As I've mentioned on my blog Woman Mother Writer, I'm in two online writing groups. Tara J. Pearson, today's contributor, is in one of them and has encouraged me to keep writing through her feedback and original poems. Today she describes how poems have been leading her to and through novel writing.
She is a poet, writer, and educator living in Las Vegas, Nevada. Tara J. Pearson holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Follow her education, art advocacy, and poetry related tweets @tarajplachowski on Twitter.
Poetry Is Always the Answer
When I decided to try my hand at novel writing, the good teacher in me went to the bookstore and bought several books on the subject (the few most useful, so far, are listed below). Through my research, I have discovered that fiction writers can be broken into 2 camps: those who outline and those who don’t. In the part of my world where I am paid for my writing, education reports and grants, I count on a clear outline and set of milestone goals linked together, which end in a polished final product. Strict organization is how I work as a technical writer, and I’m good at it.
However, as a poet, I write from a deep, messy urgency.
The process usually begins with reading poems until I stumble on something that hooks me. At the end of that silvery filament of fishing line is something I need to get out and onto the page. For me, writing a poem is like rising up from the depths of a murky river with something bright and shiny clutched in your hand. You know this is a real treasure, you just need to claw and struggle through the murk till you come out in the clear light of day, gasping and triumphant. In other words, it’s pretty touchy feely and without much organization or a plan. I just keeping editing and reading and pushing those few ideas into the exact right words.
You see my dilemma upon hearing that fiction writers do one or the other. I’ve done both, with success, but with two very different products—none of which has ever been a linear narrative. After several false starts that involved far-fetched, confusing plots mapped out on note cards as well as short, rambling paragraphs of nearly pure image (poems in disguise), I was so frustrated, I wanted to give up. So I cleaned the house, a lot, and started several little side-projects (like making glass beads and bread-baking). Around this time of dark self-loathing and artful procrastination, I was invited to join in a long-distance poetry writing circle (thank you Chloe Miller and Rachel Simon!). With a weekly deadline, and the characters and various plot lines from my thus-far failed novel floating in my head, I began writing poems from the perspective of my characters. It wasn’t at all what I planned to do. All the frustrating novel-work and the happy occurrence of a writing deadline, albeit for poems, not fiction, just made it happen. Within finishing three to four poems about my characters and events, I could suddenly see the story I was trying to tell take shape. What’s more, I realized that the poems I’d written worked very much like a rough “outline” for various chapters.
Now, I need to say that my husband, who has read far more than anyone I know across all genres (speed-reading show-off that he is), helped enormously as a sounding board for my plot lines. The poems were not all it took, but they pushed me around the corner, and into the room.
In addition, the book Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maas helped me consider ways to delve into my general plot idea and to keep the action going. Action and story-line while clear as a reader and a teacher, were foreign to me as a poet. This book, for me as a beginner novel writer, has been a clear and concise guide to developing character, plot, and action. A book on playwriting, Backwards and Forwards by David Ball, provides clear and concise ways to consider crafting action-based scenes. I also took great comfort in and was enormously inspired by Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
While my novel-writing progress is still slow, I have found the vehicle to drive me there. In the end, for me, it seems poetry is always the answer. Whatever your answer is, just keep doing it, every day, words on paper. We’ll get there, I promise. Happy writing, my fellow procrastinators!