The Aardvark Speaks : essence, effervescence, obscurity. Established 2002. A weblog by Horst Prillinger. ISSN 1726-5320

The Aardvark Speaks : the poetry workshop

This page contains the last 50 stories posted to this category, sorted in chronological order (earliest first). For earlier stories, you need to check out the monthly archives.


Attitude

This is the first in a series of articles on writing which were inspired by talking to too many people about the very same thing lately, so in order not to forget what I said, I am posting summaries here. The articles will be collected in a new category called The Poetry Workshop. They are my thoughts and opinions on the matter, and are probably not compliant with the academic Truth that is being taught out there, so peruse with caution.

One of the most important things before you start writing a poem, a short story or any piece of fiction is the correct attitude. What's most important is that once you are sitting down to write, you should not even for a moment think that you are now going to write a piece of literature. Think that you are now going to write. Full stop.

That is because first of all, you don't know yet how the text that you are going to write is going to turn out. It may be totally useless. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. It just happens, all the time. Allow it to happen. If you force yourself to write a good text, all that will ever come out is a bad text. Every text will feel as tense and as strained as you are while writing it, so the best attitude is usually to be relaxed and just see what happens. At any rate it's a bad thing to force yourself to reach certain standards before you've even started writing.

Especially if those standards are not your own. That is the second problem with trying to write literature rather than just writing. Not only are you forcing yourself to reach a standard, you may also be defining that standard by the wrong terms. As in, what makes literature "literature"? This is a question that shouldn't bother you at all. Try to tell your story, bring your point across in any way that feels right at the moment.

Don't ever worry about conventions. The way in which the text comes out has precedence over the way the text ought to be. You can always rewrite and/or revise it later.

Posted by Horst on October 13, 2006 | # | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Research

This is part 2 of the ongoing series The Poetry Workshop.

How much research does a story need? Not necessarily a lot.

Your readers buy and read your story as fiction, so it's safe to say they won't be disappointed if they find out that not everything you write actually happened that way. What matters is not whether the things you write about are true; what matters is whether you present them in such a way that your readers are ready to believe that they could be true; or merely in such a way that you can easily coax them into suspending their disbelief.

This of course means that you should not make a fool of yourself; while meticulous research may not be necessary, you also should not appear clueless, i.e. water should still boil at 100°C in a normal environment, and at somewhat less on the peaks of high mountains.

Some writers try to impress their audience by stating how much time they spent researching their backstory. Don't take that too seriously, they might just be trying to fool you into believing that writing a story is more complicated that you thought. Others claim they do it without any research; that is probably to make you think they're geniuses. Some say that doing too much research tends to impede their imagination. This might in fact well happen if you start to believe that your story ought to be an exact representation of the real world. Which is not true.

What this amounts to is basically that you yourself need to develop a feeling for which things you should research before writing, which you can just write about without checking anything, and which you should perhaps check at some point after you've written them, just in case. Just don't think that writing a story requires six months of research beforehand. It doesn't.

Posted by Horst on October 16, 2006 | # | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Revising

This is part 3 of the ongoing series The Poetry Workshop.

My attitude towards revising has changed somewhat during the past twenty years. When I started writing regularly, I never revised or rewrote anything. Everything that flowed out of my fingers seemed to be just like it was supposed to be. Revising seemed to be a very foreign, potentially tedious concept. I did not revise because it would have felt wrong to change anything. Basically, I thought my writing was either perfect the way it came out, or I felt that it "didn't flow", in which case I usually abandoned it altogether.

Over time, I started thinking less categorically.

First of all, it turned out that some of the poems/stories that had "flowed" weren't that perfect after all. I remember once submitting a poem for discussion in a creative writing class and totally not understanding the criticism it received. Funny enough, the bits that I still remember from that discussion seem to make perfect sense in retrospect. It wasn't a particularly good poem.

Second, unless you're a genius there's almost always the possibility to make a minor correction somewhere, or a correction that looks minor, but which can drastically improve the entire poem or story. Don't let that opportunity slip.

Third, there is no need to abandon an idea simply because it doesn't seem to work out. Very often the problem is only in the execution, not the idea itself. My short story "An Anxious Man in the Moon" went through three complete rewrites until I was happy with it, and by "rewrite" I mean rewriting from scratch with different narrative techniques, different characters even.

The correct moment to revise is: (a) immediately after you write the poem, to correct minor oversights, (b) again about a month later, when you've forgotten the text sufficiently enough to be able to notice minor inadequacies or things that could be more to the point, and (c) again a year or so later, when you have enough emotional distance to take a rational look at what you've written.

(I realize that step (c) is somewhat difficult and will barely ever happen, especially if you want your stuff published, but it's actually the most helpful step.)

The correct moment to rewrite is: when you like the idea, the basic concept of your story or poem, but feel that it's not mediated in an adequate manner. In that case, stop writing, jot down what you think you want to say and put everything away for a few days. You should sleep over it at least twice, but you may find that more is necessary. If you can't come up with a new way of expressing your idea, do some brainstorming and take notes. Don't worry if these are totally disconnected. Put them away, wait for a few days. In fact, never use the notes that you made in the process -- they are meant to rewire your brain, not help you with your writing. You will find that at some point you will simply start writing the text in a different way. In the process you may even find that you are not just writing differently, but are also adding new aspects and ideas, which can further enrich and improve your text.

Of course, this does not just apply to entire poems or stories, but also to sections of a longer text.

Posted by Horst on October 17, 2006 | # | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Detachment

This is part 4 of the ongoing series The Poetry Workshop.

The poet T. S. Eliot once said something like what makes literature different from any other kind of text is that the author manages to compress emotions into it in such a way that the reader will be able to decompress them and experience them in a similar manner.

Eliot didn't say anything about dumping a pile of emotions in front of the reader's feet like a pile of garbage. Which is why, let's face it, most confessional writing, particularly that written when the writer was feeling really depressed, is so bad.

The worst thing you can do is write about something that you are experiencing in the very moment of writing about it.

Paradoxically, to really mediate emotions you must be at a distance from them, not right in the midst of them. Metaphorically speaking, you can't mix the dough and put the cake into the oven while you're in the dough yourself. As a writer, you are something like a chef who transforms emotions into sizeable and digestible pieces that have a discernible (pleasant or unpleasant) taste. To prepare that meal, you must know what all the ingredients taste like and be alert and distanced enough to give them a form that your readers will be able to connect to. If you manage to do that, the taste will be rich and plentiful; if not, it will never quite lose the whiff of emotional vomit.

Some writers go to the other extreme, practice complete emotional detachment and never write about anything personal. While not as potentially embarrassing, the result will be some very bland writing if the only emotion that has been compressed into a text is detachment.

The best writer is the one who knows about emotions, has been through them and can put them to use, not the one who wallows in them or the one who shies away from them.

Posted by Horst on October 23, 2006 | # | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)


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