A writer friend recently mentioned that she was having trouble figuring out what to cut from a blog post she was writing; another writer suggested that she approach it as she would poetry—since, in a poem, one tends to be particularly mindful of the details they share, with an eye toward precision and image. In a similar vein, I attended a craft talk once where a panel member stated that fiction writers should hire poets to edit their work. I found both of these suggestions to be intriguing—and insightful—on a number of levels.
I spent many years writing poetry, even as my goal was to be a fiction writer. Writing poetry freed me from expectation. In particular, it freed me from the specific expectations of craft, things like ensuring I had a definitive narrative arc or showing instead of telling, aspects I had difficulty with as a novice fiction writer. Poetry also allowed me to play with space on the page and subvert conventions such as capitalization and punctuation in a way that I didn’t think fiction allowed for. Early in my writing career—when writing was more of a hobby than anything—I didn’t understand how to study craft or how craft expectations differed across cultures and genres. I only knew that poetry allowed me a certain freedom. I had attended community writing workshops for many years (and even founded a local workshop) and regularly encountered other aspiring writers unwittingly imposing specific requirements and expectations on my fiction (and I on theirs). It was because of this constraint, and my ensuing frustration, that I turned to poetry, which allowed me to express myself untethered.
I’ve since returned to fiction, and have learned that these particular expectations that previously restricted me artistically are not universal. In Craft in the Real World, Matthew Salesses encourages writers to think about audience and whose expectations they are trying to satisfy; he mentions ridding oneself of expectations that inhibit expression of a message. For me, this idea was momentous, and I finally was able to start developing my fiction voice and style. I was also fortunate to have had MFA mentors and peers who introduced me to literature that stretched the bounds of expectation. In particular, reading Eimear McBride’s novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing was a pivotal moment for me as a fiction writer.
I’ve learned that fiction can be much more experimental than formulaic and that it doesn’t have to be just plot-driven or character-driven. In “On the Many Different Engines That Power a Short Story,” Lincoln Michel states that he finds himself drawn to “other, internal engines—‘form engines’ and ‘language engines’—that power the story from within the text itself.” I find this to be true for myself as well.
I’ve learned that the many years I spent writing poetry was immensely beneficial in my development as a fiction writer. As part of my MFA graduation requirements, I chose to explore, write, and present on experimental syntax in fiction. As I researched this topic, I drew heavily on what I knew as both a reader and writer of poetry. Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones is a novel whose form resembles poetry. McCormack uses winding subordinating clauses, purposeful line breaks, and an absence of end punctuation to create a lyrical and rhythmic effect that complements the words on the page, creating an overall tone and image, both on the page and in the reader’s mind.
There’s a quote by Deborah Keenan that I’ve had by my desk for over a decade: “In poetry you can leave out everything but the truth.” What often makes poetry so effective is the fact that meaning and emotion can be elicited through a minimal number of words because a poet uses a variety of literary devices to their advantage.
It’s not just the seeming sparseness of poetry, the concision, but it’s also the precision and the unexpected turns of phrases.
It’s the rhythm, the line breaks, the white space.
It’s the use of metaphors, the layering, the experimenting with word forms and punctuation.
It’s letting the reader fill in what has been left unsaid.
I’ve learned that the lines between prose and poetry are often blurred, especially in flash fiction, which is what I most often write.
I’ve learned to embrace this uncertainty of craft: this fluidity and openness.