Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Looking In, Looking Out

The Difference in Writing Fiction and Poetry

One of the classes I lead is a creative writing class, mostly focused on the development of strong, realistic fiction writing. This presents a few challenges to me, the largest of which is that I tend to write far more poetry than fiction myself. Not that I never throw down a good short story now and then, but poetry is much closer to the front of my compositional mind.

I tried and failed to explain this to my students, who - firstly - could not possibly fathom why anyone would ever consider writing poetry when not required to. Secondly, though, many of them didn't see how free verse poetry differs much from fiction writing. "It's just put into lines and stanzas," they said.

Well, no it isn't.

It's not just a completely different genre. It's a totally different view of the world, and a uniquely singular way of reporting it to the reader.

Writing fiction is about telling stories, and about looking into houses. It is about peeking into people’s lives, noticing the unnoticed, the small details that can make the fictitious realistic. The nervous swishing of a hand through hair, a man pouring his coffee in the kitchen, the fragile hips of an old dog swaying painfully as she ambles to the door – these are the things that often go unnoticed by us as we swing our sickles through the fields of life. 

But these are the moments that a fiction writer must catch and point out, saying to the reader, “See, I bet you would have missed that, wouldn’t you?” Well, here it is, lying truthfully on the page, adding that little bit of life that brings a story from being just a series of events, to being an episode of existence.  

Poetry is quite the opposite. If story telling is about looking in, then poetry is looking out. Poetry is gazing outward from your own window and telling the truth – the real truth – about what is there. In poetry, we make no efforts to hide reality, however simple or brutal it may be. 

What is mysterious, what is mortal, what is funny, what is too difficult or perhaps too obvious to think about – these are the forgotten and ignored horses that poets hitch to the front of the team. In this way, poetry and fiction share a heart – the heart of bringing the overlooked to the forefront of the readers’ attention.

I can only hope to show my students this, and to guide them to experience it for themselves.

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