I threw away my tools…I chose to do things I had no facility with. The choice not to do something is in a funny way more positive than the choice to do something. If you impose a limit to not do something you’ve done before, it will push you to where you’ve never gone before. – Chuck Close (http://bit.ly/1Csy12w)
The first time I made an artistic choice to not do something was when I took my very first poetry and playwriting classes at San Francisco State University. I had only planned to take fiction classes while a student at SFSU. I am a fiction writer after all. I write short stories. I write Flash. Why would I need to take poetry or playwriting?
But, I decided to try something new because of what another student told me a few weeks into my first semester as a grad student: that he didn’t know that he was a poet until he started reading and writing poetry, and speaking to other poets in his last year of a three year MFA program. He switched his MFA concentration from fiction to poetry. This blew my mind! I thought, how can you just change something that big? How can you just abandon what you know and love?
I decided that I wasn’t going to wait until my last year of school to try this out. So, on the first day of my first poetry class of my first year, the teacher asked us why we were there. I proudly raised my hand and said to the room, “I met someone who found out that he was a poet. So I want to take this class because…I want to know if I’m a poet! What if I’m a poet? I have to know!”
I said nearly the same thing four hours later in my first playwriting class.
This was the best and most important semester of my life. I learned that stretching forms helped me to reach a depth in my work that I might never have achieved if I had stayed in my fiction comfort zone. Poetry taught me that the sentence could be so much more, that it was not set in stone. That the shape of it, the sound, taste, and feel of it can morph and shift. My classmates in the poetry class were Shapeshifters. I was in awe of how they used language, the fun they had, the sounds… everything. Poetry helped me let loose, let go. Similarly, playwriting helped me to see the raw power of pure dialogue without exposition. Both genres helped me become a better editor for my short-story prose. Now, my internal editor doesn’t shout at me as much. She mostly just whispers, sometimes pinches my cheek if I use short, staccato sentences, or if I spend an entire page just listing colors, or writing ten pages of dialogue of two characters screaming at each other over a disfigured duck. Instead of shouting, my internal editor sees these efforts as ways to deepen my understanding of my characters: a tense moment between jealous lovers where the language might call for that staccato rhythm; how the colors in the trees, sky, peeling wallpaper surrounding a character might impact how she feels when she learns her sister just died; in the power dynamic between a mother and daughter arguing over who deserves to shoot the gun first.
There are many discussions out there about the dangers of being too fixed in your genre, that everything on the page is language, words, letters and dots and dashes, that there are no set boundaries between genres. I believe all of this. I also believe that allowing myself to see what each of the different genres lend to one another has helped me to think about how I can use those differences as a tool box to bend forms and play with language.
I like to imagine these two brilliant artists speaking to one another:
When someone learns to draw—to render—it’s the first thing that goes…the aliveness. And it’s what some artists spend their whole lives trying to get back. -Lynda Barry, Syllabus
I went to the Seattle Art Museum with my mother for the first time when I was 14. I saw this Jackson Pollock drip painting with aluminum paint, tar, gravel and all that stuff. I was absolutely outraged, disturbed. It was so far removed from what I thought art was. However, within 2 or 3 days, I was dripping paint all over my old paintings. In a way I’ve been chasing that experience ever since. –Chuck Close (interview, http://bit.ly/1J7174o)
As a teacher, one of my goals is to help writers find ways to hold on to that artistic rage, to not be scared of being disturbed by something, to reach for the aliveness in their writing.
Lastly, I would like to leave you with one final quote and a writing exercise:
Allow the poem to have a temper tantrum. -Janet Burroway, Imaginative Writing
Society is structured in such a way that we’re taught to suppress our tantrums, to not rock the boat, to get along happily with each other, always. For this writing exercise, allow one of your characters or narrators (short story, novel, poem, play), to throw a temper tantrum. See what they say. Language might turn nasty, rough. How rough is too rough? How big is too big? How much is too much? These are questions to ask later. For now, keep telling yourself don’t think about that now. Just write. Try to write into the “aliveness” that Lynda Barry speaks of. Try to allow yourself to feel “absolutely outraged, disturbed” by what the character says or does. Chase that experience, as Chuck Close encourages. And know that in doing so, you are embracing your characters for the full, unmeasured, human people that they are. Reaching for that rage will make your characters come alive for you and your readers.
Happy (Mad) Writing!