’t matter. Only what you actually create does. Good writing doesn’t come from a great idea; it comes from a writer choosing the words, syntax, organizational structure, and content that compel the reader to keep reading.

In the quest to engage the reader, I have only those four tools—diction, syntax, structure, and content—at my disposal. But if I make the right choices about how to use those tools, they’re more than enough to meet the task. Journalism taught me that, in essence, composing is choosing. It’s not, though, a single creative act but a series of acts, demanding the interplay of sometimes contradictory skills: creating and critiquing, cutting and generating, playing and applying ruthless gravity. Which is another way of saying it’s a process that requires discipline.

Eight Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me, Part 1

I graduated from high school 35 years ago as a strong enough writer to escape first-year college composition and get into journalism school, but I didn’t really understand how to write well. Six and a half years later, when I left fulltime journalism (reluctantly—but that’s a story for another time), I had become a much stronger writer, but not from magical inspiration or newfound talent. Journalism forced me to compose more and work harder, and it made my writing process more conscious and deliberate. In high school, I could turn out a decent paper on demand, but through journalism, I began to learn what writing was and how to work on it; I learned how to experiment and play with words and clauses and phrases and sentences; and I learned that mastering the process would change what my writing could do for readers and what it could do for me. In the decades that have followed, as I’ve written fiction and poetry, edited technical manuals, composed a doctoral dissertation and other academic pieces, and worked as a college-level teacher and administrator, journalism formed the foundation of whatever success I’ve had. It certainly isn’t the only place to learn these lessons, but the more I developed as a writing teacher and administrator, the more I recognized that I kept drawing from this source.

So here I present the first of the eight essentials lessons I learned:

In June 1983, I stepped off the train and into a steamy Philadelphia summer to work as an intern on the business copy editing desk of The Philadelphia Inquirer. On my first day at work, my brilliant and affable copy desk chief, Jim Moffatt, gave me a button a couple of inches in diameter that read in capital, multicolored letters, “ PYIRP.” I found out that this stood for “Put Yourself In the Reader’s Place.”

Moff reminded all of us on the copy desk that whatever the newspaper’s writers and columnists had in mind, those of us on the desk had one primary job: to stand in for the reader who would pick up the Inquirer at a newsstand or from her front stoop and make sure what she read was as accurate and understandable and engaging as we could make it.

From then on, I tried to practice what Moff preached, but decades passed before its significance sank in, and it took even longer before I consciously made it the core of how I define writing: To write is to create an experience—made of words, sentences, a structure, and content—that engages the reader.

Of course, written texts achieve (or attempt to achieve) all sorts of other aims. They persuade, entertain, energize, inspire, disturb, provoke. But if what I write doesn’t manage to elbow its way to the forefront of a reader’s attention, it won’t achieve anything else. I’ve found that this holds true even when I write exclusively for myself. The ideas, phrases, vignettes, descriptions, and other bits and pieces I (as writer) have put down in my journals and notebooks over the years were recorded so that I could re-experience them in a particular way later as a reader.

This became clearer to me years later when I taught writing to college students. I discovered that no matter how technically clean the writing, something often seemed missing from my students’ work, and I discovered it was this: They had no particular intentions for what they hoped to accomplish with their readers; in fact, they generally had no sense of the reader at all. Instead they fashioned packets of information with no purpose beyond generating the number of words the assignment required. But they failed to imagine the possible responses of actual human beings to what they might say or how they might say it.

At that point, I understood consciously what before then had only driven my work implicitly: The attempt to engage particular readers in particular ways for particular purposes had shaped my decisions, had helped me choose which words and which combinations and what details to include, and these had given my writing the coherence and direction that made it work.

And this backbone has structured my own writing, and my work with other writers, ever since.

Where I’m writing to

I have no idea. No, that isn’t quite right: I have no consistent idea. Sometimes I think I’m writing to my wife or to my children, either now or in the future. Or to my parents or siblings or ancestors in the past. Sometimes I entertain myself with thinking of writing to a massive audience of readers, either now or in the future—preferably while I’m still alive. Sometimes I think I’m writing to one of the many versions of myself, but they disagree so that no matter which version I make happy I leave at least a half dozen others frustrated or angry or heartbroken.

Mostly, though, when it works, I think I write to a sensation. It feels like my legs at the end of a speedwork session on a track or a treadmill, when I’ve run hard, then rested a bit, then run hard, then rested a bit, on and on like that for four or six or eight repetitions. And each time the rest part ends and the hard bit is about to begin again, a twinge of fear grips me about whether I’ll be able to stand the hard bit, but I start running hard anyway. Each time the twinge and then the pushing through it. And when I finish the last one, my legs weak and my lungs struggling for breath again and my skin looking like I’ve stepped from a shower and the lenses of my glasses flecked with sweat and dried sweat, and I want to leap in fatigued satisfaction.

When the writing works, the words hit the page or I tweak them this way or that, and seeing them in the daylight I almost gasp in a fear that says, “Shit, did you really just do that?” and then I know that I had to put it exactly that way and that it never would have occurred to me before I put it that way that that was exactly how it should be said.

I’m writing to the payoff of uncertainty. Writing for a payoff isn’t hard; I spend most of my time trying to get the payoff (or possible payoff) out of my head. Writing to uncertainty is hard, but most of the time I don’t have any choice because certainty isn’t really what I’m after; most of the time, I reside in uncertainty uncomfortably but by choice. And most of the time, uncertainty doesn’t pay off, or it does but I don’t recognize it because it doesn’t look like what I wanted.

Every once in a while, though, uncertainty does pay off in a way so visceral and explosive and absolutely true that even I can’t miss it. And a good bit of the payoff comes from the surprise, the discovery of something that I didn’t realize I possessed—and that perhaps I don’t possess but that language, or the circuit between language and me, does. You see? That’s what I mean: the payoff of uncertainty. I never knew that phrase until now, but it’s been waiting for me in that place. The place I’m writing to.

Elementary Romance

Before I say more about how play deepens my relationship with language and writing, let me backtrack a bit. Up to now, I’ve framed my discussion of writing in romantic terms, casting language itself—particularly written language—as the object of a writer’s romantic intentions. But I haven’t described that romantic object. I mean, if I’m going to pursue someone romantically, it helps to know something of that person’s identity, at least superficially. What is writing? What are its elements?

Writing students often stumble over this problem. A student enters a class confident that she understands clearly what “writing” involves. She doesn’t realize that her concept differs wildly from her teacher’s and just as widely from those of her fellow students. So the teacher uses the word “writing” and each time activates a chain of associations and values unique to each student. I experienced the same problem in my MFA creative writing program. Each program participant brought his own idea of what “fiction” or “story” meant to the discussion of his classmates’ work—as did the professor—so that we spent much of our time talking past one another, imagining that we were using the same language, not realizing that it amounted to very different vocabularies and sets of values. No wonder discussions frequently degenerated into confusion and contention, spoken or unspoken.

But the trouble isn’t limited to students. Ask a different writer or writing teacher to name the essential elements of writing, and you’re bound to get some variation in answers. Some will emphasize style or voice; some will take apart the writing process; another group might focus on theme or content or message; some will head first to genres of writing (fiction, essay, poem, memoir, etc.); others will find the essence in conventions or mechanics or rules; and there will be those who most value emotion or expressiveness or genuineness of feeling.

So for clarity’s sake, let me offer my answer to the question, “What do I talk about when I talk about writing?” Simply this: A written text generates an experience that the reader undergoes while she reads. And the writer’s ability to influence that experience boils down to her use of four elements: the words she chooses, the syntax she uses to relate the words to one another, the larger organization of the text, and the content or subject matter of the writing. Take away any of these and a written text ceases to be a written text. It may become something else, and that something else may have interest or value, but it’s not writing.

An individual writer’s style or voice amounts to the way he or she combines—either unconsciously or deliberately—those elements. A genre means nothing more than a standardized, recognizable pattern for how they’re combined. Conventions are simply expectations for how they will be combined. And any sense the reader has of “knowing” the writer (aside from knowledge gained outside the text), any emotion the reader feels, or the reader’s sense of trust (or distrust) comes from the combination of those four elements.

When I play or shape or engage in any of the interactions with language that I discussed here, these are the elements I am playing or shaping of engaging with. And what I’m exploring here is how I can know and accept the unique characteristics and tendencies of each of these elements to creating experiences that matter to readers.