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Last summer at the Grand Lake retreat, I took William Haywood Henderson’s “Poetry of Character” class. He talked about how poetic language lends depth and beauty to fiction, and how one poetic passage rich with imagery can tell your reader more about a character than pages of description. One of the exercises involved reading a poem and using the poem’s imagery in a bit of narrative writing. The goal was to reveal something new and surprising about a character in our fiction. It’s an exercise I return to often.
When I write, I find I’m mostly obsessed with telling a story. I love creating characters in a world where exciting or terrifying things happen. Because I have no idea where a story will go when I start writing, the first draft is a process of discovery. This character can’t swim? Let’s get him in some water. That character hates her mother? Let’s lock them in a small, hot room together. Some ideas work out; some don’t. It’s a terribly inefficient way to write, but it’s the only way I know. Because I spend time chasing plot (unfashionable, I realize), I sometimes neglect the language of a story. But here is something I’ve discovered: action doesn’t work if the language isn’t right. Poets know this.
I know it’s time to turn to poetry when my characters are just shuffling around on the page, when they lack purpose and motivation and depth. Recently, I was working on a scene where a character is lost in what should be a familiar stretch of forest. The scene was flat. The character was flat. She was nothing more than a girl wandering amongst the trees. So I reached for some nearby poetry. I read “The Trashpickers, Madison Street” by Naomi Shihab Nye. Here is the final stanza of the poem:
They dream small dreams, furry ones,
a swatch of velvet passed hand-to-hand.
Their hearts are compasses fixed to the ground
and their love, more like moss than fire.
Those four lines are filled with beautiful, strange, evocative images, but it was this line that led me out my writing funk: “Their hearts are compasses fixed to the ground.” Those words brought me back to the core of my story. My character was lost. Her heart compass was malfunctioning. I went back to my scene, the imagery and cadence of Nye’s poetry in my mind. The scene took on deeper meaning. The language and imagery fed the whole story. The plot moved forward with purpose. That’s the great thing about poetry. Every line and every word matters so much. Every part of the poem contains the meaning of the poem. Novels are no different. Every word should matter. Every scene should count. I know this, but I have to rediscover it again and again. Thank goodness I have the poets to guide me.
“Resolution Write” is a blog series offering writing tips from Lighthouse faculty and members. We’ll feature posts throughout January to inspire writers who’ve resolved to make 2015 a productive and successful writing year.