Monthly Archives: May 2012

Some Knowledge of Poetry Will Sweeten Your Tongue

May 31st: Happy Birthday Al!

This past April I had the pleasure of hearing Al Young, California Poet Laureate Emeritus, speak at a Poetry Night dinner and was reminded of the notes I took on his talk from Poetry Night 2009 where he describe a poem as “words confused with breath of Spirit.”

This is what we are looking for in our writing: the breath of Spirit. When “Spirit” breathes life into our work, be it a poem, a short story, a novel, an essay, or a memoir, we’ve got something that captures the reader’s attention—something that can’t be pushed aside for re-runs of CSI.

Poetry is to the rest of writing as piano is to the rest of music:  a single voice—complicated, layered, melodic—poetry blends with and lends beauty to all forms of writing. But poetry isn’t solely about pretty words, and flowery phrases. It’s a system for arriving at the essence of experience, the emotion of experience, that is captured in image. People have lot of definitions of poetry, but I want to emphasize :

Poetry is an imaginative awareness of experience expressed

            through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language choices so

            as to evoke an emotional response.

Poetry has been known to employ meter and rhyme, but this is by no means necessary. Poetry is an ancient form that has gone through numerous and drastic reinvention over time.

            The very nature of poetry as an authentic and individual

            mode of expression makes it nearly impossible to define.

This is what I want us to bring to our writing including our prose writing—the nature of poetry—that nature that evokes an emotional response.

Keeping in mind that “the reader will bring something you can never imagine to the page[i],” craft each sentence to maximize the images you wish to convey to allow the reader to unlock his or her experience. This is where emotional response comes from.

Young cautions us to “be careful what you say…your words will float and come back so you’ll have to buy them.”

(Adapted from a talk by Al Young Oct. 2009) Listen to Mr. Young’s poetry.

Prompt:   Write a poem, prose poem, flash fiction or scene in the voice of your ancestor. Observe how the nature of language is illusory, that all kinds of things are going besides the language. Dig deep into your collective ancestral memory. This isn’t something remembered, but something stored in your DNA! You have to feel this one, and you have to make the reader feel it. Don’t get caught up in the U.S. penchant for subjective personal experiences. “The I can be so underfoot.[ii]

Clarification:  this is going to be personal, but it isn’t going to be about you—it’s going to be a piece that transcends your experience and becomes everyperson’s. Make sense?


[i] Young 10/23/09 talk at Redwood Writers Poetry Dinner

[ii] ibid

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Mixed Emotions

Besides having conflicting desires, well-crafted characters have conflicting emotions and emotional responses toward each other. These emotions are not driven so much by the character’s values as by 1) cultural preferences, 2) previous experience, and 3) primitive drives, according to Nancy Cress. Examples she gives are 1) you secretly enjoy your boorish brother’s crude jokes, but you’re repelled by them too, 2) you like your boss but don’t trust her because of her reputation for firing people easily—and you want to keep your job, 3) you’ve become homeless and are starving, but you know stealing is wrong, yet you must eat.

How can you portray mixed emotions in fiction? By showing the differing emotions in separate scenes, show conflicting emotions in the same scene, and by using character thought and narration to explain the contradiction.

Here are a couple of possible scenarios:

-Alternating scenes of “I love you” with scenes of “I hate you.” (Read the Nanny Diaries)

-In one scene, I love you right now alternates with I hate you in the next minute. Do this with caution, as the characters need to be consistent to be believable. Don’t allow a character to act in a sloppy or confusing manner. Do this by showing each emotion separately in earlier scenes before combining contradictory feelings. Be sure that the motivations and forces creating the emotions are clear.

Depict emotion through  heated dialog, bodily responses, emotional actions  like a slap across the face, tears, a middle finger, or through character thoughts. These are all great for subtext. Read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to see much of this in action.

You will not depict emotion through telling narration, although you can narrate why a character feels as she does. Be careful with this because it can be detached and slow the pace  of your scene, although here the omniscient voice can work if the scene has been set-up and offers a fresh perspective. Be sure that you fully understand the contradictions in the minds of your characters and, without overwriting, make it more complex and dramatic. Metaphors are helpful with this.

Summary:

  • Identify what emotions your characters are feeling.
  • Have you prepared the groundwork for these mixed feelings by dramatizing the causes of the emotions?
  • Decide how best to portray the conflicting emotions—in separate scenes, in the same scene, through narration, or in a combination of these.
  • Have you included enough emotional indicators for the reader to share each  emotion the character feels?

Prompt:  Write a scene about a person whose reputation rests on the appearance of an inanimate object. (Wood, The Pocket Muse)

Adapted from: Alice LaPlant, The Making of a Story, Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, Robert Olen Butler, From Where We Dream

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Values, Desires, and Choices

Your character wants more than one thing and probably her desires are in opposition. An example of this we can all understand: She values being slim—she’s a lifetime member of Weight Watchers. But she values rich sugar-laden desserts—she craves them in fact. She’d kill for a profiterole right now…. You get the idea! Conflicting desires are the heart of complex characterization and tense, compelling writing.

A plausible and complex character will have a couple of strong desires that are in conflict. This is like life. It feels real to the reader and gives you a chance to further characterize through showing how and which desire he chooses.

Dramatize small incidents of conflicting values in scenes. Build these small choices to foreshadow the larger choices to come. She is going to choose values or desires that demonstrate her personality. Be sure to write-in the character’s attitude toward the choice. Think, mixed feelings. Remember, narration and back story will help here, but the riskiest way to inform the reader is through narration. Be sure that the narration doesn’t just recap what the reader already knows. It needs to deliver new information or a new perspective. Dialog is a good medium to use. Try having your secondary characters talk about the character with the conundrum.

Tips:

  1. Identify what emotions the character is feeling.
  2. Double check that you’ve laid the groundwork for the mixed feelings by dramatizing the causes of each in earlier scenes.
  3. Decide how you want to portray two contradictory feelings: in the same scene, in alternate scenes, through narrative, through character thoughts, or through some combination of techniques.
  4. Include emotional indicators (sensory language, gesture, expression, etc.) for the reader to share in each emotion the character feels.

Prompt:          What if you really did what you want to do? (Wood, The Pocket Muse)

Write a flash fiction or short story in the first person on what would happen if the character went ahead and did what (s)he always secretly wanted to do. Show your reader how this big desire might be in direct conflict with the character’s values and develop the process of choosing.

 “I want to satisfy the undisclosed desires in your heart”

MUSE~Undisclosed Desires

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Reveal Character through Dialog

Notes from my Redwood Writers Conference breakout session  April 28th, 2012

Adapted from: Alice LaPlant, The Making of a Story, A Norton Guide to Creative Writing 2007 and Nancy Kress, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, Writers Digest Books, 2005

What a character says in dialog is powerful characterization. How she says it is critical to knowing the character: her vocabulary, syntax, diction (think ideolect), use and misuse of words, even gestures, tone, and how emotionally charged the speech is. Just as important is what the character doesn’t say or avoids  to define her character.

What does dialog do?

  1. adds to the reader’s knowledge of the situation  (facts vs knowledge)
  2. keeps the piece moving forward
  3.  reveals something about the speakers personalities both directly and indirectly  (subtext—what’s not said)
  4. dramatizes relationships between characters

EVERYTHING THAT AFFECTS A CHARACTER WILL AFFECT THE DIALOG!

We’re interested in how dialog reveals character.  What are some of the ways this is done?

   Syntax, accent, idiolect, cadence, rhythm, dialect 

How do you do it?  Elements of dialog:

-Dialog is what characters do to one another/verbal sparring a physical exchange

-Gesture—shows how something is said

-Silence is part of dialog—part of a verbal communication to pause, look away, refuse to respond. Very powerful.

-Dialog may not be grammatically correct—let the character’s music show

-The surrounding world is part of dialog—use it . Keep us grounded in the real world. No talking heads

-attribution: said! Don’t overburden your writing with substitutes and try to avoid adverbs

How do you write silence?

–Sensory clues about what happened in the silence: dog barks.

–Write a descriptive passage about the setting the dialog takes place in.

–Provide the character with thoughts in reaction to something said.

–Provide the character with a reaction to the dialog in a memory or flashback.

What isn’t said is called subtext. DIALOG EXISTS ON TWO LEVELS: THE SAID AND THE UNSAID.  Characters reveal themselves through what they conceal. They lie. They obfuscate.  What’s said must pertain to the plot or the general events of the story.  What is implied through subtext is the emotional story. The two go hand in hand.

Dialog Tips

–Dialog is not a source of facts about a piece: “You’ve missed the 8:35 ferry to the City and I’m not going to drive you the 35 miles to your job at 100 Bush St.”

–Dialog is not good for describing anything: “Wow, don’t you look great in that royal purple gown trimmed in white marabou around the plunging neckline.”

–Dialog is not a substitute for narrative. Facts need to be revealed in narrative—summarized in narrative.

–Dialog is not a place for extended brooding soliloquy.

Characteristics of dialog:

  1. each character should speak differently
  2. none of the characters should sound exactly like the author!
  3. characters speak differently with different characters
  4. characters speak differently in private than in public
  5. characters speak in manners that reflect their moods (loving vs angry)
  6. characters talk to their friends differently than to their mothers
  7. characters generally are not talking about the same thing in a conversation
  8. dialog sounds realistic, but is not written as people speak in life

Anatomy of dialog:

Dialog is what characters do to one another. It’s a verbal sparring, a physical exchange.

-Talk   (Dialog may not be grammatically correct)

-Gesture—shows how something is said.

-Silence—pause, look away, refuse to respond

-The surrounding world is part of dialog—keep the reader grounded in the real world. No talking heads.

-Attribution: use said. Don’t overburden your writing with substitutes; try to avoid adverbs. A strong verb will trump an adverb.

Exercise:   Write a dialog . Try to incorporate as many of the elements of dialog as possible to reveal your character’s natures.

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