Category: Notes on Craft

Plotting Workshop

The Writers’ Workshop Getting Publishing Day was great fun. It was good to see some old faces and meet plenty of friendly new ones. I saw some really accomplished writing, a lot of it already at a publishable standard. With the right breaks and a good dose of luck, some of these books could be on the way to finding an agent and publisher – and let’s not forget we can create some of our own luck, too.

It was the first time I’d taught a workshop on plotting in an hour-long slot (though I realise we ran over by fifteen minutes, sorry!). In other contexts I’ve been able to assign reading beforehand, so we’d all be able to discuss the same stories together, but yesterday I fell back on examples such as Pride and Prejudice and The Hobbit. I emphasised that plot is best regarded as a verb rather than a noun: though inspired twists never hurt, plot is not some clever thing we have to conjure up – instead, plotting is an active process that brings together other aspects of craft such as characterisation, structure, narration.

Character is especially important: what are your character’s deepest yearnings, and how might they come into conflict with those of other characters? And how are the events of the book character-building?

I don’t dwell too much on what might be seen as the jargon of structure, but it can be useful to think about inciting incidents and reversals of fortune mounting tension towards a climax as a connected sequence of events. Most of all: don’t be boring! (The only rule in writing.)

I read the opening of Notes On A Scandal not only as an example of a strong narrative voice plotting away but also to point out how Zoe Heller chose to put what might be regarded as the most dramatic revelations of her story right into the first paragraph: the first sentence, in fact! So much about plotting is about the ways a writer chooses to handle time.

And those choices, I suggested, are best handled in drafting. Though some writers, especially more experienced ones, work from detailed plans, I propose that beginning novelists might regard the process of creating a first draft as an active part of plotting. By all means work from an outline – you’ll need one – but be free and easy with yourself in your first draft. Let yourself see what comes up. Have fun, be playful. Perhaps write bits off to the side to see how a different point of view or scene might work. Maybe even write notes to yourself in scenes at challenging points, e.g., ‘I need to work out a way to get A to do B to C in this scene here’ – reaching the end might give you the perspective on what B needs to be.

And when you finish that draft, print it off, and read it through, perhaps making a few notes as you go but mostly just reading through for the experience of reading (using a different typeface can help to make things look different).

Then ask yourself: what plotting can I create from what I have here?

And then – the most important thing I have to say – take that print-out, sit it beside you on your desk, push back your shoulders, and type it out again into a new document.

Terry Pratchett once said something along the lines of the first draft being the writer just telling herself the story. The second and subsequent drafts are there to work out the best way to tell – plot – that story, which might of course change along the way. And liberating yourself from your attachments is much easier when you’re not just tinkering with existing words on a screen. In the golden olden days a writer used to clatter out second drafts on a typewriter or redo them by hand. Some writers even put the print-outs in a drawer and never refer to them again, and write the new draft wholly afresh. You know the story, don’t you?!

To help with reading your draft, I also distributed a plotting analysis worksheet, and suggested that writers complete it in different ways, e.g., with reference to: a favourite book of childhood (done from memory); a book you’ve recently read and admired in a genre you’re working in (done with close reading of that book); and for drafts of your own work-in-progress (again, done from memory at least to start – what you contain within you is most important).

I shall be running an expanded version of this workshop as a plotting masterclass at the York Festival of Writing on 8 September.

Here are some other resources from my site on self-editing and revising.

And here are other links to further information on plotting, as well as quotes offering thought-provoking opinions:

* Dramatic Structure (including Freytag’s Triangle)

* Michael Hauge, ‘The Five Key Turning Points Of All Successful Screenplays’

* Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots – for a checklist of the 20 plots, follow the link here

* The site of Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey (follow the link Hero’s Journey on the left-hand side), plus Vogler on YouTube talking about the Hero’s Journey and discussing it using the example of The Matrix

* From my own blog: Tell Me A Story and A Book Is Not A Film

* Online Etymology Dictionary

* Someone asked for a good recommendation on grammar – I always suggest Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax.

* EM Forster defined story as ‘a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence’: The king died, and then the queen died. And plot as ‘also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality’: The king died, and then the queen died of grief.

* Ursula Le Guin on change as the driver of plot:

Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing. Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.

* Stephen King on plot in On Writing:

I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can – I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of a writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course) …

Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.

Plot is … the writer’s jackhammer. You can liberate a fossil from hard ground with a jackhammer, no argument there, but you are going to break almost as much stuff as it liberates. It’s clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort, and the dullard’s last choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and laboured.

I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story … The situation comes first …

A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question:

What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (‘Salem’s Lot)

What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went berserk and started killing everyone in sight? (Desperation)

What if a cleaning woman suspected of a murder she got away with (her husband) fell under suspicion for a murder she did not commit (her employer)? (Dolores Claiborne)

* And some of the books whose plots I often find myself discussing:

* Zoe Heller, Notes On A Scandal – read the opening chapter here
* Sarah Waters, Fingersmith (Best. Plot. Ever.)
* Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain
* JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings
* Nina Stibbe, Man At The Helm
* Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap
* George RR Martin, Game Of Thrones
* Angela Carter, ‘The Werewolf’
* Paula Hawkins, The Girl On The Train
* Kent Haruf, Our Souls At Night
* Jack Kerouac, On The Road
* Jane Austen, Pride And Prejudice
* Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
* Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Friday Writing Experiment No. 62: Receiving, and Giving

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A subject that comes up frequently in the world of writing is that of cultural appropriation: using other people’s voices, or taking stories that peoples claim as their own. People can be sensitive about cultural tourism, and rightly so, given the uneven balance of power through history.

But neither am I comfortable with limits on what we can or cannot write. Writers often bear witness to things they have observed, rather than things they have experienced directly, and the outsider account often has great value. And writers should be free to go beyond their immediate selves, anyway; the imagination is the greatest tool and purpose of writing – and reading.

There are no easy answers to some of the dilemmas that come up, and some of the views expressed can feel righteous and needlessly divisive. Among many pieces on the matter, the following are thought-provoking:

* Lionel Shriver’s speech on cultural appropriation at the Brisbane Writers Festival

* Whose Life Is It Anyway? – other writers responding to Shriver

* Who Gets To Write What? by Kaitlyn Greenidge

* Marlon James on why he’s done talking about diversity

* Marlon James on pandering (this needs to be said)

A few tips I gathered here: the need for humility (Hari Kunzru). ‘Don’t write what you know, write what you want to understand’ (Aminatta Forna). And, especially: ‘Fiction doesn’t appropriate, it creates’ (A.L. Kennedy).

I usually come down in favour of freedom of speech, but most of all I favour the freedom to do what your mother always told you: think before you speak. We live in times of quick reactions in the echo chambers and mirror pools of social media, and it’s good to make time for reflection. One of a writer’s primary duties is to listen.

For writers have to earn the right to write about something beyond their obvious reach. They have to do their homework: research, sounding out expert opinion, trying out work on readers, slowing down to hear the world they’re writing about.

Writers sometimes also have to accept that they don’t get things quite right first time, and take criticism on the chin, and try to do better next time (this applies in many instances). Good writing often asks that we are robust (as writers, as readers), and don’t make hasty responses.

It’s also worth thinking through the meaning of appropriation. Appropriating refers to the act of taking, and the idea of taking has unpleasant connotations – about colonialism, or theft, or stealing someone else’s identity. But most if not all writing is about taking. As Linda Grant says in the Guardian piece linked above: ‘In practical terms we are mostly appropriating, ruthlessly, the lives of our families and our friends, but that’s not the same as cultural appropriation because it has no political freight.’

Why not reconfigure this idea of taking, though, and think of writing as receiving something; it’s a subtly different gesture, a less aggressive exchange that has a greater sense of sharing.

Plus, perhaps anything that is taken can also be balanced out by the act of giving something back in return?

For this week’s writing experimentTake – or rather receive – something from the outside world that’s very different from your own experience, and write about it in a way that not only makes it your own but also gives something back to the world in the process.

Write with authority during this exchange: listen, do the research, test the work on readers, and all the time scrutinise your intention and be sure you are proceeding respectfully with the purpose of being authentic. Maybe even write yourself a memo first, addressing with honesty some of the ethics of taking (receiving) content from the world and getting down some ideas about giving something back. 

Many of these matters boil down to aspects of craft that help turn your writing into the best possible gift to the world: using a well-drawn point of view that (eventually) comes naturally, taking time really to think about a character’s yearnings, choosing the best verbs to power a sentence, pruning excessive adjectives wrapped around a noun.

‘A good novelist is a good observer – everything else is just style,’ says Chris Cleave in that Guardian piece. Be a good receiver, too, and then be a good giver: pay attention to what you observe and receive, and then how you present it and give it back. It’s good to share. 

 

Story Is A State Of Mind

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Today is my first day back at my desk, and even though it feels as if summer only began last week autumn is certainly in the air. This is my favourite time of year. There’s something about the slant of morning light in September that makes me think about fresh notebooks and starting back to school. Maybe I’m just a perennial student at heart. Last September I felt a particular pang of envy, and, as I was taking a short break from reading manuscripts anyway, on a whim one Friday night as the new series of Graham Norton was coming on (no, not more Hollywood hard-sell), I signed up for a creative writing course ‘that approaches writing with the rigour of academia and also as a contemplative practice’. I needed a refresher, and wanted some inspiration, and this felt like a perfect fit.

That course was called Story Is A State Of Mind, which is run by Canadian writer Sarah Selecky, author of the story collection The Cake Is For The Party. The course is online and self-paced, which suited me just fine (I’m also something of a hermit at heart). I started the next day, the Saturday, and organised it into a mini retreat of three weeks, three days for each of the seven units.

Those units have the following titles:

* Freewriting
* What Starts A Story?
* Character
* Dialogue
* Plot and Drift
* Consciousness
* Influence

Each unit includes a lecture, readings and reading debriefs, shorter exercises of writing practice, and a longer writing assignment. These materials come in the form of thoughtful audio podcasts (usually between ten and twenty minutes long), alongside print notes in PDF format transcribing the audio. There are also four video lectures, as well as links to other recordings and videos of writers talking about writing; I found the one with Ira Glass particularly incisive. The podcasts occasionally use breezy transition music that succeeds in being ever so energising in setting the tone for the work you have to do. Jaunty jingles clearly rouse me.

Sarah Selecky is in herself the great inspiration within this course. A lot of thought has clearly gone into making everything work in print as well as in podcasts and video, and Sarah brings a warm and inviting presence that is also grounded in a practical grasp of what it takes to write purposefully and effectively. She offers various tips, which range from obvious reminders, such as carrying a notebook with you at all times, to more personal observations on freeing the imagination. The idea of writing as ‘the kind of knowledge that feels like it is coming out of your body’ really makes sense to me, and I love the idea of letting your writing orbit around you in the same way you hold respect for a person you love:

A dear friend or love is always something of a mystery. The beauty of a deep relationship is that you can orbit around each other for years, always learning new things about each other, always trying to understand each other.

My advice: treat your writing with the same kind of respect.

There are many excellent writing prompts too. One of my favourites is a really good twist on the popular ‘I Remember’ exercise.

I gained many fresh insights. I particularly liked the idea of drift as it relates to plot within your drafting:

The art happens when you go off track.

I also brought away a sense of how I need to pay more attention to dialogue in my own writing. Nothing beats good dialogue for bringing life to a story, does it?

Aspects of craft are introduced artfully and easily, and the course gets the balance just right in explaining important concepts and techniques without constraining your creativity. One of the first exercises gets us to understand (and practise) the difference between showing and telling in a straightforward, intuitive way. There are plenty of fun activities for creating characters, and the first-rate lesson on dialogue contains many thoughtful recommendations on, e.g., the importance of subtext. Point of view is explained with clarity. Many introductory courses get schoolma’amy, or bogged down in jargon that belongs in an English literature classroom. Or they are simply boring. This course, however, feels more like a studio in an art school. It possesses a lightness, and energy, and the emphasis is certainly on fostering ways to write spontaneously and easily.

Everything is extremely well organised, and well designed. The choice of readings as explanations and departure points is particularly strong, and includes work by writers such as Karen Joy Fowler, George Saunders, and Tobias Wolff, as well as a number of writers who were new to me. A number of them are Canadian; Canada seems to produce so many noteworthy writers whose work I enjoy, and this added a further freshness of perspective for me. In addition, an interactive style diagnosis quiz in the section on influence presents recommendations for inspirations in further reading based on your own preferences. Apparently I am a Fearless Creative who might enjoy Lorrie Moore or Mary Gaitskill; this is true!

The focus is, on the whole, on the craft of fiction that is most relevant to writing short stories, but would-be novelists should not be deterred – characterisation and dialogue and attention to detail are things any writer needs to practise and grow, and we have to walk across a room before we can run and go the distance of a marathon. And, too, short stories are a joy in themselves. I’ve had a summer reading many good books, and I dare to say that the ones I enjoyed most were books of short stories. No second best.

Best of all, this course gets you to do lots of writing (LOTS), and to finish a short story. I almost filled a notebook with writing – about 140 handwritten pages in three weeks (which, even though it also includes some notes, is significant creative output for me).

Since I took this course in 2015 it has been renamed the Story Course, and Story Is A State Of Mind is now used as the name of the larger online school it belongs to. Other classes include the Story Intensive (a teacher-guided and interactive version of the Story Course, with classmates and fixed deadlines) and the Story Intensive (a critique course with organised feedback for a story from each member of the class). The Story Course currently costs US$250, and you can enrol and start at any time, and take however long you need to complete it.

I can’t recommend Sarah Selecky’s Story Course highly enough. I’m already a believer in and practitioner of contemplative approaches in writing and learning, and I truly enjoyed everything it gave me. If you want an inspiring entry point into creative writing that also offers a grounding in fundamental techniques, this class ranks among the best. An inspiring Friday-night whim!

Getting Published Day 2016

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Yesterday I book doctored at the Writers’ Workshop Getting Published Day at Regents College. It was a lot of fun. I met some really lovely people and read samples from some interesting works-in-progress. One in particular was very exciting for me: witty, intelligent, and a strong story concept. My enthusiasm had no bounds! (Though the said writer does now have the challenge of writing the second-best opening line in English literature.) I hope the rest of the manuscript is as strong as the opening chapter and synopsis, and I also hope others will soon feel the same. At this point, the prospect of getting published comes down to taste, and finding people who share your vision (agent, editor, readers).

And before taste dictates, it’s usually important to get the craft right. Things that came up in the book doctor surgeries included: bringing more of an edge into the narrative style; deciding what should be revealed when within a story; building the pacing and narrative tension around key moments within the story; the importance of setting; establishing mood; sharpening the prose style. I found myself asking various writers: what are you giving a reader? A good question for any writer who wants to be published (hope it doesn’t prompt an existential crisis).

I also led an hour-long workshop on prose style: Style Brings Substance. There’s never enough time to say all that could be said on such subjects. So it was a brisk romp.

I discussed how I break down my thinking about any piece of writing in terms of: its context; its narrative content (including its dramatic situation); its narrative style (including its structure); and most important of all its prose style, because that is where writing is ultimately experienced – and judged.

I feel that the natural speaking voice is usually the best foundation for our writing, even if it sometimes needs adapting or embellishing. Mood is important in creating intimacy with the reader, and creating an impression relies on our use of style, moment by moment in a piece of writing. I suggested that style is as much about what we leave out of a piece of writing, and what we leave to the reader’s imagination, as what we explain.

Much is a matter of taste, again, but much too can be improved through a strong grasp of the craft, and I stressed the importance of understanding how the different parts of speech work. A few simple pointers:

* Verbs bring energy to a sentence, so aim to be energy-efficient. In fiction, sentences are often most effective when a strong and simple verb of action is used as the main verb of a sentence. A sentence such as ‘He realised he could easily identify at least seven enemy soldiers rapidly running in his direction’ has less force than ‘Half a dozen enemy soldiers were running at him’ or even ‘Half a dozen enemy soldiers ran at him’ – the realising and the easily being able to identify don’t add much, really, do they? They just get in the way. We often simply don’t need realise or remember or sense verbs (e.g., see, hear). Auxiliary verbs (e.g., can, must) can often be lost too.

(And while we were at it, we cleaned up that weirdly precise ‘at least seven’ – we usually want specificity, but I don’t think it works here.)

* Nouns serve as anchors, grounding the writing – which sometimes is necessary, and sometimes is not.

* Interrogate the need for every adjective and adverb in your writing. As Ursula Le Guin says: ‘Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge … The bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.’

* Even prepositions have their moments, e.g., at in ‘Half a dozen soldiers were running at him’.

* Dependent clauses create, um, dependence within a sentence, and sometimes it makes sense to connect clauses in a simpler manner that creates self-contained action, e.g., by breaking the sentence down into separate sentences, or by using the simple conjunction ‘and’ between recast clauses. So (with a few other tweaks for tartness and economy): ‘When he glanced quickly over the top of the freestanding plexiglass partition of his cubicle, he realised he could easily identify at least seven enemy soldiers rapidly running in his direction’ could be improved as ‘He shot a glance over the partition. Half a dozen soldiers were running at him’. The edited version feels much less cluttered.

* It is usually good to let the idea or action within a sentence unfold chronologically.

* Think of the paragraph as a unit of thought or action.

We considered the use of parts of speech as we listened to the opening of Kent Haruf’s fantastic novel Our Souls At Night, whose plain style is beguiling. Here is a writer, I stressed, who gets out of his own way and lets a story simply tell itself.

Revision exercise: Take a piece of your own writing and reduce it to only those nouns it contains. Then the verbs. Then the adjectives, and then do the same for other parts of speech. (This reminds me of an article on reducing books to their marks of punctuation.) What does this tell you about the way in which words are working in your writing? Do you spot any words/habits that might need changing?

I also shared a couple of pages of the intense reading experience that is Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs To Me, (am very excited to see him read tomorrow). This book includes one section that is a 41-page paragraph – a stylistic choice that certainly pays off. As I also stressed: we don’t run marathons without lots of training! But it’s fun to try. And how about another writing experiment?

Revision exercise: Knock every paragraph break out of a piece of writing. How might what remains read differently? Does the new version suggest any changes? Then without referring back, add paragraph breaks back in.

I heartily recommended Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax to anyone who wants a refresher on grammar and usage. And here is a clear explanation of parts of speech from the Purdue Online Writing Lab.

I also link lots of useful things for writers on this page: Resources.

Reading recommendations I made yesterday included: Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft; Stephen King’s On Writing; Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey; and Ronald Tobias’s 20 Master Plots. I also suggested that people writing in that area take a look at Emma Darwin’s Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction from the Teach Yourself series, which comes out this week (I’ve not read it yet, but if it’s by Emma it must be excellent). In addition I recommended the Writers’ Workshop own online self-editing course, run by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin.

My fellow book doctor Shelley Harris also signed my copy of her book Vigilante – out this week in paperback.

Only sad note of the day: losing my lovely linen scarf on the way home 🙁 so in memory of that one of the great poems from one of the great poets: ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop.

Thanks again to the Writers’ Workshop for asking me. Their events are always the best – meeting old friends, and making new ones, all of us joined in our love of writing and books. Stories shared, secrets revealed, dreams inspired – and sometimes set on the road to success. I always come away thinking how writers and book folk are the most interesting people, and the best fun.

A great day all round. I really love my job!

Learning From Poets

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I use poetry a lot in my teaching, but I don’t consider myself a poet and I don’t edit poetry as such (my frequent response to a poem has been, ‘Couldn’t you make it a bit shorter?’). A few things have recently set me to thinking about what I, as an editor and writer, have learned from poets and poetry.

This last week I read posts by Isabel Rogers and Isabel Costello on Isabel C’s Literary Sofa, as well as an article by Trevor Conway on the ways in which we encounter and consume poetry. They interrogate something of an assumption that many of us have inherited: the idea that poetry needs defending, or apologising for, or a gentle easing in. Because poetry is obscure, dense, intimidating. Poetry is hard.

There is a fear of poetry. What’s all that about?!

A lot goes back to how poetry is first encountered in formal settings. Even my beloved English teacher Mrs Blakemore thought poetry might be too much of a challenge for working-class kids from the Black Country studying for their O-level in English Literature, so she schooled us in My Family And Other Animals instead (which remains one of my favourite books EVER, along with two other fantastic texts we studied – Huckleberry Finn and The Woman In White – so I can’t complain).

Maybe never getting that education in poetry at an early age, when understanding can still become instinctive, accounts for why I’m still not great with knowing a dactyl from an anapaest (but then again, I never learned my times tables either). I regret not having strong skills in recitation, though Mrs B did make us learn a couple of monologues from The Merchant of Venice, and I’m still able to summon some of them up today. ‘The quality of mercy is not strained …’

I mostly skipped through/over poetry during my BA in American Studies and an MA in English Literature, and when I worked in-house for a publisher poetry tended to be filed away under ‘Doesn’t Sell’ (along with, back then, vampires and nature writing).

But in my twenty-first century incarnation, I’ve engaged with poetry in more meaningful ways. An early lesson has been deciding that poetry should not be hard. Like Shakespeare (who is, after all, mostly poetry), it’s there to be enjoyed and understood, and if I’m not enjoying and understanding, I can either 1. try to understand, or 2. read something else. Goes for all literature, really.

Another important lesson: ‘poetry’ is a vast definition, so vast it’s almost meaningless. It many ways it is, basically, all of writing as art. It covers verse and prose, story and lyric and incomprehensible gibberish, haiku and epics and limericks. Talking of: limericks makes me think of the first ditty I memorised, via my grandmother:

There was an old lady from Ealing,
Who had a peculiar feeling.
She lay on her back,
And opened her crack,
And piddled all over the ceiling.

See: I had poetry in my blood from the very start.

My greatest gratitude for understanding poets and poetry came from the MFA in Writing & Poetics that I took at Naropa University. I had the opportunity to study at a couple of perfectly respectable and conventional (dull) English departments in Colorado, but I had already done that once before (dull English department); how could I resist a Buddhist university whose English department was founded by Allen Ginsberg and is called the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics?

I was in the prose track, but it was probably from the poets that I gained most. I hadn’t quite expected this, but I was immersed in a world where poetry was the dominant form of writing. I had brilliant fiction teachers in Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Laird Hunt, and Keith Abbott, but they all write poetry as well, and in some instances they are/were married to poets. Everyone at Naropa is married to poetry.

I discovered that Gertrude Stein is not difficult to grasp if read aloud or listened to, rather than consumed in silence. I took a semester-long seminar on Ezra Pound in which we read The Cantos in its entirety. I studied William Blake; I treasure the memory of a class discussing Songs of Innocence and Experience during a Boulder snowstorm, gobs of white swirling against a vast black sky.

I also took a seminar in Critical Theory, and one day next to a grade on a response paper received some of the most valuable feedback: ‘An essay is like a poem: every word counts.’ (A blog is like a poem, too, but it doesn’t stop me.)

Poetry remains a living thing for me today. My friend Mary Kite, whose haiku from Santa Fe I read most days on Facebook. Memories of Anne Waldman’s fierce performances at Summer Writing Programs. Jack Collom’s The Old Woods. Workshops where I use Carolyn Forché’s The Colonel (poetry? prose? do we care?). Rereading Patsy Alford’s magical Mrs God poems. (I think Patsy is my favourite poet from my days at Naropa.)

Something else that took me back to Naropa this week was reading a couple of wonderful pieces in the New York Times on Eileen Myles: such a funny and clever contrarian, and a wonderful stylist who writes heartbreakingly beautiful poetry to defy her slightly scary image. I feel very lucky to have seen her read: mesmerising.

The poetry world can be a supportive community; this is often the case in certain circles of genre and YA/children’s writing, too, but there is something quite captivating about the dynamics of eccentrics and weirdos in poetry circles. So I grew excited about the idea Eileen Myles mentions in one of those articles of a tv show about poets, which set me to dreaming of something in the vein of Looking or Transparent. Of course, any tv show about poets could not be written by a poet, hahaha! The poetry world can also be a bitchy clattering of egos (takes one to know one) that might seem best experienced from the fringes, though maybe that’s true for any community when it looks like cliques, and maybe it’s also true that any closed world is best observed from its fringes.

When I was (a student) at Naropa I used to joke with a few (fiction-writing) friends that poets were wankers (this was behind the poets’ backs, of course, and I contained myself when I became a teacher there). Maybe it was the fact that poets are writing in a shorter form (sometimes …) that they seem to have so many words left over for talking, and so often those so many words are about themselves?! Oh my – the introductions at poetry readings! We used to take bets on how long they’d run. Many of them were longer than the poems, and the a/c in the Performing Arts Centre was chilly when we were on the fifth slot of the night (plus intervals). I also never forget the gulping noises that came from a handbag the night its owner brought her pet guinea pig to a reading. Or the night a friend wanked her boyfriend off in the back row: now, did that really happen? Yes, I’m sure it did. That’s what I meant by wankers (too).

Some self-described experimental poetry – or maybe I mean experimental poets – can, for me, shift into the pretentious a little too quickly. I find a lot of the chatter about, e.g., language poetry or new narrative dry and reedy. Shut up with the theory, and transport me with the spell of your words, or tell me a story, okay? Just don’t theorise about it yourself. Or use the word body in your poems … nooooooo, total turn-off. Though I try to be kind, I think I’ve probably heard more than my share of what Isabel R calls ‘heartfelt, non-scanned, non-rhyming nonsense’. I know that poetry often needs to be unpicked and deciphered, and maybe I just don’t get it. But I also know that I don’t need to be patronised by gibberish.

I do find a lot of the contemporary British poetry I’ve been exposed to thin, stiff, and dull, though maybe I just need to get out more. When I studied poetry at a prestigious English department, most of the discussion was thin, stiff, and dull, even when we were talking about my favourite poet-to-be, Elizabeth Bishop. Maybe it’s a British thing. But then I read someone like Toby Martinez de las Rivas, and I remember poetry is a broad church, and I probably do need to get out more.

But the Isabels’ pieces made me think about other lessons. There are lessons in sound: rhythm, rhyme, the music of words. Lessons in precision (again: every word counts).

There are also lessons in mood. Not everything has to be explained in every sort of writing; a significant weakness in a lot of the prose I read is that it tries to explain too much, at the expense of suggestion and impression. Fiction isn’t like academic writing, or technical writing, or journalism, which needs to clarify and ass-cover comprehensively. Much in writing – and reading – can and should work through the act of interpretation.

Poetry also helps you see the world anew, as in the inadvertent yet compelling performance poetry of Sarah Palin. Poetry keeps us on our toes.

The greatest lesson I take from poets, though, is not so much from their work but from their ethos. They are writing it for the love of it. Poets embark on their writing fully aware that their writing is unlikely to sell. It might deserve wider circulation, but they know it’s highly unlikely they can make a living or even a pittance from it. But they write their poems anyway.

I guess writers in other genres write their writing anyway, but sometimes I wonder if beginning writers of fiction are grasping towards the idea of publishing a little too, um, prematurely, and the very idea of publishing is getting in the way. And the hard facts of our material economy mean that unless you are writing something that other people will want to read (and that really is a gamble), it’s going to be tough to make a living selling your own books. And there are plenty of other things out there vying for our readers’ time: gym memberships, Netflix, Pizza Express, blogs. Some of us do our best to help writers do their best to get their work out there, but no one owes you a living, and even an agent or a publisher will only owe you what you agreed with them when you signed on the dotted line. And I am sure most agents and publishers are only hoping for the best too.

Meanwhile the poets are there, in the coffeeshops, at the microphones, in the libraries, on the bus, scratching out their poems regardless.

Lesson: Write because you love it. That sounds corny and simple, but sometimes I think that core idea gets lost. And we always have to come back to that thing we love, because that is probably where the writing will come alive, free of anxieties (about pitching our books, about Amazon rankings). And maybe, maybe that is the writing that will attract readers, and get published, and then attract more readers …

Part of me is slightly embarrassed that I wrote this post, because it might be read by some of my poet friends. You’re not all wankers! And also because it seems a bit silly to behold poets as objects, and explain why poetry is good for writers. But then I tell myself that many writers do in fact resist the idea of poetry, and there is much to be gained from it. So go on: make the next book you read a work of poetry.

Two of the three books I’ve finished so far this year (with many others in progress …) are works of poetry: Citizen by Claudia Rankine, and Physical by Andrew McMillan. And this set me to deciding on a belated new year resolution of reading or rereading a book of poetry a week. My third is Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island Of The Mind. My fourth will come from the stack in the photo above.

It’s a good resolution, because it’s probably one of the easiest to stick to if you love books and reading. There are plenty of short poetry books, after all, and maybe, maybe you can also fit in someone’s Complete Works, or some Homer too? (God knows I tried and failed with Moby-Dick – again – last year.)

Poetry is not just a means, but an end in itself.

Here are a few resources for writing as well as reading poetry, should you want to explore some more. Lot of free poems too – poets are generous souls.

Poetry For Dummies – a fun intro, especially for the fearful and the uninitiated, and the people who wrote it from the San Francisco Poetry Center are certainly not dummies

* Jack Collom and Sheryl Noethe, Poetry Everywhere – a super book for establishing a poetry practice using different forms

* Jack Collom’s brilliant Ecosystem of Writing Ideas

* Bernadette Mayer’s Writing Experiments

Poetry Society

Poetry Foundation

Academy of American Poets

* Electronic Poetry Center and its Library and Charles Bernstein’s Experiments