Friday, April 26, 2013

Poetry and the Ant Tracks of Writing

This post is my musing about the workshop, "Your Ability to Write a Poem is Always Present," I'll be giving next Friday for the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. 

Is poetry different when it comes to mindful writing?
Any act of writing leads to a structure that can be quite different from ordinary spoken language. It's different because of that intricate use of time to create the text (those unseen ant tracks made by the author, the recursive nature of writing/revising/editing/writing/etc.) The time factor of literacy allows us to rework our language, adjust our phrases, make changes without a listener standing around, waiting for us. We have the leisure to tinker, to be by ourselves and our words.
To some extent, because of those ant tracks, all writing (no matter the genre) has captured the intrapersonal dynamic and the privacy inherent to writing. This happens even if only for a few seconds, as when composing an email that's immediately sent. As long as there's the capacity to delete & edit & add before another person encounters your words, the chance for internal dialog arises. This is part of the Present moment of writing.
The use of page space and line breaks--as well as the typical brevity of a poem in contrast to other types of writing--make poetry much more about those omissions, those silences, those big phrases of privacy. The intrapersonal dynamic is heightened with the genre of poetry.
We're also much more likely to think of a poem as a system of sounds (and thus occurring in time) than other genres. This helps accentuate the Present moment.
Mindfulness has the potential to alter the nature of our internal communication. By training in mindfulness practice, we become more aware of that internal dialog. So does the writing of poetry: it can alter our internal dialog by drawing our attention to it.
In fact, if you want to become a more mindful writing, no matter what genre you consider to be your mainstay, no matter if you are a novelist or even a blogger, trying out poetry can help develop your awareness.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Portrait of a Paragraph: One Strategy to Build Voice

One thing that's struck me about voice-in-writing over the years is how little theory or practice has been developed around how to construct a voice.

Theorists debate whether voice is invoked, the extent to which voice is in response to a particular (real or imagined audience), and so forth. Categories of voice--such as real or dead--have been established. But must writers resort to chance to build a voice?

Pushing aside the issue of whether the voice we hear from the page of a dynamic author is actually microphone feedback from our own intrapersonal babble, I do think there are real ways to go about constructing voice. Voice has to be at least in part due to structural choices, and one of the main choices involves sentence length and sentence type.

Sentence length and sentence type (which is dictated by the punctuation used) constitute the skeleton of every text. Word-free, they nevertheless play a powerful role in the rhythm and voice of a passage.

A device I've shown students is called "Portrait of a Paragraph." It involves taking a passage from a text and drawing lines  __________________  for where language occurs and then placing punctuation exactly where it falls in those lines. 

Punctuation including commas, semicolons, colons, periods, dashes, exclamation marks, parenthesis, and question marks should be captured in the portrait. 

This should be done almost mindlessly with little attention to the meaning or words of the text. 

For example, here is a Portrait of a Paragraph of my previous passage, up above, the one starting "Sentence length":

Sentence length and sentence type (which is dictated by the punctuation used) constitute the skeleton of every text. Word-free, they nevertheless play a powerful role in the rhythm and voice of a passage.

__________________________  ( _____________________

_______) ________________________.   ________, __________


If you draw a portrait of a longer passage, you can see the structural reasons which cause that voice or the lack of an interesting voice.

For instance, if you can circle many of the punctuation choices making a sort of vertical entry in a crossword puzzle--if, in other words, the punctuation roughly lines up--then you know you have identified one of the reasons for monotone.

If the sentences are extremely long but nevertheless grammatically accurate statements (with no commas and just end punctuation), you know that you are probably looking at an instruction manual or a bureaucratic document with little concern for the natural pauses of human breathing. (Why would such a document be concerned with our breathing? It doesn't want to appear to be spoken or made by a single author. Instead, it seeks to be anonymous and almost machine-made.)

So look for similarities and patterns in sentence lengths and punctuation choices. These frequently indicate a text with little voice.

On the other hand, variation in lengths and punctuation better resemble spoken speech. These occurrences indicate a text with voice.

If you want to practice developing voice through attention to structural concerns, pick a passage by an author, one full of voice. Do the Portrait. Then try to write something of your own that follows the same sentence length and punctuation choices.

You can also do a Portrait of a Paragraph on one of your own drafts and make changes based on what you notice about voice.