Musings: Literary Forms

Writing fiction has always come naturally to me. This is not to say that it’s easy—oftentimes it’s quite taxing. However, the structure of sentences, the weight of paragraphs, the investigations into character motivations are all things I have practiced for so long that I can at least tell if what I’m writing is any good. Partly, this is because I’ve written a lot of fiction, but mostly it’s because I’ve read a lot of fiction.

I have had the enormous fortune of being born to English literature professors. My home is filled to the brim with books, and reading has always been encouraged. I used to read the books my mom would teach in her classes, and discuss them with her at home. Well, I say used to as though it was a long time ago, and to be fair it started a long time ago, but it has continued up until this past semester when we read Exhalation: Stories and Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang together. My parents always read my stories, and they usually have spot-on suggestions for critique.

So it’s strange, then, that I find such immense difficulty in writing poetry and drama, when my parents and my schools have also always encouraged me to read these literary forms too. I love both very much. A Streetcar Named Desire was the first play to really capture my imagination, and some of my fondest childhood memories involve staying up past my bedtime while my father read me poems. Yet try as I might, I can never make my own poetic and dramatic compositions measure up to my narrative forms.

This week I’ve been in the process of packing all my belongings up in preparation to move to my dorm on Sunday. I’m excited for the conclusion of ten months of pandemic-inflicted exile from my college life, and emotions are certainly high. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that I’ve been trying to write (largely mediocre) poetry in the meantime.

There’s a special sort of economy that all good poems need. Every word holds more weight to it. The sound of the language matters more—rhythm, rhyme, consonance, assonance, alliteration, repetition, etc. Emotion must be tangible, and meaning palpable if not always immediately transparent. At its best, poetry isn’t talking in codes, it’s talking in feelings.

When I try to replicate this, my first (and second, and twentieth) attempts almost always lean into melodrama. I like to try to toy with cliché, but too often this means I wind up perpetuating instead of subverting it. Revitalizing stale language is a difficult task. It’s easy to get too precious with the language and wind up with a string of meaningless four-syllable words that sound pretty out loud but don’t say anything worth hearing. It’s also easy to swing the other way and wind up with something so bare it sounds like nothing at all.

I ran into this sort of problem writing a play in the fall for a playwriting course I took. Too often, my dialogue was obvious, flat, uninspired. Dramatic writing, like poetic writing, also relies heavily on economy and emotion, but with the added benefit (or challenge, depending who you ask) of physical space and creative interpretation. Actors on a stage transform the words on the page—this is why there are so, so many adaptations of Shakespeare. To be a good playwright you must have a collaborative attitude, and be willing to cede at least some control of the finished work. This is quite hard for me.

Given that these forms are more challenging for me than writing fiction or even narrative nonfiction, you may wonder why I even bother. The challenge is actually a large part of the appeal, but I also think that exercising all my writing muscles is important to improving at writing fiction. Tinkering with language in poetry has helped to sharpen my sentences in prose. Learning to convey information in dialogue without writing unwieldy monologues has certainly improved my ability to write conversations in fiction, and the pervasive sense of place that drama demands has helped me to see my scenes in three dimensions. But more importantly, the poet’s sense of audience and the playwright’s sense of collaboration have come in handy as I conceptualize my philosophical approach to writing. Storytelling is ultimately about people, regardless of the form it takes.

In my long car ride from Indiana to North Carolina, I will keep working at my current drafts of poems, trying to make them fresher, more salient. There isn’t really a guidebook I’ve found to the perfect way to edit a poem, no 10-point-plan or action guide. You simply work until it feels right, and maybe rework some more (here’s looking at you, Walt Whitman). Maybe eventually I’ll develop the same sort of sense for poems and drama that I have for fiction, and maybe I won’t. I’ll keep trying either way.

Musings: On Pacing

Ask any writer what the hardest part of writing is, and you’re bound to get a myriad of answers, ranging from “dialogue” to “actually putting words on the page” to “actually cutting words from the page.” For me, the greatest challenge is pacing. In short works, I find that it’s a little bit easier, as I have so little space that economy of language is expected. It’s easy for me to bounce between emotional beats in a single interaction, or even a single night. But once I add in the element of time, anything longer than maybe a week, I start to sweat the small stuff. Add in subplots, intertwining narratives, and all of a sudden my sense of pace is entirely out the window.

Some of this is due to my writing history. I completed National Novel Writing Month numerous times in my teens, and the frenzy of writing upwards of 50,000 words in the span of 30 days begins to evaporate one’s sense of time. Another is the length of the writing process compared to the speed of the reading process. On days when I can actually concentrate, I can read a lengthy book in a few hours. But even in my fastest novel-writing sprints, I can only get down a few thousand words a day. This mismatch means that I often assume events happened farther back in the plot than they actually did, because I mistake my writing time (often weeks in length) with my reading time (a couple hours at the most). The story now reads at a breakneck pace, or worse—an entirely inconsistent one.

The reason I’m thinking about pacing today is not because of any particular challenge in my current project, which is still incredibly nascent. I’m preoccupied with pacing because I’ve realized that whoever plots the universe seems to struggle with it just as much as I do. The past five years of my life have been so wildly busy on a national and global scale that I struggle to remember any given sequence of events. For most of those same five years, I was experiencing great change in my personal life too—graduating high school, matriculating in college, meeting new people, traveling to new countries. And then, ten months ago almost to the day, everything stopped—for me. I went home to my parents’ house, where I’ve lived since. I finished my spring courses online, did nothing of note in the summer—was there a summer? If I didn’t have a calendar to prove it, I wouldn’t be sure—and took more online courses in the fall. I haven’t had long-term, sustained contact with anyone outside of my immediate family for almost a year.

Outside, the world kept spinning around the sun, hurtling by at a lightning pace, piling events one on top of the other so thick I can’t remember what happened last week. Right now I’m still stuck on the coup attempt from two days ago, but I would actually be shocked if it’s still the largest news piece by the end of the weekend.

In a week and some change, I will be settling in to my dorm on campus for the first time since early March. I know this—I signed up for my COVID-19 testing slot, I planned my road-trip route, and I’ve even begun packing. Somehow, this all feels like it’s happening to someone else. It’s impossible to maintain focus. This is my third draft of this post, and I keep looking off to the side, checking my phone, and generally spacing out as I type. When the pacing’s off, everything’s off.

Fixing pacing is also incredibly tricky. It isn’t always apparent which scenes need trimming and which should be extended. Sometimes the key to changing a page is adding a line of action to break up a scene of dialogue, but what action? Between which statements? Tweaking and tinkering just-so, and often it winds up all wrong and you have to rewrite scenes or entire chapters altogether. Will the return to the quasi-normalcy of campus life be enough to break up this monotony? Will a peaceful transition of presidential power ease up the news cycle? Can cutting back on my social media time really increase my attention span? Do I have what it takes to achieve all of my goals?

The answer to all of these questions is unclear. Campus life won’t be normal: all my courses will still be entirely online, and I’m not planning to ignore masking and distancing guidelines and risk COVID-19 just for the sake of pretending like there isn’t a pandemic. I’m still unsure that there will be a peaceful transition of presidential power. I’ve set time limits on social media on my phone, but I keep ignoring the limits, punching in my passcode for more time. And as for my goals, I know that I will accomplish the ones I really need to. Global pandemic notwithstanding, I always have. But I won’t really know that in my bones until I come out on the other side of them. The novel won’t be done until it’s done. My various applications will get completed, but the rest is out of my control.

The key to unlocking pacing, usually, is listening a bit more closely to the characters and letting them take the lead. In real life that means following my own lead, setting my own pace. When the work of doing that gets exhausting, I’m trying to remember to allow myself some rest. Every novel needs white space, sentence breaks, a comma to take in a breath.

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That’s better, isn’t it?