One of the wonderful things about my 31 days of blogging on mental and creative resilience is how I have made the acquaintance of new and interesting people who are finding ways to enhance their own creativity and are trying new things. One of these people is Fiona Melrose. She told me how attending a poetry course had revolutionised how she approached writing longer pieces. I immediately wanted to hear more since poetry and rhythm are important aspects of my own prose. In this guest post Fiona explains to us how her poetry course taught her to write from ‘inside the word’ then move out to the sentence. Here is her most interesting post.
As an elective of my MA I signed up for the 6 week poetry Module with poet Liane Strauss. I had, like many writers, dabbled with poetry but never with any serious intention. By the end of the six week course, my poetry was much improved but as a prose writer everything had changed, and all for the better.
I came to the poetry course at a time when I was struggling with my writing on a fundamental level. I had over fifty thousand neurotic, empty words sitting in a drawer and none of them, I felt, had anything to do with who I am or what I hoped to achieve as a writer.
The course changed the way I write from the inside out not only in terms of technique but in terms of subject matter. Both the art and the craft of writing were turned on their heads. I have thought about this at some length trying to understand how so fundamental a shift could have occurred.
The most important archeology took place around the sentence. Given that, in my abandoned novel, the larger sweeps of plot and form were failing me, the return to not only the sentence but the weight and play of individual words in them, was the perfect place to start to rebuild my writing. Writing poetry demands a forensic attention. Not only to the moment you are trying to capture or express but on a technical level too. Each point of punctuation can fundamentally alter the heft and meaning of your entire poem. This taught me to write from inside the word and then out to the sentence, then the paragraph and so on. This is not to say I always achieve this but at least I now know what I am aiming for.
Clarity and economy are synonymous with good poetry and if ever I learned to cut and edit sentences it was here. Instead, rhythm and texture are all a by product of the sentence and the number of breaths it takes to express its meaning. The oral nature of poetry made me so much more aware of how my sentences sound and how my breath travels through them. This has also translated into how I can inhabit a character’s voice. I have never really understood what it means when we speak about “voice” in fiction and the importance of finding it in oneself. The poetry course taught me that it is a person’s own natural poetry. How their age, culture, physicality, their most secret thoughts, all come together in the sound they make when they speak, be it direct speech (dialogue) or narration.
Poetry is rich is symbolism and metaphor, everything matters. There is no colour, animal , sound, allusion that isn’t there for a reason. Everything is working on at least two levels, possibly more. This has made me much more aware of what might previously have been dismissed as “incidentals” in my fiction. If I write about a tree is is a tree but it is also about a family tree about rootedness in the tribe and about belonging. If a dog dies it is also about the death of a loyal bond and the dog in the Fool card in the tarot deck which represents the original self, the unencumbered soul. Foxes feature heavily in my novel and much thought has gone into that choice. For me, these choices put the poetry into the prose.
The course had its difficulties for me too. The very personal often confessional nature of poetry demanded that I be more visceral about what I was prepared to put on the page. I have an analytical, academic training and in retrospect my “first” book had a distance too it. I found writing poetry in the first person very challenging. Sharing it made me feel vulnerable and I felt it too confessional, even vulgar or indiscrete. I am still no fan of this type of writing, but, I know that it has taught me to much braver on the page, seeking out the tooth and claw in a sentence and in a character as opposed avoiding it.
I wrote a short story just after the poetry class and for the first time the voice of the character came to me as naturally as if it where my own. For the first time in fiction writing, I felt less as if I was trying to make something up than I was trying to get something down. It was less about manufacturing a plot or character and felt more as if I were simply transcribing the images and scenes unfolding a few inches above my head and the words I was hearing in the character’s voice. This story just came out in one exhalation and sounded nothing like me or anything I had written before. It has become the basis for my new novel.
I believe that writing poetry allowed me to continue to write and explore my creative process but forced the expression through non-habitual routes and in so doing produced a more exciting, non-habitual response. I cannot recommend this enough.
Course: The 6-week poetry elective with poet Liane Strauss was part of the MA Creative Writing at Birckbeck, University of London. As students we produced a short collection of poems and a critical essay on an aspect of the craft.
Fiona Melrose was born in Johannesburg where she studied and taught politics. She is a writer, reviewer and blogger. Her short fiction has been published and she is completing her first novel. Fiona lives in Suffolk with two charming dogs who approve of her habit of writing stories in her head on long muddy walks.
You can follow Fiona on twitter at @papercutprint and visit her site at site www.papercutpublishing.tumblr.com
Sincere thanks to Fiona on this fascinating post. Please post a comment if you have experienced a course or activity that has changed how you write.