Thursday, March 27, 2014

The other day, as I was driving somewhere or other up and down our ugly, frozen, pot-holed roads, I started thinking again about why, after a lifetime of reading novels, I still cannot write prose fiction. Yet I can write about fiction and I can write fictional poems. What is it about the combination of prose and fiction that continues to elude me?

I didn't come up with any specific answer, probably because there isn't one. But a word did spring into my thoughts: I'm daunted by novels and short stories. And I realized that, yes, daunted is an important clarifier here. While I'm certainly challenged by poetry--while my grasp of the art is faulty and error-ridden and mediocre and a stiletto in my heart, and always will be--I'm not daunted by it. I fall off my horse and break another bone and put another dent in my armor, and then I get up and scramble back into the saddle. My clumsy, repetitive stubbornness does bear a certain resemblance to the behavior of characters in a Monty Python skit. But a novel . . . I close my eyes to writing a novel like I close my eyes to sky diving. No. I won't do it. I can't do it. No.

In his introduction to Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster wrote, "The novel is a formidable mass, and it is so amorphous. . . . I do not wonder that the poets despise it, though they sometimes find themselves in it by accident." Forster is unfair here: of course all poets do not despise the novel. But I can pardon his defensiveness. In the old days, poets were the kings of literature, and novelists were the prosaic upstarts. Today the tables are turned, and the poets are prickly and defensive about their underread art.

I love novels, and I love poems. I have just started rereading Henry James's What Maisie Knew, and at the same time I have been thinking about the work of a high school student whom I have been mentoring: a ballad-in-progress that is requiring him to juggle the strictures of meter and rhyme, repetition, and dramatic narrative. Guiding him into addressing these elements bit by bit, turn by turn; to make a change and then recognize that, yes, now he needs to adjust that rhyme again or clarify that plot shift, and so on and so on--the complexities are so interesting to me, even as a mere facilitator of the work. I know that manipulating a novel's marionette strings must be just as fascinating--possibly even more so. But I stand on the outside looking in. Even though I love watching the springs and gears at work, even though I could talk about them all day long, I'm dismayed by the thought of assembling them into my own invention. This isn't fear of failure. It's something else, and I don't yet have an explanation better than daunted.


Anonymous said...

I think your comment about not writing song lyrics is even more provocative. This, seems to me, would be less of a stretch than a novel and you could even write the music and perform it in your group. How about Harmony Mid-winter Blues?

Dawn Potter said...

Oddly, however, I have no interest in writing lyrics and plenty of interest in writing novels. While I enjoy singing other people's lyrics, I dislike the idea of cramming my own poems into standard pop-song format: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus, for instance. (If I ever do convince myself to write a song, I daresay it will be something more ballad-like.) A related issue is that I don't play an instrument that leads itself to song writing. Guitar or mandolin or piano players don't have a piece of wood stuck under their chin; they can warble and experiment and revise more naturally and comfortably. Of course if I really wanted to write songs, none of these minutiae would matter.