Experimenting With Different Kinds of Writing

26 May

by Cristina Rose

~~~

If you’re anything like the way I’ve always been, you have tunnel vision when it comes to writing. You’re so focused on improving your craft—whether that be fiction, poetry, nonfiction, or drama—that you hone in on that particular form of writing and don’t expand into other territories. But all types of writing are unique, with their own obstacles that need overcoming—and that exploration might be just what you need when you’re hit with writer’s block.

As I said, I was like this up until recently, when I realized that I loved my Poetry class (which I originally dreaded taking, but is required for English majors). I think it’s perfectly normal, too; most fiction writers will tell you that they’re absolutely petrified of poetry, and poets might say the same for fiction. Dramatists and nonfiction writers might have a harder time with the detail put into poetry and fiction, and vice versa. But if you open up to other forms, despite the fear of them high school English might have instilled in you, you’ll notice that each has a lot to offer your writing.

I like to think of caring for my writing the way I care for my skin: when my skin is dry, I use lotion, but if I use the same lotion for too long it gets used to it and doesn’t benefit from it anymore. Even just a day or two of using a different lotion can make a difference, and it’s the same with my writing: even just reading some poetry or drama can inspire my fiction writing in ways that obsessing over it with tired eyes won’t.

I’m going to delve briefly into each of the major forms, touching upon a few of their sub-forms, to give you an idea of how each can help you with your writing of choice. I’ll be approaching each from the perspective of a fiction writer, but I’ll try to be as objective as possible so as to benefit everybody. Just remember that this experimentation, if you decide to do it, is simply a fun exercise; there’s no pressure to be published because it isn’t your typical medium (which is yet another way to spur great writing—just doing it for fun), but it could spark a new talent you haven’t realized you had yet!

Poetry

I know Savannah already did a wonderful job of assuaging your fears of poetry, so I won’t spend too much time here. 😉 But the wonderful thing about poetry is that it’s pure imagery: something writers of fiction, drama, and nonfiction often struggle with. As my fellow contributors have mentioned, the number one rule of writing is “Show, don’t tell,” which can be incredibly hard in any of the forms. Poetry is great practice for creating effective images, similes, and metaphors that are necessary in any kind of writing.

Pay attention to any powerful piece of writing and you’ll notice it uses imagery. Plato had his cave, Poe used the raven, Tennessee Williams put Stanley on his knees in his only moment of weakness. One of my favorite masters of the image is William Carlos Williams, who penned the famous poem “The Red Wheelbarrow”:

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens.

Though this type of poetry might not be for everyone, you can see my point: the entire poem is one image. Though Williams does essentially tell the audience that the wheelbarrow (which is a stand-in for the small things in life) is important, he says only enough to answer the question “so what?” and accomplishes the rest with imagery.

This is another important technique poetry can teach us. Because even some of the longest poetry is so condensed, it’s important to use only the most necessary and effective words and images. Wordiness is almost unforgivable in poetry (unless it is intentionally wordy to achieve a certain outcome), and one syllable can make a huge difference in the work’s flow.

Poetry is also a great way for writers to enter into conversation with one another. Many great poems were written with another work in mind, or directly in response to a poem or its author. Robert Frost, another great poet, wrote in his work “The Prerequisites” in 1954: “A poem is best read in the light of all the other poems ever written … The thing is to get among the poems where they hold each other apart in their places as the stars do.”

Even in his prose, he incorporates beautiful imagery. And he’s right; even poetry—especially poetry—is a communicative form of writing that can teach a writer to learn from and build off of other works. After all, communication is what the written word is for.

Drama

As Vanessa said in her “Dialogue Woes – Writing Tips and Tricks” article, Drama is the way to go when having trouble with dialogue. Dialogue is essential to fiction in particular to break up long blocks of description and keep the reader’s attention. We are bombarded with it in our daily lives—television, everyday conversation, song lyrics (which are becoming more rhetorical rather than poetic, sounding almost like conversation and storytelling), etc—yet it can be one of the hardest things to write. Drama is made up entirely of dialogue with a peppering of stage directions here and there, so it’s a great thing to read or attempt to write when your characters are beginning to sound stiff and artificial.

Take this excerpt from my favorite piece of drama, for example, a ten minute play by Mary Miller called “Ferris Wheel.” A man and a woman meet on a Ferris Wheel, each riding alone; they are caught on the ride, which seems to have stopped out of nowhere, and in the midst of the woman’s panicking over her fear of heights, the man is struggling through his attempt to quit smoking:

(He unconsciously starts moving his leg and tapping his foot)

Dorie: (without looking down) What are you doing?!

John: Nothing.

Dorie: You’re moving.

John: I’m not moving.

Dorie: You’re twitching.

John: Twitching?

Dorie: (pointing down/looking up) Your leg. It’s going like a house of fire. Are you nervous? … Or is this some sort of warning signal before you break into a full uncontrollable fit?

John: I am not breaking into a fit!

This is a very simple conversation; it’s one of the shorter ones in the play. The dialog is fun, fast, and interesting—yet it’s believable. It’s a lot more believable than some of the stiff conversation I’ve written in the past, before learning from works like this. You can see how Miller also teaches us to create mood when there isn’t any “he said fearfully” attached to the dialogue. The conversation between Dorie and John is tense. You don’t have to be told that to feel it.

The stage directions are important, too—notice Dorie doesn’t look down when John begins moving his foot. That tells you a lot more about her fear than if she were to say “I’m afraid of heights.”

Nonfiction

Aside from research, it’s really helpful to read (and write) some nonfiction. Those who write nonfiction—biographies, journalism, etc—have to be precise with facts and know how much or how little detail to use. It can help any creative work to experiment with this; as I said above, wordiness is the enemy, and not just with poetry. Though some writers do well with wordiness or long, winding sentences (Faulkner, anyone?), the general rule is to be as concise as possible to avoid losing or boring your reader. Stephen King goes as far as to argue in his book On Writing that adverbs are entirely useless and should be avoided. Notice, however, I have a particularly difficult time with this. 😉 Everyone has their tastes.

A lot of creative writers will stray away from nonfiction because they feel it isn’t creative or see it as “dry” writing. But if a writer knows what he or she is doing, and is really passionate about the subject matter, it should be anything but boring. Take this passage from New York By Gas-Light by George G. Foster, a (supposedly) nonfiction account of New York after dark in the 1850s:

“Here are two ladies approaching us, magnificently attired, with their large arms and voluptuous bosoms half naked, and their bright eyes looking invitation at every passerby. Their complexions are pure white and red, and their dresses are of the most expensive material, and an ultra fashionable make. Diamonds and bracelets flash from their bosoms and bare arms, and heavily-wrought India shawls, of that gorgeous scarlet whose beamy hue intoxicates the eye, hang carelessly from their superb shoulders, almost trailing on the walk. But for their large feet and vulgar hands, they would be taken for queens or princesses, if such things were ever seen among us. They walk with a free and sweeping gait, and shuffle their feet upon the flag-stones with a noise that sets your teeth sharply on edge. As they pass, they look hard at you, and exclaim familiarly,

‘How do you do, my dear? Come, won’t you go home with me?’”

That’s storytelling. That’s taking a real event and putting it into words that spark the readers’ senses and place them in the middle of the action. This passage is bursting with creativity and skill that a lot of fiction writers, poets, and dramatists lack in their works. And while it might not be the bare definition of concise, it still offers only enough to achieve that effect. Take any detail out, and the picture isn’t the same. That’s good writing.

Fiction

For those of you who don’t write fiction, picking up a novel or attempting a short story can be helpful. Short stories are harder than they look; it takes a lot of discipline and practice to tell a full story in a limited number of pages. Novels take a tremendous amount of work, too, from characterization to plotting to creating a sound beginning and end.

There are plenty of fun exercises to try with fiction: if you’re a poet, try writing a poem inspired by a piece of fiction that inspires you (I have a poem titled “Lolita”, for example, that does a sort of reimagining of the novel). If you’re a dramatist, take a short story or a scene from a novel and try to condense it into dialog and stage direction. These are both pretty difficult to execute given the differences among the forms. In either exercise, you might have to twist the facts a bit, which is perfectly fine for creative writing—that’s how inspiration strikes, and when it does, you have to listen to it. There have been plenty of times when I tried to write on a particular subject or memory and got carried away into something totally fabricated. But if you’re working on a nonfiction account of the piece, obviously, the challenge will be to avoid that.

If anything, experimentation is a great way to tempt your mind to get creative again when you’ve overworked it in one area. Sometimes reading or attempting to write something you’re uninterested in or a bit bored by helps you crave that creative process again. I work at a weekly newspaper, for example, and while I enjoy the writing and have been told I’m good at it, sometimes that type of fact-based nonfiction writing gets me itching to return to my WIP. I can be working on anywhere from one to three articles per workday depending on their length (amongst other clerical duties), which means I have to be fast and efficient when writing them. This means that, when it comes to a deadline, sometimes it’s quantity over quality—but that’s the kind of thing that has me running for some fiction or poetry as soon as I get a chance.

Finally, if all else fails to convince you to try something new—if you never plan on opening a book of poetry in your life—let this be the one short piece of verse you remember:

“Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,

Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:

“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”

-Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophel and Stella (1591)

~~~

Cristina Rose has recently earned a fixed position at her internship as a reporter for a local newspaper. She is finishing up her second semester of her Sophomore year at her college and plans to tackle a long list of reading and writing goals as soon as the summer starts. You can read about her on her blog and follow her on twitter.

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9 Responses to “Experimenting With Different Kinds of Writing”

  1. Angela May 26, 2010 at 3:47 AM #

    The section on poetry you did reminds me of classical Japanese poetry. I had to learn it in high school, and I hated it, but it was interesting how back then you can put everything you want to say in one small poem. It`s hard to explain though. @_@ I think that back then, being a good poet was a good quality, and since men and women didn`t see each other much, women would sometimes fall in love with men based on the quality of his poetry.

    Errr or something like that.

    • Cristina Guarino May 26, 2010 at 10:51 AM #

      Haha that’s really interesting!! I didn’t know that. Are you talking about haiku, or something similar?

      • Angela May 26, 2010 at 4:43 PM #

        Yeah, it`s similar to haiku, I think. It`s sort of like a song. My favorite story is about a poetess who was the daughter of another great poetess.

        Back then, women didn`t show their faces, so she was behind a screen, and a man came up to her, and said something in poetry like

        “I doubt your skill in poetry. Are you sure it isn`t your mother who is creating all your poems?”

        And back then, you had to respond with a poem that was equal or better in skill than the poem that was said, so the girl immediately said this really difficult poem that had two words that each conveyed two different meanings, which was a difficult task.

        Argh. It`s hard to explain. I have to look at my old classical Japanese textbook. It was the only story I enjoyed in that task, and it painted a really good picture of poetry and life back then.

  2. svonnah May 26, 2010 at 8:30 AM #

    Great article Cristina! I love the analogy to caring for your face, lol! I agree that a way to get creative is to explore other avenues of writing, and I think you did a great job in explaining all of them.

    • Cristina Guarino May 26, 2010 at 10:51 AM #

      Thanks Savannah! 🙂 I tried haha

  3. Kat Zhang May 26, 2010 at 8:37 AM #

    Wow, you covered so much in one article 😀 I enjoyed reading it.

    • Cristina Guarino May 26, 2010 at 10:52 AM #

      Thanks Kat! I tried not to make it too long.

  4. Vanessa May 26, 2010 at 9:44 AM #

    This was such a great article!! I absolutely adore the way you ended your article with such a great verse!

    • Cristina Guarino May 26, 2010 at 10:52 AM #

      Thank you! 🙂 It’s one of my favorite sonnets.

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