“Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting with the gift of speech.” – Simonides
I’ve taken exactly one creative writing course. I took it at the University of Hawaii and it was awesome, yet completely unexpected. It was a tag-team taught class. Steven Goldsberry had just published Maui the Demigod, which for any islander is a must read, and he is the author of The Writer’s Book of Wisdom, a book every single author should own. Period. Full stop. Yes, it sits proudly on my resource shelf in my new Author’s Cave. Robert Onopa has written loads of science fiction stories for Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, my favorite of which was Biosphere Reserve. Wow! Just Wow! All of their goodies are out on Amazon, so please go check them out!!!
But back in 1984, when I walked into class for the first time, I hadn’t read any of them. I just knew I wanted to be an author, and as such, I knew I had to have a day job so I could eat and pay rent, and I knew had to know how to write. I was expecting to fast forward into full write-till-your-fingers-bleed sessions of storytelling. Uh-uh. Not gonna happen. Mr. Goldsberry took the first several weeks of the class. For poetry.
Poetry?! I raged… Poetry isn’t storytelling! I don’t do poetry. Poetry is for sissies. I want swords and blood and battles. Arrrgh! Poetry! Seriously? But the only way to get to the fiction writing was to make it past Cerberus, and learn about poetry. No, Mr. Goldsberry does not have three heads. It was a metaphor, something I was about to learn.
May I direct your attention to Rule #50 on page 114 of The Writer’s Book of Wisdom? “The discipline of poetry will sharpen your sentences.” I had no idea how powerful a single word in the right place at the right time could be. In those few weeks, I learned to distill a scene down to its essence like a fine single malt whisky. To get an image across in a bare minimum of words.
My favorite image was from a poem I wrote about walking home from the bus stop, where I turned the neighbor’s Pekingese into ‘an indignant rag mop poinking on paws of rubber bands’. Okay, I’ll admit it’s not Wordsworth, but I liked it enough to remember it nearly thirty years later. The line still makes me smile, and I can still see the little guy bouncing along the fence to make sure I kept on walking. I had no clue that I could do that.
Don’t get me wrong. I have not been completely converted. I don’t own a huge white shirt and sit in angst 24/7. With Positivity as my number four strength, I would drive myself batty attempting to stay depressed enough to write one of those really deep poems that are currently all the rage. My bookshelves have very little poetry on them. Just the few I dearly love. If I buy a book of poetry, at least one poem made it past my own inner Cerberus. In one case, it’s a poem called The Train of Thought from Echoes, Neo-Victorian Poetry by Janice T. I also have Shakespeare and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Elliot. But that’s about it.
That being said, if I feel like a scene is just not working, or is straying off-track, I remember Rule #50, and pull out my favorite two types of poetry: Haiku and Englyn. (I’m also partial to the limerick, but using those for action sequences tends to make them dissolve into madness and hilarity.) As an analyst, I’m better writing poetry in a structure than in the free verse format used by a lot of modern poets. So Haiku. Englyn. What are they? They are essentially the same thing but from different parts of the world.
Haiku is Japanese poetry in three lines: the first is five syllables, the second is seven syllables and the third is five syllables. Rhyming isn’t necessary, and the poems will generally deal with imagery and surprise rather than action. Englyn is ancient Welsh poetry in one of eight bardic meters. Most are four lines of seven to ten syllables depending on the meter, rhyming either at the end of the line or on specific syllables of each line. My personal favorite is Englyn Milwr (the soldier’s englyn) as it is closer to haiku. Three lines of seven syllables, all rhyming.
I’ll take the scene that’s giving me trouble and write it using one of these formats. Boil the scene until the most important bits evaporate through pretty copper tubes and drip gently down into a crystal flask as their inner selves. In that flask, I can see them clearly. I can then take that distillation and build around it in such a way as to keep it as the focus of the scene. I can rebuild it, better, stronger, faster. I could not have done that without poetry and Mr. Goldsberry.
And so, with much dragging and protest, I made it through the weeks of poetry a better writer, and eagerly chomping at the bit for creating the next epic fantasy or science fiction novel. I had a plot in mind, all diagrammed, outlined, and ready to rock and roll for the project.
Mr. Onopa taught the bones of creative writing over the first few sessions. The one that stuck with me longest was the difference between writing fact and writing a story. “The king died and then the queen died” is fact; “the king died and then the queen died of grief” is a story. Cause, effect, conflict, character, plot…all the good stuff. He then asked us to bring two story ideas to his office for our final project.
I polished my pet idea. I made it shine. I dressed it up in all its finery and painted it beautifully on the page. I didn’t really have a second idea, so I just threw out a sentence that was more a grouse than a peacock, knowing in my heart that he would pick the fully developed, exciting plot that I had been dying to write.
“I want you to write this one.” He said, handing my sheet back to me. The peacock stood alone and ignored. My little grouse, the pathetic one-sentence thrown-on-the-page-at-the-last-minute wonder had the big red circle around it. I’m no poker player. My heart’s on my sleeve, and I lose my shirt a lot. My face fell, and he kindly explained the plot problems with my peacock.
Looking back, he was 100% correct. It was badly conceived and made no sense. I could never have whipped it into shape in two weeks and expected to get a decent grade. But at that moment, the rug whipped out from under me, and I saw that it had been hiding an oubliette beneath it.
Positivity doesn’t let me stay down long. My friends laughed about it in the cafeteria with me, and told me I should have known better. I should have known that making the one I so obviously wanted to write so much more prominent on the page was just begging to get the other one chosen. After an hour of the grumps, I moved into manic panic. Now I had two weeks to develop a story out of thin air with only my one sentence throwaway as a guide.
Best two weeks of college. I took my notebook all over campus and scribbled madly. I sat in trees, on benches, in the library, in the cafeteria. I even wrote on the bus. Then I sat down to my manual typewriter and typed it in (no computers back then…well, there were actually, but my dad was a traditionalist and didn’t get one until years after I left home, and then couldn’t really figure out how to use it). I edited and polished as I went, and turned scribbles and chicken scratch into prose. I transformed my grouse into a hawk, beautiful and efficient and ready to strike.
When we read our stories aloud in class for critique, I got some very meaningful comments, and in my most audacious enthusiasm, I even plucked up the nerve to send the story in to one of the first “Writers of the Future” contests. I didn’t make the cut, but the judges were very nice and gave me some great pointers, and I still have my very first official “thank you, but…” rejection letter around here somewhere …
It’s taken thirty years to get from there to here and ready to publish my first book. I’ll admit I got sidetracked along the way, by life, by fear, by lack of conviction. But Mr. Goldsberry and Mr. Onopa started the snowball down the hill (I know, silly metaphor for Hawaii… how about gave me the push off the top of the waterfall), and without that start I wouldn’t be here.
So Steve, Bob, thanks for being awesome, and thanks for chipping the author out of the granite. And especially thanks for the poetry. A writer’s a poet that may not know it. I ought to show it, but too often blow it. And though roses are red and violets are blue, the one-line idea is the one you should do.