This declarative sentence was spoken by Don Corleone (played by Marlon Brando) in the movie The Godfather (1972).
It is not uncommon for women and other minority groups to add qualifiers to their statements. Such as ‘Parents need to stop organising every minute of their children’s spare time, don’t you think?’ ‘I loved that movie, didn’t you?’ In our sentence structure we look for reinforcement for our thoughts and opinions. We don’t always make declarative statements. ‘This is wonderful.’ ‘This is a catastrophe.’ We look for re-enforcement from others.
Another thing we do without realising it, is use indefinite modifiers in our speech: perhaps, maybe, somehow. ‘Maybe I’ll take a trip somewhere.’ As if the speaker has no power to make a decision. ‘Perhaps it will change.’ Again, not a clear declarative sentence like, ‘Yes, nothing stays the same.’
It is important for us as writers to express ourselves in clear assertive sentences. ‘This is excellent.’ ‘It was a red dress.’ Not ‘The thing is, I know it sounds a bit vague, but I think maybe it was a red dress.’ Speaking in declarative sentences is a good rehearsal for trusting your own ideas, in standing up for yourself, for speaking out your truth.
When I write poetry I read through early drafts with a critical eye, taking out indefinite words and modifiers. I attempt to distill each moment to its essence by peeling off the layers until the heart of the poem is exposed. We need to take risks as writers and go deep within ourselves to find our unique voices and express ourselves with clarity.
Even if you are not 100% sure about your own opinions and thoughts write as if you are sure. Dig deep. Be clear. Don’t be vague on the page. If you keep practicing this, you will eventually reveal your own deep knowing.
Have you noticed this tendency to qualify in your conversations with others, or in your creative writing, or in blog posts? Would love to hear your thoughts.
One of my favourite books on the writing process is The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. It’s a small but passionate guide to the terrain of a writer’s world.
Annie Dillard has written eleven books, including the memoir of her parents, An American Childhood; the Northwest pioneer epic The Living; and the nonfiction narrative Pilgrim at Tinker Creek winner of the 1975 Pullizer Prize. A gregarious recluse, she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
“For non-writers, The Writing Life is a glimpse into the trials and satisfactions of a life spent with words. For writers, it is a warm, rambling, conversation with a stimulating and extraordinarily talented colleague.””–Chicago Tribune””A kind of spiritual Strunk & White, a small and brilliant guidebook to the landscape of a writer’s task…Dillard brings the same passion and connective intelligence to this narrative as she has to her other work.”– “Boston Globe””For her book is…scattered with pearls. Each reader will be attracted to different bright parts…Gracefully and simply told, these little stories illuminate the writing life…Her advice to writers is encouraging and invigorating.”– “Cleveland Plain Dealer””The Writing Life is a spare volume…that has the power and force of a detonating bomb…A book bursting with metaphors and prose bristling with incident.”– “Detroit News”
When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year. You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon. You hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins. The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool. The new place interests you because it is not clear. You attend. In your humility, you lay down the words carefully, watching all the angles. Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless. Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.
Which books on writing process have you found to be inspiring?
There’s my name on the cover of September Quadrant. First time I’ve made it to the cover under Poetry. This month it’s a prose poem titled AMBER PUPPY. I share the honour with poets Jamie Grant, Isi Unikowski, Francine Rochford, James Ackburst, Tim Train, Ugo Rotellini and Andrew Lansdown.
And there’s the white envelope containing my cheque. Halleluja!
So what is a prose poem?
Dictionary: a piece of imaginative poetic writing in prose.
Poetry Foundation: A prose composition that, while not broken into verse lines, demonstrates other traits such as symbols, metaphors, and other figures of speech common to poetry …
Wikipedia: Prose poetry is poetry written in prose form instead of verse form, while preserving poetic qualities such as heightened imagery, parataxis, and emotional effects.
Academy of American Poets: Though the name of the form may appear to be a contradiction, the prose poem essentially appears as prose, but reads like poetry. In the first issue of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, editor Peter Johnson explained, “Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels.” While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. The prose poem can range in length from a few lines to several pages long, and it may explore a limitless array of styles and subjects.
I love writing prose poems. They are definitely my preferred writing form just now.
Have a read of AMBER PUPPY. Quadrant magazine is available in newsagents, some book stores, online and in libraries.
‘My attention span had gone out on me; I no longer had the patience to try to write novels. … I know it has much to do now with why I write poems and short stories. Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.’
‘Every great or even every very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications.’
‘It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent.’
‘Isak Dinesan said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair.’
‘”Fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing,” Ezra Pound.’
‘It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine – the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That’s the kind of writing that most interests me.’
‘That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say.’
‘I like it when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories.’
‘I made the story just as I’d make a poem; one line and then the next, and the next.’
‘V.S. Pritchett’s definition of a short story is “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.” Notice the “glimpse” part of this. First the glimpse.’
‘The short story writer’s task is to invest the glimpse with all that is in his power. He’ll bring his intelligence and literary skill to bear (his talent), his sense of proportion and sense of the fitness of things – like no one else sees them. And this is done through the use of clear and specific language, language used so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader. For the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given. The words can be so precise they may even sound flat, but they can still carry, if used right, they can hit all the notes.’
Raymond Carver, Fires, Vintage 1989
So who is Raymond Carver?
Raymond Carver, in full Raymond Clevie Carver, (born May 25, 1938, Clatskanie, Oregon, U.S.—died August 2, 1988, Port Angeles, Washington), American short-story writer and poet whose realistic writings about the working poor mirrored his own life. – Encyclopedia Britannica
In the Saturday-afternoon feedback group, we began talking about the ‘off with his head’ or ‘out-it-goes’ part of writing. We acknowledged that as a group we’d always been very supportive and encouraging of each others work. That was because we were all in it together. Our critiquing was not telling lies; it was from a place of open-hearted acceptance. Everything you put on the page is acceptable.
Sometimes someone says, ‘I want a rigorous no-holds-barred assessment of my work.’ But what do you say to them when the writing is dull and boring? Don’t give up your day job? It doesn’t sit comfortably with most of us to be directly critical of someone’s writing. It’s like telling someone how ugly their baby is. All of us find it hard to separate our writing from ourselves, and are prone to take criticism personally.
The feedback sandwich is a widely known technique for giving constructive feedback, by ‘sandwiching’ the criticism between two pieces of praise or compliments.
Yesterday, as we passed around copies of our work (just a page or two) we started to address what William Faulkner famously said:
‘In writing, you must kill all your darlings.’
First of all, we looked for the juice in each piece. Where did the writing come alive? ‘Get rid of the rest,’ we said. ‘Off with his head—out it goes.’ It’s very difficult to be this honest, and not everyone wants to hear it. ‘I simply want gentle support and a few corrections,’ some of us might say.
Be willing to have the courage to look at your work with truthfulness. It’s good to know where your writing has energy and vitality, rather than to spend a lot of time trying to make something come to life that is dead on the page. Keep writing. Something new will come up. You don’t want to put your readers to sleep by writing a lot of boring material.
Sometimes there’d be a person in one of my creative writing classes who was obviously very talented. I can bring to mind one in particular. You could sense people holding their breath as she read, and often her hands shook. The writing process opened her up. She said she had wanted to write for years. She was so excited about writing that she straight away wanted to write a book. I said to her, slow down. Just practice writing for a while. Learn what this is all about.
The journey to completing a book reminds me of training to become a sushi chef.
In Japan becoming an itamae of sushi requires years of on-the-job training and apprenticeship. After five years spent working with a master or teacher itamae, the apprentice is given his first important task, the preparation of the sushi rice.
Writing, like becoming a Sushi Chef, is a life’s work and takes a lot of practice. The process is slow, and at the start you are not sure what you are making.
Futomaki (“thick roll” – rice on inside, nori on the outside)
Uramaki (“inside-out roll” – rice on outside, nori on the inside)
Temaki (“hand roll” – cone-shaped roll)
That’s how it was for me. I thought I could jump in and write a book in 6 months. In fact, it took me 20 years to write a publishable manuscript. My debut novel, ‘My Year With Sammy’, the story of a difficult yet sensitive child, published by Ginninderra Press in 2015 went on to be Pick of the Week in Spectrum Books and winner of the Society of Women Writers Fiction Book Award in 2016.
So cut yourself some slack before you head off on a writing marathon.
Writing is like learning to prepare the rice for sushi: the apprenticeship is long, and in the beginning you are not sure whether a Futomaki, a Uramaki or a Temaki will be the end result.
Every once in a while, when I’m scratching around for something new to write, I make a list of the things I obsess about. Thankfully, some of them change over time, but there are always new ones to fill the gap.
It’s true that writers write about what they think about most of the time. Things they can’t let go: things that plague them; stories they carry around in their heads waiting to be heard.
Sometimes I used to get my creative writing groups to make a list of the topics they obsess about so they can see what occupies their thoughts during their waking hours. After you write them down, you can use them for spontaneous writing before crafting them into stories. They have much power. This is where the juice is for writing. They are probably driving your life, whether you realise it or not, so you may as well use them rather than waste your energy trying to push them away. And you can come back to them repeatedly.
One of the things I’m always obsessing about is relationships: relationships in families, relationships with friends, relationships with lovers. That’s what I tend to write about. I think to myself, Why not? Rather than repress my obsessions, explore them, go with the flow. And life is always changing, so new material keeps presenting itself.
We are driven by our passions. Am I the only one who thinks this? For me these compulsions contain the life force energy. We can exploit that energy. The same with writing itself. I’m always thinking and worrying about my writing, even when I’m on holidays.
But not all compulsions are a bad thing. Get involved with your passions, read about them, talk to other people about them and then they will naturally become ‘grist for the mill’.
What about you? Do you find yourself writing about the same things over and over again?