The Day I Found My Poetry/Show Don’t Tell
I remember everything about the first poem I wrote except the most important thing- what exactly it said. Whatever it was, it was scribbled on a small piece of paper. It was maybe four lines long. It didn’t rhyme. It was a short little poem about the ocean.
I gave it to my fourth grade teacher and then sat, the tops of my thighs pressed against the cool metal underside of my desk, craning my neck to see through the door into the hallway where my teacher was passing my first, trembling poem around to the other fourth grade teachers. They were whispering. Good things, it turned out, but I was wrecked in the meantime.
All of a sudden, it seemed, I could write. After all this time, tens of thousands of words later, I am still learning to write well. But the ability to put an idea on paper in an interesting way was a thrill I never got over. It changed my life. As a child I left creased paperbacks open like dead birds all around the house but never thought of putting pen to paper myself, until I did. That’s how it seems, anyway, through the long foggy night of my memory. As though that little poem about the waves on the beach had been putting itself together all along in my head and sprang out, fully formed, a wrinkled doorway to the path I’ve followed the rest of my life- one littered with several distinct stages of insufferable poetry and fiction. Only after the guiding hand of several college creative writing classes have I begun to turn out work I’m proud of, and my improvement is almost entirely due to the editing process. Discovering my voice as a fiction and non-fiction writer (after writing exclusively poetry as a misguided and wordy teenager) has been another big step towards honing my own skill set.
I’ll probably always worry about making a living as a writer, but I do what I can for now- I write. My Evernote is stuffed with plot lines and character development and backstory and research- and for all of that, very little actual manuscript. I’ve written dozens of actual pages of the novel I’m working on now, only to cut down to four pages by removing exposition and other crap writing. I’m okay with that. I’ve got 20 chunks of stories and novels that have ground to a halt because I didn’t get to know my characters and my plot well enough before I dove in. All of that writing doesn’t go to waste in any of my work, it goes in the “back story” folder, where I keep all the exposition that I need to know but that doesn’t need to be dumped into the story. I think one of the biggest problems for beginning writers like me is the compulsion to try and explain the world and the characters to the reader, instead of setting up a world for the reader to stroll through, and characters for the reader to study and even get to know.
In my work, I try to develop relationships between my characters and my reader in the same ways people get to know each other in real life- the character must be immediately interesting to the reader, and then the character’s personality should be revealed to the reader through that character’s actions and reactions, their words, and the way other characters react to them. I want the reader to form his or her own opinion about the character through normal human social clues, but I control the signs that indicate whether the reader should like or dislike the character. I’ve found that most readers don’t want to be told that a character is brave or loyal or like-able, they want to see it. Seeing is believing, right?