Category Archives: Prose and Poetry
(Last of 3 Parts)
One subject that I miss teaching is Creative Writing. I consider it an ultimate challenge as an English and literature teacher to teach the said subject. It is quite challenging to lead a study of the different forms of discourse with the end goal of developing in the students the ability to write narrative, descriptive, expository, and argumentative compositions. What adds to the challenge is making the students understand the principles of stylistics, literary criticism, and linguistic and literary devices. As course requirements, I required them to submit a movie review, a short story analysis, two essays, and a short story.
When I created the syllabus for the course, I intentionally did not include poetry. It wasn’t just possible for me to cover both prose and poetry in one semester. It would be difficult for them had I included a poem among those they should submit at the end of the term.
My students had struggles with writing stories. It was easier for them to produce essays. They just toyed with the movie review and short story analysis. Yes, it was easy for them to deconstruct a story and break it down into its different parts – the so-called elements of fiction. But most of them had difficulty putting those component parts to construct their own stories.
I told them that I had the same struggles when I began writing. My first stories then were terrible (I hope they are better now.) Writing a story is a skill that would require time to develop. I explained to them that the most famous and talented writers had to hone their craft over a period of many years. Admittedly, I didn’t have statistical data to support that statement but it was (and still is) safe to assume that the literary greats had “burned oil in many midnights” before they attained their greatness.
I did not mention about Gladwell’s 10,000 hour-rule for it might just instantly extinguish any flickering hope of any one of them to become a writer. Perhaps some of them may have bumped into that idea later on. If during those times I have already known about Kaufman’s 20 hour-rule, I would not be mentioning it either for I don’t like to give them false hope that it would take that so short a time to become good at writing stories.
To become good at writing stories, you have to attain a certain degree of fluency or proficiency in the language you are using to write your stories. If saying that your sentences should be syntactically correct is a mouthful then let me just say that they (your sentences) should be correct and comprehensible.
You already have an advantage if the language you intend to use to write your stories is your native language. You very well know how important is vocabulary in writing. Consider this: Native-level fluency (this is from Wikipedia) is estimated to require a lexicon between 20,000 to 40,000 words.
But it doesn’t mean that being a native speaker of that language automatically makes one a good writer. If so, we could have had lots of Shakespeares, Hemmingways, Tolstoys, Hugos, Tagores, Xuns, and Rizals. Many native speakers of their own languages could not write a simple story or a poem.
Proficiency in a language is only one of the many skills you have to develop. There are other skills necessary to writing well including the ability to choose the right words to develop related ideas, organize those ideas into a cohesive whole, and to creatively combine and contrast those ideas. And as I reiterated in part 1 of this 3-part series… “Writing stories require that you should be able to knit together the elements of fiction within the frame of the plot, to make sure that the most important element of fiction – conflict – is laid down clearly and passes through exposition, complication, crisis, falling action, and resolution.”
In short, writing stories is an art and I doubt if anybody could learn it in just 20 hours. Just developing proficiency in a language, if you are not a native speaker of that language, is not achievable in 20 hours. However, you might think spending 10,000 hours to develop a specific skill would probably be too much – unless you want to acquire true expertise in a specific field. If you do it for 5 days a week, because you might need a 2-day break, that’s 4 hours a day in nine years.
You probably would like to start developing your writing skills at least one hour each day. That’s what I have been doing. It works for me.
Prior to writing the short story, I would require my students to submit a 10-sentence story line of the story that they are planning to write. One time, when I was giving them examples of story lines off the top of my head, one of them asked me where am I getting ideas for my stories.
Before answering that question, I asked them to, again, define literature. Then one of them gave exactly the definition upon which I intended to anchor my answer to the question one of them asked – “Literature is a faithful reproduction of life executed in an artistic pattern.”
I explained that what we read in stories mirror the things happening in real life. Writers draw ideas for their stories from the experiences of people around them and from theirs as well. That’s how I do it.
“Literature,” I added, “is an artistic expression of significant human experiences.” (I can’t recall anymore who said that.) That’s the reason why when we are reading stories or watching movies we feel like it’s our personal story being told.
I told my students that rarely do I borrow someone’s experience to write a story because my life itself is a fountain of many story lines.
Why do I write?
Is it to impress?
I don’t write to impress. I’m well aware of the fact that my skills in writing are nowhere near excellent. I am not even halfway my journey to excellence in writing. I am not sure if I’ll get there before I breathe my last. I have a long long way to go. Perhaps I may need a dozen of lifetimes (or more) in order to surpass the accomplishments of the likes of William Shakespeare, Elizabeth Browning, George Bernard Shaw, Leo Tolstoy and the likes.
So, why do I write then?
Do I write in the hope that I earn money and become famous?
Fame and money are not my primary motivations for writing. Of course I need money. It’s hypocritical to say that I don’t like to have additional numbers to the farthest north of the first digit in my bank…
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It’s not easy.
For me, the literary genre most difficult to produce is the poem. Imagine putting together the elements of meter, rhyme scheme, sound and imagery… weaving your words together metaphorically and figuratively.
My best poems are written in Filipino. I’ve been trying to write good ones in English but I have to admit it’s a mighty struggle. I’m not sure if for example the following quatrain makes sense:
Whisper your woes on the flicker
Cover it with dried leaves and twigs
Whisper till the flame grows taller
Let it burn your anguish and grief
I have no problem with free-verse but my dream is to walk gloriously the “rhymed” and “metered” path while holding the hands of either Erato or Euterpe.
One time I tried to mix Greek mythology and poetry and this is what came out:
Writing stories is just as difficult because mixing in a bowl the elements of fiction within the bounds of the plot is not a walk in the park. But fiction writers have the luxury of using a lot of pages to serve their purpose. Leo Tolstoy needed more than half a million words for his novel “War and Peace.”
Conversely, a poet has a single page, sometimes not even the whole of it, to capture vivaciously and vividly the emotions and thoughts pervading within or around him. The Japanese, through their Haiku, would do it in a single-stanza poem with three lines consisting of a total of 17 syllables.
What adds difficulty when poets thread the rhyme zone is that they can not walk the path of sadness while wearing a smile. Neither can they frolic in the lake of happiness while riding the canoe of sadness.
Pain begets pain, joy engenders joy. This is seemingly the prevailing mood in the realm of poetry. Rare are the crying clowns who can masterfully inject sadness into the veins of their poems while they are cracking a joke.
The melancholic lyre sounds best when played by a poet who in one way or another licked some emotional wounds sometime ago in a desolate room. On the other hand, the trumpet of merriment can best be blown by a poet who has journeyed the clouds of ecstasy.
But life is a masterful musician who teaches poets to play both the melancholic lyre and the trumpet of merriment. Life enables a poet to play any of the said instruments at any given time.
If a poet intends to paint his canvas with gloom then he can easily prick an old emotional wound until it bleeds sadness. He can walk down memory lane and revive the pains inflicted by either a person or an event he would rather forget. That’s not masochism but rather a form of sacrifice, the poet ought to feel what he intends to write.
If it is the rainbow needed in his canvass then exactly the opposite of the foregoing he must be doing.
That‘s the beauty of being a poet. Poets can switch with ease to any emotions that they desire. Like an actor in a theater, crying one moment then in a jiffy burst into laughter.
Sometimes poets get misconstrued. When a poem tackles sadness and regret for losing someone the readers would think that the poet still loves and wants that someone back. Worse, the person who felt alluded to may either be excited or feel vindicated.
Lest we forget that poets are men of arts who write for art’s sake. Undoubtedly, they draw inspiration from someone or something. They need a motivation in pursuance of their art. But as it is, the end is the art and the motivation is but the means to achieve the end.
And what is the reward the poet receives for writing a poem? The reward is the poem itself. No reward can be sweeter than the poem that the poet chisels into perfection.
As to whether or not a poet who writes a poem of gloom and bewail is sad and regretful, only he knows. Who knows it may be Melpomene who visited him in his dreams.
Source: On Being A Poet