Every now and again someone asks me not, "How can I write this story better?" - to which I have a whole Tool-kit-full answers, obviously - but "How can I become a better writer?" Assuming that my interlocutor is already meeting the absolute pre-condition of being a better writer, which is reading more, and more widely, my next suggestion is probably to take a poetry course. That's not because I think everyone should write lyrically - although that is a very honourable goal - but because I think it can help any writer to develop. As Ray Bradbury puts it in Zen in The Art of Writing,
Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t often use enough. Poetry keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your tongue, your hand. And, above all, poetry is compacted metaphor or simile.
On Monday 4th December our Words Away Salon welcomes the award-winning poet Maura Dooley, who is also Professor of Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, to explore how thinking like a poet can help your fiction and creative non-fiction. If you can make it to the Tea House Theatre I can guarantee a fascinating, enriching and thought-provoking evening (plus cake and wine and tea and other writers). Meanwhile, here are a few of my own thoughts:
1) Sound is the most fundamental quality a word possesses: it affects the listener, and by extension the reader, even when we don't understand the meaning of a word. (Think IKEA names, and the Bouba-Kiki effect). The linguisticians call this aspect of language prosody, and poets learn to work with the sounds of the consonants and vowels, the patterns of weight and stress, the rise and fall of intonation, the echoes, links and contrasts of sounds, as they join up to make phrases and sentences. One way to give your prose more substance and intensity - or lightness and delicacy - or energy and attack - is to learn to work with its sounds.
2) A poem takes you on a journey, as Ruth Padel explores in her book about reading (and therefore writing) poetry. But it doesn't need a story, so you are free to play with everything else that language does, without the contraint of having to make it all hitch up together with the logic of a plot built from causes and consequences.
3) Poetry can play fast and loose with conventional grammar, syntax and punctuation, if it helps to create the effect in the reader that the poet is after. Again, if you're not trying to convey a chain of storytelling logic, and can assume that the reader may to and fro inside the poem, then you can work to explore and develop your skills at bending and messing with the conventions, at the edges of what's possible before even half-intuited sort-of meaning breaks down.
4) Poets work constantly with the halo of connotation of a word, as well as what it denotes: think about all the other meanings, implications, connections and echoes that a word like apple has: not just rhymes like dapple and slant-rhymes like triple or bobble, but everything from Adam and Eve to computers, from poisonous stepmothers and round pink cheeks to Cockney stairs and the Beatles. That's another way to add substance: richness, layers, echoes, reflections, implications, references ...
5) Poetry works with metaphor and simile to make the invisible and intangible, the abstract and metaphysical, concrete. And it does so, as Bradbury says, in the most dense and economical way, for the greatest possible emotional and pyschological power.
6) Poetry is (usually) shorter, so every word is highly visible, and has to work extra hard. A phrase or image that doesn't really fit, is surplus to requirements, is a cliché, or merely dully off-the-peg becomes blindingly obvious. You don't need me to tell you why that's good practice for prose-writers.
7) Poets' techniques are perfect for working with the senses, and close-in psychic distances. Poetry claims the right to depart from the clear chains of meaning - sentences - that prose is normally built of, while still having something to say. When you want to evoke the stream (or more often tumble) of immediate consciousness and experience in prose, while still moving the story on, you want some of that freedom too.
8) Poets talk not about clichés, or second-hand language, but received language: phrases and ideas that have originated with someone else. That gets us away from the literary-snobbish (and unachievable) goal of every word being "original", towards the much better and more interesting idea that any word or phrase might have a place in your writing: it's just a case of recognising its pre-existingness, and using it for good.
9) Poetry rewards - and often requires - close reading, which is an important habit for a writer of any kind to develop. In reading prose, it's very easy not to open more of your mind than is required to make sense of the story, and often only poetry presents us with the "desirable difficulty" by which we really get inside a piece of writing.
10) Writing poetry is fun. There's a playfulness about messing around with noises and pictures, with not having to worry (for now) if it makes literal sense, with being able to trust that the reader is in the game with you - which it's very easy to lose touch with as you grapple with the mechanics of plot and story. And finishing and revising a poem is quicker than finishing a novel; you may spend a lot longer on each phrase, but it still won't be as long before you can sit back and say "I made that.' And finally, someone really has to love you before they'll read your novel in manuscript, but poets swap poems and give readings all the time: for something that is often thought to be an intensely private experience, poetry is an amazingly sociable creative practice.
If you don't have a poetry course near you, the Poetry School has terrific online and self-directed courses as well as face-to-face ones, and of course there's the Arvon Foundation for residential courses. If you're intrigued by these few thoughts, why not come down to our Words Away Salon at the Tea House Theatre on Monday 4th December, and join Maura Dooley, Kellie, me and a cake-eating, wine-drinking audience of fellow writers, to think more?