Auld Lang Syne

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Why I Don't Write Novels

My husband loves the way I write. He says the words just pour out of you.  Of course I'm happy he loves the way I write. Today, however, he asked me why I don't write novels since I am so prolific. The man certainly is not afraid to poke me when he gets a notion. Sweet man. Poke, poke, poke.

I have long considered why I am a poet, why I don't write fiction. In grad school, my friend Audrey's husband admonished both of us to write something more economically productive. You girls ought to write "smut novels," he said. That's where the money is. We laughed til our sides ached. Smut novels... indeed.  We are poets. We are always going to be poets. It's in our DNA.

Many of my colleagues in grad school were concentrating their schooling on fiction, either short stories or novels. I am in awe of novelists like Janet Fitch (White Oleander is my favorite) and who hates a good short story? But write them? Sigh.

I joke with people when they ask why not write a novel. I tell them that whatever a novelist can put in 100,000 words I can do in 40 lines or fewer. Funny joke, right? Well, it is not so funny to me. I do not, just do not have the staying power to go 100,000 words to get across a single incident or point. I get bored. I get so frustrated that soon I am putting the thing into a poem and feeling darned satisfied if I do say so. And I do say so.

My friend Layne is an amazing writer. She was part of my grad school cohort but in fiction. My friend Nanci was also part of that cohort, but in creative nonfiction (aka memoir). Both of these women can write circles around me when it comes to prose. I love novels and memoir. I have always read both. But when it comes to writing, poetry is my place. It is how I think, all metaphor all the time. I love metaphor, word play, form. I think this way, much the way I dream.  Maybe I am a dreamer because of poetry, or maybe I am a poet because I dream.

I have studied under some pretty fantastic poets. Each class or workshop was like going to Disneyland for me. So many rides! Such a magical land. Look...over there... a woman who flies out of a castle! Each poet/teacher added something to my way of looking at poems, thinking of poems, writing poems. Even the least of these teachers added.

My father used to say to us find something you're good at and do that. Do that all the time if it makes you happy. Smart man. I know that my husband, in asking why I don't write novels, was actually asking me if writing novels might make me as happy as writing poetry does. He was letting me know that he sees my writing as perhaps more malleable and more open than I do. What he he has done however is to make me explore more deeply why I do what I do.

Novels are complex machines. They are also very needy. They want to be fed over the long haul with exotic foods like plots, rising action, climaxes, faux climaxes, falling action, round and flat characters, protagonists and antagonists. Denouement. My friend Layne did a presentation in grad school on the "W" of novel structure. Brilliant way to look at construction of a novel. I kept a copy and look at it from time to time, but every time I look at it, I realize that it is too much for me. It's like building a whole house with five bedrooms, two living rooms, a dining room, four baths, and a garage would be too much for me. I like working small. I don't mind working hard. Just small, please. 40 lines or fewer.

I did write a 100 line poem in 2014. That is 100 lines, not 100,000 words. Writing that poem was like running a marathon. When I was finished I wondered where I had been and how I got here. I will probably never write a poem that long again. And forget ever getting it published. Who would take on a 100 line poem?

One of these days I may do a novel. On my terms. A verse novel. Guaranteed it will not be 100,000 words. It will be a series of poem-like chapters with a plot line running through them. It will have characters and setting and action, rising and falling. Maybe Laynes "W" handout will be my guide.  Oh, yes. It will not be a "smut novel."

1 comment:

  1. What is perhaps more than coincidence is that I was just thinking either yesterday or this morning, "I wonder if Carol's husband reads her writing and fully appreciates it. I wonder how committed he is to what she does." And then I read this post! I know what you mean about length and shape and dealing with it all. But I am very fascinated in recent years with flash nonfiction. In fact, I took an online course a few years ago with Chelsea Biondolillo on the subject. There I found a fat little boundaryland of poetry and prose. In fact, prose poems are even claimed by this new upstart genre. Beyond prose poems, as you know, there are two flash nonfiction pieces in Kin Types, and I feel that fit well with poetry. Very short prose can be very lyrical and use some of the same devices and "mind spaces" as poetry. At AWP I attended a session about nonfiction chapbooks--and there I discovered that there are lots of small presses now that will published them. And they can be tiny pieces (or longer essays). I read Penny Guisinger's Postcards from Here, which are small vignettes the size of prose poems. Maggie Nelson's Bluets. Hermit crab essays like Randon Billings Noble's use even the format a poem might use. So I am jazzed about exploring more in this form, without giving up poetry my old friend, of course.