Sunday, March 6, 2011

When I Can't Read Prose Anymore

It's usually easy to pick out the student in a writing class who will most likely not turn in anything very interesting, at least not this semester. He or she might at first appear to be one of the brightest and most ambitious students in a class; but as soon as you ask her for a list of her favorite books, and she replies, "I don't read, I don't want to be influenced, I want to be original," you know what you've got. It's not the arrogance that's most distressing--she has nothing to learn from those who have come before her--but the lack of passion. A writer who has never fallen hopelessly in love with a piece of writing--whether it was "The Death of the Moth" or Harry Potter--and felt a blazing desire to create that effect for someone else likely will not be able to do it. Ambition is very important, but it comes in second to love.

However! I think of this observation whenever I come to the inevitable stage, while working on a manuscript, when I can't read prose anymore, except with great pain. Before I start a draft, I generally read obsessively in preparation, and often over the course of the process I go to other books for help. In the morning I might read a couple of pages of Katherine Anne Porter or Andre Aciman before I start, just to get some good prose in my head; sometimes I'll stop and say to myself, "I simply won't know how to fix this problem until I've read Dracula again ... " But at some point every piece of fiction or even nonfiction I pick up, especially something with a very strong style--Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, writers I love--bothers me so much that I have to put it away. I think what's happening is that I have found, or am very close to finding, the exact voice and style that I want for this particular piece; it's humming in my ear and I have to listen very carefully for it. Any other sound, especially a loud one, is too distracting and makes it difficult to hear.

I think it's important to follow these kinds of instincts. And so when I come to this point, I put the prose away. I've found, though, that what I can still read is poetry, and often it's just what I need. The form is just different enough that it doesn't whisper, hatefully and temptingly, into my ear, "Here I am, an alternate voice and style, the one you probably should have used--what were you thinking, not making your story sound exactly like Lolita or The Bear?" I will not feel tempted to write the novel in syllabics. But the precise, musical language of the kind of poems I like best, and the breathtaking, ballsy way a great poet has of diving straight down to the ancient, mythic heart of the matter, keeps my ear listening for the finest, most apt language I can find, and, more importantly, reminds me why I'm doing what I am.

I'm in such a stage right now, and here are some of the poetry collections I'm reading. I highly recommend them: Alan Dugan's Poems 4; Melissa Range's Horse and Rider; John Murillo's Up Jump the Boogie; Sue Owen's My Doomsday Sampler; Sylvia Plath's Ariel; Wang Ping's Of Flesh & Spirit; W.B. Yeats' The Rose.

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