I find myself in an uncomfortable transition period as a writer. Since 2009, when I started writing fiction in earnest, I’ve found that I have two distinct writing styles. There is my poetic style, which is in fact two styles in itself, and my prose style. While there were times I interspersed the two, for the most part, I kept them separate.
I’ve written poetry — some good, some bad — since I was 20 years old. I don’t think I was ever consistent because there were two voices within me and I never figured out how to integrate them. There is the emotional voice, the one people respond to, and the lucid, intellectual voice, the one that says whatever it is I wanted to say. In my early work, it was rare for me to close my eyes, so to speak, and just let out the emotions in a rant. On the few occasions where I did so, the words came out jumbled and the work, frankly, was a piece of crap.
On rare instances, I’d manage to marry the emotional content within the framework of the piece, creating clear images without the clutter of maudlin emotionalism (which I despise) but with enough feeling to get my point across. These works began to get published, even though I usually didn’t understand what the editor saw in the piece.
the smooth cowhide
stirring both the air
and something long-suppressed
In many ways, I still don’t like that poem, but an editor did, enough to publish it. I suppose it’s because i allude to emotion, even though I can’t feel it in the piece. And that gets me to my next point. Even today, people respond to work they tell is full of emotion. Now, while I’m writing the work, I can certainly feel the emotions that leach into it. I can be a torrent of emotive power: laughing, raging, crying … suffice it to say I’m often feeling what the work requires. However, I am in character at those times, allowing the piece to flow through me. It doesn’t come from me, and it doesn’t reside in me when the work is complete.
Often, usually … always … I sit on the piece for days, weeks. Whom am I kidding? I sit on them for years. I am not shy, nor am I concerned about negative criticism. WordPress is too civilized a society for that. No, I don’t release the work because I can never feel the emotion that I thought I’d injected into it. In the poem above, it wasn’t gentle pride I was feeling, nor blank observation — I was bloody angry, full of rage born of my understanding of the truth about African history. I was remembering drumming with an African dance company, and the sense of homecoming that engendered.
But none of it showed up in the poem. Yet the editor liked it, for reasons unknown to me.
I stopped writing shortly after that, and several other poems were published. Rather than being encouraged, having editors reinforce what I thought was crap, while rejecting what I liked, made me feel I was never a writer after all. I tried my hand at fiction, but to honest, I was terrible at it. In retrospect, I’ve come to realize it was because I didn’t understand how to tell a story. I’ve likewise come to understand the editor liked my little snippet of a poem for precisely that reason: it was a story. Sure, there were pieces omitted, but those were parts the reader can imagine. It resonates not because it’s full of emotion, but because it taps into the place where someone else can access theirs.
I get this now, but only now.
There has been a similar journey in my development of a prosaic style. Understand my word choice here. After all, what does prosaic mean? Let’s look at dictionary.com’s definition:
Commonplace or dull; matter-of-fact or unimaginative — having the character of prose rather than poetry. These definitions didn’t just happen by chance. To some extent, they are emphasized all the time. I learned to write prose, and to tell stories, not in literature classrooms, but at work, writing proposals to customers. Almost ad nauseam I was admonished, “Take out the marketing speak!” “You didn’t sell the story.” “It needs to be simpler.” It was a valuable lesson and one I learned well, if painfully.
To my surprise, when I took my first-ever writing course, a critique collective for poetry writing, they were saying the same things for different reasons. Poets were told to strip out all of the unneeded layers and leave only the rawest emotion. Opposite perspectives, to be certain, but the reasons were identical. Writing, I was being told, was to move to reader in some tangible way towards action. Doing so in the simplest terms were preferred. Even in poetry, lyricism was frowned upon.
And so, I my writing style evolved. I would conform to hordes of writers and readers clamoring for simple prose. I would bend to the will of the Twilights, the 50 Shades of Shit, the unending reams of crap I could never make myself finish. And I tried, I did.
And failed, largely. Now, to be fair, I’ve only ever received 1 negative review by someone who said, “This dude can’t write for shit.” (I paraphrase here.) One isn’t bad. So, I know my published works have been … good. But fuck, since when have I ever shot for “good?” Good and shit are synonymous, in my opinion. So here I was, in a conundrum: the kind of writing I enjoy — my heavily poetic, lyrical style — is out of fashion and the style that’s in fashion, prosaic, isn’t selling.
I suppose the smart thing to do would have been to quit, and I did, 3 times. But see, the thing of it is, I like to write. And, God help me, there’s this voice inside that says it could eventually be the best thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve done some pretty good shit. So I didn’t want to quit, not really. Borders Books quit, but I’m still here.
Frustrated, I decided to say, “Fuck them. All of them.” Whoever “they” are. I wanted to write the kinds of books I like reading, and few of them were written in my lifetime. I’m still a poet at heart. I thought that meant that I should quit once again, and for the last time, and write stuff just for me.
So I did, but this time, I didn’t tell anyone.
And then, like a bolt, an interesting thing happened. I started noticing that my writing blog viewership jumped every time I released my “old-fashioned,” non-prosaic writing. I published excerpts from the writing style I’d adopted, wherein, for the 1st time ever, I married my deep love for poetic language with a simpler prose style. To my surprise, people seem to like it much more than any of my previous work.
Finally, I was listening only to myself. We have to write for ourselves, paint for ourselves, shoot for ourselves, or we will all die inside. Maybe no one will ever read these books. Maybe my stories remain unread. I’d like them to be read, because I think they’re beautiful. But see, I’m okay if they’re not. I’m still learning anyway. It’s damned hard to write the way I’m trying to write. Simple prose is, well, simple.
It’s easy to look at the scene above and say, “The study rooms were full of readers in silhouette. Jean sat alone, in the far-right booth, with her legs stretched before her.” If I do, when I’m in chapter 4, I don’t have to go back and re-read chapter 1 to re-learn the narrator’s voice and make sure it’s consistent. I don’t have to remember that if all my narrators speak in my lyrical voice, then all my work will sound alike. If I go for simple prose, it’s only about the story and not the words.
But, fuck, I’m only about the words.
And so, the scene above begins to leach emotion for me. Suddenly, it becomes, “The others sat in clustered clumps of clattering clowns, their erect aspects silhouetted by the decaying urban sunlight, and trumpeting their intent to follow the herd, be upright, join the group. Jean sat apart, her back to them, slumped over her solitude like an unloved jewel, never seeing herself not as apart, but in front of the herd.”
And so, I learn her, from inside, where she’s been all along. There is a joke my love and I share, when we aren’t bickering with the voice of pent-up dragons, and that is, “It’s better out, than in.” I tell you this, my doubting friend, if you are a poet, it’s best to let the dragon out.
He will kill you from within.