A slick of ocean sweat pooling
where the rocks split and dip
be a needle-beaked crow poking
my starfish arms spread
Fly away with my flesh, feed,
growing stagnant in crawling water
I ask this:
roiling root-beer tide
Swim. Love. Sigh.
I wrote this poem in 1999 and it remains an ever-apt description of my love life, but that, Dear Reader, is not what we talk about on Sundays. That is what I talk about with my therapist, which is Cleavage, which is all of you, but on every day except Sunday, because that’s when we talk about writing and how to do it better.
And, in order to write better, for the last two weeks I’ve been asking you to listen and pay close attention to spoken word and song lyrics. The idea was that if you can learn to discern beautiful, raw, emotionally fraught sentences, you can learn to write them, too.
This isn’t a fancy theory, or condescending, but it is what I do so I thought maybe it might work for you, too. Poetry (and heartbreak) has been my professor and that’s because the heart and the heat of a successful poem is emotional experience: yours (the one you’re describing) and the reader’s. If you’re writing well, your reader feels vicariously through your words, through you. Poetry is an emotional experience. That’s why we write it and read it.
And poetry relies on emotional economy: each word has a value. Each word is a trade. A poet is a conservative banker spending only the words necessary to the transaction.
And when I say poetry is like money what I mean is that poetry is like sex: florid, passionate, partnered, (reader and writer), but entirely, ruthlessly, tyrannically devoted to the the task at hand.
Writing poetry has improved my prose. Readers have pointed it out: my writing has a lyrical quality. My pieces sound like they could be read aloud.
And many of them could be, and have been (this is a tip: read your pieces aloud as part of the editing process. It will help you find the words that don’t belong and cut them out.).
I’m not a very good poet, but because I read and write poetry, I’m able to infuse my regular, workaday writing with poetic devices.
Let me show you by comparing what I did in my old poem Salt, Water with what I did in my new prose piece, This is For You.
In Salt, Water I use
fly away with my flesh, feed
(fly, flesh, feed)
be a needle-beaked crow poking
(be, needle, beaked)
In This is For You, like in Salt, Water, I use
Your friend M – not C – answered me: He was always like this.
- Consonance and assonance (just like in Salt, Water)
Confirmation was comfort.
In This is For You, I employ a lot of parallelism:
Two weeks earlier we were on two different continents. Two weeks later we were each other’s world.
In fact, using long sentences composed of parallel lists is something I do often (like in almost every piece I write):
…and ended up in a house just a few blocks from mine, on a bus with me, on the phone with me, in a theatre with me, in love with me.
I loved your ruthless hope, your Machiavellian understanding of love and war and daily life, your ability to save, sacrifice, leverage – no, catapult – yourself from social level to level, your success-at-any-costs striving. I loved your selfishness. I loved your selflessness. I loved how you offered me every single cent you’d saved so I could take a UN internship in Zambia. (I wish I had accepted both offers.) I loved how you told me you loved me – easily, sweetly, without hesitation, often – in three languages. I loved how you ripped my red skirt. I loved how we surrendered a year of weekends to sensuality. Our hours-and-hours of ease, passion, constant connection and touch is engraved in my mind as how it ought to be, how it was only once before you – and, in the ten years since, only once after you. Even now, that is what love looks like, to me.
Parallel is one of my favourite tricks techniques. Long, emotionally fraught lists create tension and a sense of question and urgency which can then be “answered” by breaking the parallel:
Our hours-and-hours of ease, passion, constant connection and touch is engraved in my mind as how it ought to be, how it was only once before you – and, in the ten years since, only once after you. Even now, that is what love looks like, to me.
Introducing and then interrupting parallel form creates an emotional climax and conclusion.
If right now you’re having a painful flashback to grade 11 English when you were forced upon pain of death and dismemberment to memorize (and promptly forget) the names of poetic devices, which is causing your current pain body to tell lies, like, oh hell, I don’t know know (and don’t want to know) the names of all these freaking techniques, so it is hopeless, I’ll never be a fancy-pants writer…
then stop that right now.
Please. With much sugar and love on top.
That’s like saying you can’t ride a bike because you don’t know the names of the parts and components of the bicycle. There’s no cause and effect in that relationship.
Most of this I learned not by spending time with flashcards and definitions but by doing. Writing. Writing lots. Writing more. Later, when I started studying what other people were doing (so I could do what I was doing a little better), I realized that the things I was doing by intuition are techniques that poets and authors have been using for hundreds of years. The names of the terms aren’t important, but learning a few and using them expands your literary vocabulary and elevates the end result.
(That being said: once you’ve figured out a few, and used them to great effect, spending time on a site like Virtual Salt – hat tip to Dave Doolin – introduces you to more techniques and ways to use them, which then again expands what you are able to do and the emotional resonance and range of your work.)
Long story short (don’t use phrases like “long story short”):
- Listening to poetry and song lyrics helps you pick out language that is emotionally compelling and makes for great story-telling so that you can go forth and mimic.
- We all start (Neil Gaiman, for example, began his career like this) by echoing the styles of others – it is part of the process for finding our own voices. Eventually we develop our own vocabulary, a mish-mash of techniques, poetic devices, personal experience (and agenda and worldview) that becomes our individual literary DNA.
- Figure out a few techniques that you like in the work of other writers – I often use alliteration, assonance, consonance, parallelism and breaking parallel – and use them in your own work.
- Write poetry. Practicing the economy and emotional intensity of poetry will only improve your prose. Just ask Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. (Oops – is my Canadian showing?)
Or, if all this term-thumping has turned you off and has you thinking I’m not doing that, there’s still hope. Just live a really tawdry life and then tell us all about it.
It works for me.
Sunday School for Sentences will be a sixteen-part series. Missed one? Here they are:
- Sunday School for Sentences #1: Explain the Expected in Unexpected Ways
- Sunday School for Sentences #2: The (Textual) Reverse Cowgirl
- Sunday School for Sentences #3: Object Lessons (from Kanye West and JD Salinger)
- Sunday School for Sentences #4: How to Give Good Quote
- Sunday School For Sentences #5: Why You Should Write Bad Poetry
- Sunday School for Sentences #6: Two Damn Fine Writing Tips
- Sunday School for Sentences #7: There Are No Magic Words
- Sunday School for Sentences #8: How To Execute a Climax or Series of Climaxes. I’m talking About Writing. Mostly.
- Sunday School for Sentences #9: Thread the Grommets, Lace the Corset, Feed the Rabbits
- Sunday School For Sentences #10 – Work It
- Sunday School for Sentences #11: The Pigs In Space Edition
- Sunday School for Sentences #12: Screw SEO. I Write (Wackadoo Titles) for PEOPLE, Not Search Engines. And So Should You.
- Sunday School for Sentences #13: How to Write an Intimate Cosmology of Cheesecake, Cheesecake Shots (or not) and Shoplifting
- Sunday School for Sentences #14: What Picasso And Dave Chappelle Know about Writing. For Realz.