May 1, 2010

Listening to the Work: Thoughts on Writing Fiction and Poetry

Re-vision is an important part of the writing process.     I like to break the syllable to emphasize the word, vision: to see the work again, to see what it can be.   

"I try to make writers actually see what they have written, where the strength is. Usually in fiction there’s something that leaps out—an image or a moment that is strong enough to center the story. If they can see it, they can exploit it, enhance it, and build a fiction that is subtle and new. I don’t try to teach technique, because frankly most technical problems go away when a writer realizes where the life of a story lies. I don’t see any reason in fine-tuning something that’s essentially not going anywhere anyway. What they have to do first is interact in a serious way with what they’re putting on a page. When people are fully engaged with what they’re writing, a striking change occurs, a discipline of language and imagination."  Marilynne Robinson, author of Housekeeping, Gilead and Home.

This is an excerpt of an interview in The Paris Review.  This advice works well when you are writing poetry too.  Something leaps out that is strong enough to build the poem around.    This is how you "listen to the work."      It begins by building on the strengths:  enhance the image or the moment.  Create a pattern that emphasizes the strengths.   Take out anything that isn't needed.    Read it aloud.   Listen.   Read it to somebody else.  Listen.    If you have gone deep enough into the poem and become fully engaged, then you will reach the discipline of language and imagination that Robinson mentions. 

Lately, I've been meditating on the fact that poems are small, but they contain memoir, music, and sometimes myth.    Often they capture a moment, a story, a particular set of sounds, a pattern.  Sometimes the pattern is internal to the poem.....a metrical scheme, a stanzaic pattern.  Sometimes this pattern connects to another pattern, a mythic or larger cultural story.   The author Marilynne Robinson has joined the novels to archetype and sacred stories.  The poet can do this too. Poems are very small, but they contain a voice, a landscape, a world, an eternity. 

If you want to read the interview with Marilynne Robinson, go to

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