We break down four foundational tools for the writer’s toolbox pulled from award winning writers Mark Doty, Greg Glazner, Pam Houston, and Lidia Yuknavitch. To whet your appetite, they are: number one - Find Inspiration, number two - Form / Structure, number three - Rhythm of Language, and number four - Reading Aloud.
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Story Geometry - Ep8 - Filling Your Toolbox
Pam Houston: I think that when you begin sending work out into the world … you have probably, realistically three sentences. Maybe. To get somebody’s attention and definitely no more than that.
Ben Hess: Welcome to Story Geometry, I’m your host, Ben Hess. This is THE podcast about the craft & community of writing with insights from leading published authors of our day, like award winning writer and teacher, that’s Pam Houston. This is episode 8, Filling Your Toolbox, and we’re gonna get discuss some foundational tools so that your work gets read past the three sentence mark!
Over the next few minutes, you’ll hear from two-time NEA fellow and National Book Award winner for Poetry Mark Doty, novelist, memoirist, and Lidia Yukanavitch, novelist, musician,, and poet Greg Glazner, and more from the award-winning Pam Houston. So dust off that empty metal tool box that’s been buried in the garage and get ready to add some key pieces … all when our show continues.
I’ve partnered with literary nonprofit Writing by Writers - they’re at writing x writers dot org - on this Story Geometry episode and all the ones prior. They’ve programmed an amazing series of 2016 literary workshops, adventures and conferences including their 3rd Annual Generative Workshop in Boulder, Colorado, April 8-10th. Whether a new student or alumni, save $100 off tuition by using code GEOMETRY when you register for the workshop before December 31st - this offer’s been extended, so hit pause and SIGN UP.
Mark how did you how did you settle on poetry as your form?
Mark Doty: Wasn't a choice. LAUGHTER I was first writing … always reading something and I liked writing when I was very young. In high school I was keeping a journal not of what happened to me as I was always bored by writing a diary but of images, ideas, dreams, little sketches …
Ben: Mark Doty and I chatted at dusk on a small hill overlooking Tomales Bay in Marin County California. He won the 2008 National Book Award in Poetry for Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems and in additional to several books of poetry, has written three memoirs including a craft book, The Art of Description: World Into Word.
Mark: I stumbled upon some poems by William Blake and by Federico Garcia Lorca. And what I loved about them was the way that there was … a depth charge to the language. They were often very short, rather mysterious poems which said more than they said.
Ben: Full disclosure: I’ve not read either Blake or Lorca. Or much poetry for that matter. Regardless, tool #1 - find, cultivate, study your literary inspiration.
Mark: They somehow conveyed things that the denotative meanings of the words alone could not account for. Something about music, something about the magic of imagery. Something elusive. I love that, I wanted to make something like that.
Ben: Do you find … when you're working on a new piece, is poetry inherently musical? Is it inherently lyrical? Or it or do you have to find a rhythm and beat and meter it once you have more words on the page?
Mark: I am a person who tends to begin with the visual, with an image that strikes me as something I want to describe. …. For me, description comes first but it's very closely allied to a mode of speaking that might feel casual or offhand or it might feel heightened and elevated, it might feel like short lines that want to highlight a small unit of language or like some more extended movement, where words tumble over themselves. …. And so it comes about really through reading. Musical poets that one loves you know you drink in Marlow and drink in Keats drink in Shakespeare and the music starts coming out through your fingers if you're lucky.
Ben: OK, so Mark’s got Blake, Garcia, Marlow, Keats, and Shakespeare in his toolbox. But just a few minutes later in our chat, he said:
Mark: If you find a poet you love. So you completely adore a Lucille Clifton poem, the thing you do is go and read as much Lucille Clifton as you can and just roll in that influence like a dog rolling in a good smell, you know, take it in and then you will keep what's in that is like you, that you need for your work and gradually let go of the rest.
Ben: And of course this applies equally to creative nonfiction, fiction, essays, memoir, whatever form of the craft you’re pursuing. I’ve come to realize and believe it’s our duty to study the masters who have come before, to roll around in their work as Mark says, and then see how it permeates our poetry or prose.
Mark: There was a period in my life when I was hugely influenced by John Ashbury which is something you probably wouldn't expect from my poems. But his syntax, the kind of cool beauty of those poems, the way they move from description to meditation, was very important to me. And I let myself just do that for a while until the parts of that influence that weren't really mine fell away. However now if it were up to me to say what everybody should read. I'd send everybody to Keats. I'd send everybody to me to D.H. Lawrence, I’d send everyone to Hart Crane, to Robert Lowell. to Elizabeth Bishop to James Merrill.
Ben: I was an actor years ago so the Inspiration Layer in my toolbox included a wide range - Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde to Edgar Allen Poe to Arthur Miller to Tom Wolfe to Stephen King. And I’m thrilled to report this layer is only getting deeper and richer with every Writing By Writers faculty member and student I have a chance to interview.
Lidia: I should start by saying I'm a form junkie. I am one of those writers who is more interested in form than content.
Ben: This is Lidia Yukanavitch whose most recent novel is the haunting, lyrical The Small Backs of Children. Her memoir - or anti-memoir as she calls it, The Chronology of Water - was a Finalist, PEN Center USA Creative Nonfiction Award and named as a Best Book of the Year by The Oregonian. I asked her about the unique structure of Small Backs of Children:
Lidia: I'm so deeply interested in form so I knew there would be formal play. I didn't arrange ahead of time the specific formal moves I made. The namelessness came intuitively as an experiment for a certain number of pages ...
Ben: Lidia named her characters for the art they create … The Filmmaker, The Photographer, instead of conventional names.
Lidia: [cont’d] and once I saw it moving in the story and on the pages it felt more and more right to not ever make a main character because that's not the kind of story I wanted to tell. And our proper names are first indicators of individuality. And so it was an easy way to get rid of main character. It was an easy way to take the focus off the single individual.
Ben: So our second tool is Form and Structure. What fascinates me is how these are so connected to the genre we choose to write and how play and experimentation in a less familiar form can help our writing across the board. For example:
Pam Houston: With my prose writers in graduate school I have them write formal poems all the time.
Ben: Here’s Pam Houston, whose award-winning novel Contents May Have Shifted is a masterful tapestry of 144 travel themed vignettes.
Pam: I have them write [poems] … because I believe that form is another way to do an end around your analytical brain it's a way to focus on something other than the aboutness and often really great things emerge. I mean Contents May Have Shifted, people would ask me three years in, what’s the story about, and I would have no idea. Like there’s twelve sets of twelve. I would describe it as a form. You know I would describe it formally. Because I really didn’t know what it was about. … Physical form is a very very important … more than other writers. Like I think about stories as Rubik's Cubes I think about them as slinkys, I think about them as spirograph flowers, I think about them as geometric shapes. I always feel like I'm happier if I know the size of the boxes I'm trying to fill and then I fill them. That’s my version of an outline, that's my version of safe space.
Ben: Here’s more from Lidia Yukanavitch talking about The Small Backs of Children:
Lidia: I put it in motion just you know just to see, but then after a certain number of pages it became clear to me that was the right pattern for the kind of story I wanted to tell. A choral story and a story that could only resolve if pieces came together. And so losing the names was a very strong …. anyone in the world could look out and go look, the names are missing and think at least I thought, if not exactly what I was aiming for.
Ben: I was reading an interview that you gave a while ago.
Lidia: I might have lied … LAUGHTER
Ben: Well I want to test that and repeat your own words back to you and see if you had any different perspective. (Lidia: I might!) “Inside the relationship between a writer and a reader, a fiercely passionate world may arise.”
Lidia: Oh no I still agree with that. I'm of the opinion that books should happen to you. That you should feel like an event occurred, you know I an event horizon. And to me those are the best books, the literature books that change your life and I know there are books that are just entertainment. Or give you escapism. Or you’re reading them because they're assigned. But from my point of view, if a book happens to you it means it changed your DNA somehow,and you live differently? And so that thing I said between a reader and a writer, I'm talking about that space between us where you feel like something happened instead of just “I read some words and that was cool.” So I guess they I believe that. That one I agree with.
Ben: With two tools – Inspiration and Form / Structure – identified and several more to come, reminder that you’re listening to episode 8 of Story Geometry, Filling Your Toolbox. Today’s show is brought to you by our inaugural sponsor ... Spoken Word Inc, the Independent Audiobook Publisher.
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Ben: Continuing what both Lidia and Pam said about form vs content, here’s poet, essayist, and novelist Greg Glazner who also teaches in the Creative Writing program at UC Davis. I was curious about form in his completed but not yet published novel, Opening the World. And when you had the kernels of the idea for for the novel, how did they shape and form in prose versus, versus poetry?
Greg Glazner: You know believe it or not the the first idea for the novel was form. What I had decided that I was … there were certain things that I didn't write about because I was writing a narrow columns down the page. And I was interested in just opening it up and letting it … letting it say different kinds of things I than I could or would in you know in a poem. So it started with a whole different subject. You know. It was actually it was initially about physics. And it didn't turn out to be about that at all. It's about this character name Len who who coincidentally plays guitar and writes.
Ben: Greg’s description of Form is a perfect segue to our 3rd Tool - The Rhythm of Language.
Greg: But it too, started with the sounds of the sentences. You know once I was really on to it, I mean I had a rough idea of some subject matter but um those sentences were incredibly important to me.The rhythms and the sounds in the voice qualities.
Ben: As you've gone through this publishing journey, have you had any pushback on that evolution of POV and form or … has that been an issue?
Greg: You know I haven't heard any explicit pushback on that question. If someone gave me pushback on it I would listen to it. I think the pushback I'm getting is is over the poetic quality of the language.It's a four hundred page book and it intentionally moves slowly so that we can savor where we are and I think that is the exact polar opposite of of what is is wanted these days, you know, I'm writing uh uh sonic, you know, rhythmical sentences for a purpose you know either you slow down and diminish your numbers of page per minute or per hour that you're reading or else there's nothing there for you, you know.
Ben: Can you define how poetry and music live together, especially as a musician?
Greg: This is really a question is one of the most interesting questions to me about poetry and for me personally the way they they live together is through. Through rhythm. Through tone. Uh … in music. If you have a groove going. You have a background rhythm established. And then with a guitar solo you counterpoint off of the rhythm that already exists behind you and then the notes themselves are are akin to singing and singing is akin to vowels. So each word has both a drum strike and a singing. The drum strike is the syllable. And whether it's accented or not. If you're listening carefully is how hard the drum strike happens. And the syllable the vowel is what you sing through. So each phrase is a little bit of a rhythm section or a little bit of a rhythm riff with singing in it. And so I am hearing, when I write poems I'm hearing a kind of background rhythm that varies. That breathes. But that is always there in my mind. And then I’m counterpointing against that rhythm with the drum strikes. And the singing of my solo. And so. So to me a poem is primarily musical. If I can’t hear how a poem sounds, I can’t start.
Ben: Language’s rhythm and tempo can also inform so much about the emotional state of a character or even guide the author toward choosing one point of view over another. Here’s Pam Houston.
Pam: I like the second person for a few very specific reasons one reason is that I'm from New Jersey and that's how people speak there. The second person is the official state language of New Jersey. And its, its to my ear, a very American way to speak. It's a very American way to tell a story. It deflects responsibility the way we do here in America and it's, it's inclusive in this kind of Jersey way that just makes a lot of sense to me. “So you're sitting there, and this guy comes up,” the auntie says. Like that's how you tell a story where I come from. It’s in the second person. Uh I I also love about the second person that its,first person with a little wash of shame over it. It's like I'm a little bit ashamed to say ‘I’ so I'm going to say ‘you.’ I like that deflection. It's like shame without having to say you're ashamed. I like ‘that’ a lot, I like the rhythms it sets up in sentences. Sets up entirely different rhythms and cadences in the sentences and I I like that a great deal.
Ben: I’ve not spent much time in Jersey but at least now I’m prepared to visit - I know their language! Mark Doty’s craft book The Art of Description is a collection of four essays, and when I asked about its origins, the first thing Mark said is:
Mark: To my mind, description is not just the idea. Description is not just about rendering the surface of perception. It's about how is perception translated into language. How do we render the world as we know it into something that can evoke for the reader, the concrete experience for the reader? It's very mysterious to me because words are abstract. They are common property, they are in some funny way ordinary, and there certainly bloodless right? How do you make physical reality out of them? And when you do so you're not simply if you're doing a good description, you're not just scientific description or measurements then you're also revealing how you feel about something. And what's important to you, in what you describe. So I think it's an endlessly fascinating subject.
Ben: And it seems that people are using it, not only poets, but creative non-fiction writers, fiction writers …
Mark: If description is description and if you are doing a good job of representing your own perceptions, if you're evoking those for the reader, what an asset that is to your fiction or to your nonfiction. Absolutely. I think probably every writer should spend a little time studying poetry or writing poetry just simply for the experience of focusing on language as a thing in itself. For the prose writer, language too often um you know sort of disappears as a value. We think we want to be transparent. I don't want the language to call attention to itself, right? But in fact language is not transparent. Language has weight and shape and meaning and so it's very useful to spend time looking at it.
Ben: I had the fortune of doing some Shakespeare as an actor back in college days, days gone by, but the musicality of that language whether it's iambic pentameter or some of the of the famous monologues, when looking at the sonnets and hearing the sonnets read for me I admittedly had been intimidated by poetry and yet Shakespeare’s sonnets give a little bit of a window in.
Mark: First of all I think it’s so important what you said: hearing the poem read.
Ben: And yes, Reading Aloud is #4 for the toolbox.
Mark: Reading aloud yourself because two things happen when you do that: one is that you start inhabiting the music of the poem physically you feel it in the muscles of your jaws and you move your tongue and it influences your breathing and that is the way to get much closer to the active life of a poem. The other thing that happens is that when a poem’s read aloud, you understand that it's an address. Someone is speaking to someone else. And that's very different than something sitting flatly on the page as an object of study, right? If Shakespeare is trying to persuade someone or he's trying to charm or flatter or if he's trying to convince a listener that uhh time has no power over his love or his love’s beauty or his writing. Then uh that's a very different thing when it's spoken. It's argued. So that address is something that really is crucial to the life of poetry.
Mark: So we’ve dusted off our toolbox and added four things: Inspiration, Form / Structure, Rhythm of Language, and Reading your drafts Aloud. With those in mind, we’re going to close today’s episode a little differently … with an assignment. Here’s Pam:
Pam: So this story, that I'm going to ask you to write ... it's just a story of twenty six lines and the first sentence starts with an A and the second sentence starts with a B, the third starts with a C … a C word, B word, an A word. The other rules are you one of your twenty six sentences has to be one word long. And another one of your twenty six sentences has to be fifty words long. Exactly. And you can substitute for X or Z but not both. You can go forward through the alphabet or backwards but you have to go in order. So you can start with Z or even start with A.
Ben: Send your submissions by January 15th to hello AT story geometry dot org, we’d love to see what you come up with !! We’ll continue to add more to our toolbox in the new year. This concludes our inaugural Season One of Story Geometry [wild APPLAUSE]. Thank you … yes, thank you for joining me on this podcast storytelling journey. We’re taking a holiday hiatus – side note, I’m on the move, leaving the San Francisco Bay Area after many years for sun and palm trees in Los Angeles – so look for Story Geometry Season Two’s kickoff in February complete with more words of wisdom on the craft and community of writing.
Thanks so much for listening to Episode 8, Filling Your Toolbox, I’m your host and editor, @BenHess on Twitter and Instagram. Warm thanks to Mark Doty, Lidia Yukanavitch, Greg Glazner, and Pam Houston for sharing their insights.
Don’t forget to visit today’s sponsor SpokenWordInc dot com to kick of the new year with a new audiobook. Our theme music is from Mark Hodgkin and additional tracks are from Greg Glazner’s band, The Responders.
Be sure to rate and review Story Geometry in iTunes, send feedback via StoryGeometry.org, and sign up for future Writing By Writers events and conferences at Writing X Writers .org - psst, use that promo code GEOMETRY for the 2016 Boulder Generative workshop before December 31st. Thanks so much for listening