July 20, 2009

Am I a Writer? (Part Dos)

Am I a Writer?In my creative writing classes, the frequent follow-up to the question “Am I a writer?” is “Do you think I have what it takes to be a writer?”

Beyond developing patience, perseverance and a thick skin, the two essential qualities that a writer should have are the ability to generate ideas (a creative imagination) and to transform these ideas into a recognizable form (Art vs. Craft Gap--A Writer's Paradox).

The creative imagination can be nurtured by reading, meditating, or as Walt Whitman said, “I loaf and invite my soul.” The ability to transform an idea into a recognizable form can be taught in a workshop or in any educational setting. In my short story workshops I teach students how to create a set-up with compelling characters--their motivations (what's at stake?) and histories; pace dialogue and narrative to reveal the conflict between the main characters and advance the plot; develop subsequent scenes as a result of the inciting incident and the characters reactions; plot the change that occurs in the protagonist and antagonist during the ordeal, and to conclude with a satisfying ending.

When the creative imagination and the craft of writing (technical/foundational skills & concepts) come together, the magic of art occurs. In other words, whenever the imagination is focused on a subject through the medium of craft, something new is created. And depending on the expansiveness of the imagination and the technical ability of the artist, the more remarkable the work of art. For example, in "Forty Acres: A Poem for Barack Obama" Derek Walcott brings together Barack Obama’s inauguration, the historical legacy of "forty acres and a mule," the work of Jasper Johns and Hart Benton with sensuous metaphors and a stentorian voice to match the gravity of the occasion (Derek Walcott @ CABA). Walcott’s poem matches Coleridge’s definition of poetry: “The best words in the best order.”

In this case, the “best” words would be the metaphors and imagery that illuminate the ideas and the “best” order would be the arrangement of the sounds through diction and rhythm to enhance the poet’s intention. It may be useful to think of poetry as a contemplation that uses language, primarily rhythm and metaphor, to convey ideas, emotions, actions, or a state of being.*

The skill that Walcott displays takes time because no one is born a poet. One may be born with certain characteristics that may help the would-be poet with writing “the best words in the best order," but it takes enormous discipline be able to pull off this kind of performance.

For there are so many writers who have mastered the craft of writing verse or writing short stories, but they have not developed their creative imaginations. Similarly, there are those who have many ideas, but lack the skill to communicate through rhythm and metaphor. These are usually the kinds of poets against whom GM Palmer fulminates and they are worth mentioning because of our culture’s fascination with originals and the avant-garde--which has its appeal, but has nothing to do with the practice of poetry.

For these poets, their logic goes something like this: “I am a poet; therefore anything that I write or do must be poetry.”

This, of course, is arrant nonsense. If one were to follow this syllogism, then anything that anyone (who calls himself a poet) writes, a supermarket list or a doodle during a meeting, becomes poetry to which, if we cannot find the nearest exit, we are subjected for hours of endless declamation. The only problem with that line of reasoning is if everything is poetry, then nothing is poetry.

But this is not anything new. Gore Vidal in Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952-1972 offered this sage advice:

For every Scott Fitzgerald concerned with the precise word and the selection of relevant incident, there are a hundred American writers, many well regarded, who appear to believe that one word is just as good as another, and that anything that pops into the head is worth putting down. It is an attitude unique to us and deriving, I would suspect, from a corrupted idea of democracy: if everyone and everything is of equal value, then any word is as good as any other to express a meaning. Or to put it another way, if everyone is equally valuable, then anything the writer (who is valuable) writes must be valuable, so why attempt another selection?

The line of reasoning, "if everyone is equally valuable, then anything the writer (who is valuable) writes must be valuable, so why attempt another selection?” also betrays a misunderstanding of being and doing. Our default position is human being: I am. To that we may add an infinite amount of combinations: I am writing this post for my blog, etc. I am not a blogger. When I am not blogging, etc., I revert to being a mere mortal: I am.

The sad truth is that there art no shortcuts in creating art. We must nurture our creative imaginations with the kinds of activities that should spark an idea and continue to hone our craft by learning how to write the “best words in the best order.” And even then, the rewards that we may be expecting, publication, a prize, or that girl going out with us, may never happen.

Perhaps the most fulfilling way to look at writing is as a kind of Jnana yoga that will lead one beyond doubt and fear into a realization of oneself or that beatific state that Abraham Maslow called self-actualization.


*There are always qualifications. For as Kwame Dawes has pointed out, there are many types of poetry. And genius, which is as subversive as love, will always shatter our plodding, calculated categories. So let's just say that I have a preference for poetry that succeeds at creating an aesthetic event which as Reginald Shepherd (emphasis mine) said, "...poems are, or should be, experiences in themselves, and not just accounts of or commentaries on experience; they should be additions to the world, not simply annotations to it"


The Top 10 Things Every Writer Should Know.

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Stephen A. Bess said...

I agree with you, Geoffrey. There is a certain art to writing poetry and short stories. Otherwise, it would be a direct insult to the great writers of the past and present. This is why I sometime write Haiku because there is a specific formula to Haiku. As you know, if one deviates from that formula then it ceases to be Haiku. I have also dabbled in other poetic formulas to test my skill and ability. Then there are times when my writing style is much like "Abracadabra" or "I will create, as I speak." In all honesty, those are the times when I just hope for the best. :)

Geoffrey Philp said...

Stephen, and the frustrating part is even when you follow the form and you know you have the right ideas, words, etc., the "magic" doesn't happen. The poem dies on the page.

Thanks for the contribution.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Excellent post, Geoffrey, thanks - and interesting links too, I'll need to come back to read the rest of them later!

The art vs craft gap is definitely a paradox, that i suspect a lot of people don't know about.

I like the quote about a poem being an experience in itself, that's certainly something to aim for!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Yes, Crafty. The poem as an xperience in itself is what I aim for every time.