October 5th, 2011 / 3:08 pm
Craft Notes & Random

FictionSpeak 1

For the next couple of months, I’m going to run this weekly series, FictionSpeak, because, well, I’m a poet trying to write fiction, which seems like it could be worth talking about. 

I started writing fiction a few weeks ago. I’m writing this fiction in a square yellow sketchbook. Just like a poet to be writing fucking fiction in a square fucking sketchbook, you say. On top of that, I’m only writing on one side of the page. And I’m only writing in snapshots that will ostensibly form a novel. It’s probably a disgrace to fiction writers everywhere, what I’m doing. I don’t understand things about dialogue or character development. I really don’t understand plot. Zip. Zilcho. I think I’m decent at description and setting and emotional arc, poetical things, so then why am I not writing poems in my new fancy-pants sketchbook. Because I already have a black vinyl, lined notebook for poems, silly.

Originally, this fiction-in-a-sketchbook thing was going to be memoir. Then I read The Chronology of Water the other weekend. Then I picked up Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay, which I’m reading right now, and I thought two things. One, I don’t have the stuff of a memoir yet. Two, these books are great to read if you want to write fiction. For different reasons. Lidia Yuknavitch for voice and fierceness. Manguso for matter-of-factness and snapshot.

Back in grad school at ole Emerson, I’m pretty sure there was a fiction-writing-for-poets course, or maybe a poetry-for-fiction-writers course. I never took either. Navigating fiction makes me feel like I’m walking into a Templar initiation ceremony or something. It’s dark. There are candles. Robes. Dorky music. A guy in a mask with a sword doing degrading things to another guy who poses just the right way to look simultaneously mysterious and mastered.

Umm, nevermind.

My first question is this. Writing fiction forces me to dredge up weird shit from my past and use it with different characters and settings. I mean, I’m raping my life wholesale.  Is that normal? Somebody said to me yesterday, “Change the facts enough so your family doesn’t recognize them.” My feeling is that I’ll change them just enough to fit the narrative, just enough to make them work for me. I mean, that’s what poets do…


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  1. John Minichillo

      Ditch the notebook? I know a lot of people often draft freehand, but for me, the writing of fiction is inextricable from the keyboard and the ability to draft / edit / draft / edit. I don’t doubt that this is all that different from poetry (draft and edit), except with poetry there is more freedom on the page. Poetry is spatial, fiction (maybe) metrical. It ticks along.

      Everybody uses their past and making it alien is good technique, not to remain anonymous, but to make you experience the event AS fiction. Writing down a memory is potentially problematic because your memory will always be richer than what a reader can experience. How can one recreate it emotionally, sensually, and with enough background but also keep the pacing right? It has to be changed, so it’s a good idea to change something significant from the get-go, so as to counteract the temptation to stay faithful to what really happened. Reality and stories are very different. Circumstance doesn’t look like circumstance in a story. Life really is stranger than fiction and stories tend to have a kind of logic.

  2. Vancelindahl

      I have the opposite problem. I write fiction and am working on poetry. 

      My 2 cents: Use your biography as a springboard. Write recollections until a unique idea sprouts, then compress, consolidate and fabricate until it is a wholly new thing. Exaggerate an aspect of yourself and distance yourself from it. 

      Isolate the emotional action (beginning, middle, end) and then change the setting and circumstances, etc. 

  3. Sarah Anne Lloyd

      “And I’m only writing in snapshots that will ostensibly form a novel. It’s
      probably a disgrace to fiction writers everywhere, what I’m doing.”

      No, no, that’s fantastic! If I understand your process correctly, it’s what Eileen Myles did to write Cool For You, which is one of my favorites.

  4. Ken Baumann

      Deliverance is a great novel by a poet. Read that. And it’s also mostly exact monomyth, in its structure. (deeply understanding monomythical structure is a good thing, if only to know what to work against)

  5. M. Kitchell

      write in-between forever.  ditch the binaries.  write writing. don’t think about what mode you’re writing in other than the mode of using language.

  6. Leapsloth14

      Did you see how Dickey used the river as a structural device? The poet is saying How the Fuck do you structure a novel? So, he let’s the river do it. A river flows one way. Send your characters down the river, meet obstacles/conflict, equals suspense. Also a book that proves lyrical and suspense are not mutually exclusive. Great book, and arguably Burt Reynolds best movie.

  7. Ken Baumann

      Yep. This.

  8. deadgod

      Sure, it’s “normal” to use experience – including first-hand experience – as an element in the alchemy of making things up–I don’t think it’s avoidable.

      Why do you call imaginatively using your first-hand experience “raping [your] life”?  ‘Rape’ is a pretty dramatic word; it might have some metaphorical accuracy, if you tell someone else’s secret, to suppose that you’re “raping” her or his life.  –but your own??

  9. D. Oliver

      If we’re searching for advice in this realm… someone please inform me how fiction writers have the ability to write a sentence without needing to pack as much punch into every single word as they can? Or… do they? 

  10. Dubya

      “How can one recreate it emotionally, sensually, and with enough background but also keep the pacing right?”


  11. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      I like this question!

      Personally I find that writing fiction, because it tends to be more voluminous in nature than poetry, is more about consistency throughout a piece than about packing a punch in every sentence. If as a fiction writer I needed to pack as much punch in every sentence possible, I think I’d write too self-consciously, which means the writing might come off as forced and consequently suck.

      Fiction writing I think is supposed to carry a punch in its overall quality and style, and that style is achieved by writing hundreds of thousands of words until writing feels natural. I think it’s sort of like when talking to a professional musician and they talk about how they don’t need to think about playing after a certain point because it has become such an inherent part of who they are.

  12. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      Sometimes I feel like as a writer I’m more of an archivist of awesome life events than an actual artist or whatever. Like the only difference between me and someone who doesn’t write is that I keep track of all the amazing things I see and experience and store them to eventually put on paper, while someone else just sort of lets them happen and keeps track of much less.

  13. Frank Tas, the Raptor
  14. John Minichillo

      Looks like a good deal for $40. I just started using an iPad w/ Zaggmate keyboard, which is superportable. Except that combo is as much as a cheap laptop and you still need a computer. All the word processors for iPad so far arereally primitive, which I’m kind of attracted to, except they are also kind of dumb, the features intended for business people not word people.

  15. John Minichillo

      You boiled it down to one word – so concise it’s meaningless.

  16. John Minichillo

      A really good piece of advice I got once was that it’s OK to have the occasional ordinary sentence. It’s prose; it can be prosaic.

  17. alan

      Mine too.

  18. alan

      If you were raped you can rape your rape.

  19. Kevin Spaide

      I wrote an entire novel in the voice of a character whose life, voice, sense of humor, family, everything, couldn’t have been different from my own. It was only a year after finishing it that I noticed he was basically me with his head on backwards – all the facts switched around. That wasn’t the plan when I started, of course. I would never sit down with the intention of taking something from my own life and making a story out of it – I mean explicitly reconfiguring and disguising memories – but it all finds its way in there anyhow. How could it not?

      But I don’t know. I never really think about these things. It feels (to me, anyway) like the kind of problem that takes care of itself as soon as you stop thinking about it. Then again, you write a story about a one-armed ping pong champion who lives in a tree fort, and somebody you know, possibly even somebody you are related to, will say: I didn’t know you played ping pong.

  20. nliu

      “Wholesale”, too!

  21. alexisorgera

      Oh yes, good advice. 

  22. alexisorgera

      I’m finding this to be essential.

  23. alexisorgera


  24. herocious

      saramago, especially his biblical stuff

  25. Sarah Malone

      Yes! Ordinary sentences, but the right ordinary sentences for a given piece, repeating and varying some patterns, restricting others, letting personality, attitude happen in the grammar, in the cadence as much as in the substance.

  26. Jaye Viner

      Good luck with your endeavors. Though if you have a story itching to come out and you’re a poet I am wondering why you wouldn’t construct a prose poem?? Maybe its all an experiment after all.

  27. UncleIstvan

      I like this.  I’m not a poet, and I have been writing my novel the same way for a couple years now.  I will jot down a couple sentences on the back of a receipt then spend the next few hours at work just brainstorming those couple sentences.  Yeah, it takes a while…

      If you are more comfortable writing poetry, why don’t you write out this novel as a huge poem?  Just think of it as a poem?  Then later, you can maybe flesh out the prose and work on some in depth formatting?  I don’t really write poetry too much, so that may be a stupid idea…

      As for reading, I would suggest Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  James Agee totally rapes those poor farmers’ lives for inspiration and a lot of the prose in that novel reads like poetry (at least to me).  And everybody uses their own life.  Why wouldn’t you?

  28. deadgod

      That’s the craziest rhetorical device I ever heard of, period.  Bar none.

  29. deadgod

      There’s an ‘art’ to that.

  30. deadgod

      Dubliners has more care concentrated in “every single word” than much poetry.  Writing – and reading – vary in how focused they are within the domains ‘prose’ and ‘poetry’ to the extent that some (plenty of?) ‘prose’ is as packed as some ‘poetry’.

      –but I think we think of “prose” generally as unwinding its explanations, descriptions, and so on with less concern for compression than we understand “poetry” generally to show.

      There are discursive interests suited by and to compression, and others suited by and to expansion, and those interests are not sorted by the non-absolute distinction ‘prose or poetry’.

  31. deadgod

      Well, of course poetry is at least as “metrical” (rhythmic?) as prose. 

      ‘Space’ is the right area of metaphor:  linear (prose) as opposed to planar (poetry)?  —not in the sense of density, resonance, layeredness, or anything like that, but rather the layout on the page, the movement of the eyes across the text.

      Prose goes ‘left to right, r -> l, left to right, r -> l, etc’, in rectilinear blocks (called by the hyperliterate cognoscenti:  “paragraphs”), where poetry is more shapely (especially but not exclusively on the right-hand margin).

      Boustrophedontic v. muscine?

  32. John Minichillo

      I like the distinction linear vs. planar, which is a better way of saying what you knew that I had meant.

  33. alexisorgera

      Because what I’m writing isn’t a prose poem or a poem. It’s fiction. For me, there’s a big difference between what I want to do in poetry and what in prose–and a prose poem is still a poem. I’d have no reason to write this particular story as a poem. 

  34. alexisorgera

      see below.

  35. DD
  36. Kevin Spaide


  37. Guestagain

      I keep going back to this as I’m interested in where the cut or tipping difference is across poetry/prose, other than schematically, structurally, the criteria would have to be aesthetic from a practitioner perspective, objectives that can be better achieved by one form over the other?

  38. alexisorgera

      For me, it’s a matter of music versus voice. I’m not saying that fiction isn’t musical, but I feel like, in terms of artifice, it’s the voice driving fiction and the music driving poetry. Both can have rhythm, sure. I don’t know, really, but when I write fiction, which of course I have no experience with, I feel like I can say more, more freely. I don’t want to say more in poetry. I just want to say as little as possible to get the emotional point across. With fiction, I’m thinking, it’s more about the circuitous routes that get a story said. Again, hmm.

  39. alexisorgera

      Thanks for sharing your post. I think it’s ridiculous that something a writer labels as fiction could come under fire this way. If you’re writing nonfiction and blaming someone for a death, well, sure!