To Name or Not to Name: Reflections on Genre, Character, & Poetry

I’m currently teaching a research writing class, and this particular class is unique because it asks the students to explore and respond to various kinds of art (short stories, poems, plays, creative nonfiction essays, visual art, etc.) through their writing, all the while following MLA formatting, of course. It’s a fun class to teach, because, well, I love art, and it gives me an opportunity to introduce these students to an assortment of genres. For each genre, I discuss the various elements that are fundamental to that genre. For example, short stories employ setting, poetry relies on literary devices, creative nonfiction is based in fact, with a novelistic twist. And so on.

When it came to poetry, and I was putting my list of fundamentals together, I stumbled over whether to include character as a necessary element for this genre. Questions went through my mind: Does poetry require characters? What is the ratio of poems with characters to those without? What poems off the top of my head can I think of that include characters? What poems of my own have characters? What’s the virtue of adding characters? Is poetry more imagery based than prose? Who classifies what a poem is and what isn’t?

All of these questions led me to rediscover what the word genre means. In M. H. Abrams’ A Glossary of Literary Terms, it says that “Through the Renaissance and much of the eighteenth century, the recognized genres . . . were widely thought to be fixed types” and that mixing genres was considered abhorrent. Skip forward to today, and Abrams says “. . . genres are conceived to be more or less arbitrary modes of classification, whose justification is their convenience in discussing literature.”

So, basically, once the distinction and classification mattered, and now, not so much. Now, we exist in a more fluid space, where it seems that the writer determines what his/her piece is: It’s a poem, because I say it is! Never mind that the poem is novel-length, and doesn’t seem to observe other poem-y techniques, as is the case with Gabriel Gudding’s Rhode Island Notebook.

Or consider the six-word “short story” attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Certainly, this would seem to fall more within the realm of poetry due to its brevity, and yet, these six words contain fundamental elements of the short story genre: characters, setting, conflict, plot, tone, etc.

Consider also Bruce Holland Rogers’ “Three Soldiers,” which is a triumvirate of mini stories, each with their own title, under the larger title. You can read the “short story” here: “Three Soldiers” This might seem more like a poem, in part because it follows a strict form (69 words per story), but Holland Rogers has classified it as a short story, and therefore, apparently, so must we.

So, back to my dilemma of whether the genre of poetry includes character . . . in the end I decided that yes it does, but not always, which seems to be the way we define genres these days: Sometimes. Maybe. If the author wants to.

Running alongside my questions as a teacher are my questions as a writer of poetry: Why include characters? And if I incorporate them, should I name them? In a lot of poetry, there seem to be implied characters: the “I” behind the words, or the vague hes and shes. And in my experience, the named character doesn’t appear as often in this genre. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot comes to mind with its “I” and “you” and its coming and going women. But would we call these characters, in the same sense that we would call Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice a character? Yet, Eliot does something interesting by naming his character in the title, but that name is never referenced in the poem itself. So, what’s the value of naming the character at all?

Look at any haiku poem, and what you might see is an “I” here and there, but more likely you’ll see elements of nature. Are the natural elements characters? Are the implied wind or the leaves characters in Buson’s haiku?

Blowing from the west
Fallen leaves gather
In the east.

And another question to ponder, when we think about the “I” in poetry, is that really character, or is it narrator? When E. E. Cummings says “and what i want to know is / how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death” in his poem “Buffalo Bill’s,” is the “i” a character, or some omniscient eye (no pun intended)?

I certainly don’t think I know the answers yet to any of these questions. I’m not even sure I can articulate why I sometimes choose to name characters in my own poetry, and why other times I leave them murky and in the distance with generic hes and shes. But I think these are questions worth pondering, since writing is in part about intention, and understanding the reasons for our choices in whatever genre we are working in is crucial to good writing.

For all you poets out there (and non-poets, too), how do you deal with character? To name or not to name? And why?

 

 

Write Now Prompt for July 25, 2014

Write_Now_Plane

At Today’s Author, our first goal is to get you (and us) to write. Write Now is our own collection of prompts to help you do that. With Write Now we’re not talking about writing, or trying to teach anyone how to write. Write Now is all about putting pen to paper.

Today’s Prompt:

There was something very different about him after the long business trip.

Now_Write_Plane

How to play along with our Writing Prompts

  1. Write in any format or style you wish: short story, poem, script – whatever you like.
  2. Write for at least 5 minutes. There is no time limit – write for as long as you wish!
  3. Editing is not required, though we do recommend that you run a spell check at least.
  4. Post your work to your blog and include a link back here so your readers can find other writer’s work, too.
  5. Come back here and provide a link to your work on the Write Now! prompt for which it was written.
  6. Read other authors’ posts and leave constructive comments.

Important Note: When you post a draft of your work online, it may be difficult to find a publisher who will accept it, as many see an online document as being previously published. It may also be ineligible to be submitted for certain writing competitions. Always check publisher’s and competition guidelines before using a draft you put online.

Just for Fun: Vacations

Pick a character from a current work-in-progress, a past story you’ve written or one you’ve thought up but never used.  Where do they go on vacation? What do they do while they are on vacation?  Do they go alone or bring their family with them? Describe the vacation in the comments here or write a vacation scene or story to get to know your character better.

On Schedules and Routines

I’m sitting here this Wednesday morning feeling completely out of phase with the world.  It’s a feeling I get whenever I oversleep and today I overslept.  I have to assume I hit the snooze button a few times this morning, but it’s more fun to think that some aliens from a distant planet had a hand in this. Well, the aliens or my evil cats.  Either way, I awoke at 5:07am… a full 30 minutes later than normal.  At 5:07am I’m usually already at the gym, not just getting out of bed.  I hurried through my routine, got myself ready and walked the dog, then scurried off to the gym for a truncated workout.  Officially, I’m back “on schedule” now, having cut my workout short so that my shower and subsequent trip to Starbucks could occur “on time”.

Yet, I feel completely out of sorts.

It gets me to thinking about the importance of routines for me.  My life is ruled by schedules.  Get up at this time, do this at that time.  The kids’ schedules are also my schedule, so I have to be sure they get to their baseball games or dance classes or parties on time and that they get picked up from the same on time.  The dog’s and the cats’ schedules are also my schedule owing to their demands to be walked or fed or pet as needed.  Even the garden has a schedule which is my schedule owing to the need for watering, harvesting and weeding.  You’ll note I haven’t even mentioned the real dictator of my life’s schedule: The Day Job.  You’ll also note I haven’t mentioned writing.

Where I am going with this is simple: schedules and routines are important to me because they are what drives my day.  This has been the case for my entire life, really.  But writing was one thing I never wanted to schedule.  It is the only thing in my life where I don’t plan anything at all – no outlines, no idea where a story is heading before I write it, nothing.  I’ve attributed this to me wanting something in my life that was not schedule-oriented and not dictated by the clock or the calendar or some sterile design document telling me what the result needs to look like.

I’ve also sometimes thought my lack of a writing schedule could be due to the fact that in high school English class we had journals and every day we had to spend ten minutes writing.  I hated it.  Loathed it, really.  I spent ten minutes each day repeating “I don’t know what to write… I don’t know what to write…” over and over again for pages on end.  At the time it looked like an enormous waste of time to me.   Recently, though, I came across one of those old journals and I flipped through it.  Yes, as I recall, there were plenty of those pages of repeated negativity.  But mixed in with them were pages of real writing ideas – dialogue between characters, descriptions of distant, alien landscapes,  ideas for stories or poems.  I do not remember writing those passages, but they are there, in my own horrifically bad handwriting, buried and hidden within the obvious distaste for the forced writing exercises.

Many people have routines for writing.  There are as many ways to schedule yourself to have time to write as there are writers out there.  I’ve read about these ideas (morning pages, dedicated writing times, word sprints, etc.) but I’ve only utilized them in November during NaNoWriMo.  And now, if I’m being honest with myself, I can look back and see that back when I was working in an office my routine included getting to the office early and spending that hour writing.  I suppose that was “scheduled writing”, but it was never required and if I spent that extra hour working on my day job instead of writing I wasn’t feeling like I had done anything wrong.  And since I’m being honest with myself here, I can admit that I’m not really getting any good writing done now with my anti-schedule mentality.

So where does that leave me?  I’m going on vacation next week (which as we all know comes with its own overpowering need for a schedule).  I am considering trying a “forced writing” routine into it.  Just for a little while, just for the week. That’s how I’m selling it to myself, at least.  I haven’t decided if it’ll be on paper or on the laptop. I haven’t decided if it will be in the morning or evening (most likely morning, since no one else will be up early). I haven’t decided if I’ll just allow myself to write “I don’t know what to write” over and over again until something better shows up on the page, or if I’ll dedicate the time to writing a vacation blog post each day or if I’ll try to flesh out some of the story ideas for which I haven’t done anything yet.  My not-so-secret hope is that if I do this every day for a week it will be easier to incorporate it into my regular routine at home.  I have no idea if this will work for me but I need to try.

I’m curious about other people’s routines and methods for carving out time to write from a busy life. Do you have any habits you think help you to focus your writing energy into whatever time you have? Any tricks or routines that you think might seem weird to others but work really well for you? Share your ideas in the comments below… maybe I’ll incorporate them into my experiment next week.

Write Now Prompt for July 22, 2014

Write_Now_Plane

At Today’s Author, our first goal is to get you (and us) to write. Write Now is our own collection of prompts to help you do that. With Write Now we’re not talking about writing, or trying to teach anyone how to write. Write Now is all about putting pen to paper.

Today’s Prompt:

The key he found while weeding in the garden was clearly an antique.

Now_Write_Plane

How to play along with our Writing Prompts

  1. Write in any format or style you wish: short story, poem, script – whatever you like.
  2. Write for at least 5 minutes. There is no time limit – write for as long as you wish!
  3. Editing is not required, though we do recommend that you run a spell check at least.
  4. Post your work to your blog and include a link back here so your readers can find other writer’s work, too.
  5. Come back here and provide a link to your work on the Write Now! prompt for which it was written.
  6. Read other authors’ posts and leave constructive comments.

Important Note: When you post a draft of your work online, it may be difficult to find a publisher who will accept it, as many see an online document as being previously published. It may also be ineligible to be submitted for certain writing competitions. Always check publisher’s and competition guidelines before using a draft you put online.

The Writers Circle: Publishing

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Self-publishing has made it easier to get your books out there for people to read and buy, but it isn’t for everyone and the idea and promise of traditional publishing houses remains the goal for many.  Do you feel traditional hard-copy publishing is still feasible or realistic for new or emerging authors?  Which publishing methods do you feel are best for your own work?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

 

Do you have an idea you think would be a great topic for a future The Writer’s Circle post?  Do you have a question you’d like to ask our authors?  Fill out this form to submit your ideas and questions:

 

 

 

Write Now Prompt for July 18, 2014

Write_Now_Plane

At Today’s Author, our first goal is to get you (and us) to write. Write Now is our own collection of prompts to help you do that. With Write Now we’re not talking about writing, or trying to teach anyone how to write. Write Now is all about putting pen to paper.

Today’s Prompt:

She thought it was going to be a typical blind date, until she noticed her date’s bodyguards.

Now_Write_Plane

How to play along with our Writing Prompts

  1. Write in any format or style you wish: short story, poem, script – whatever you like.
  2. Write for at least 5 minutes. There is no time limit – write for as long as you wish!
  3. Editing is not required, though we do recommend that you run a spell check at least.
  4. Post your work to your blog and include a link back here so your readers can find other writer’s work, too.
  5. Come back here and provide a link to your work on the Write Now! prompt for which it was written.
  6. Read other authors’ posts and leave constructive comments.

Important Note: When you post a draft of your work online, it may be difficult to find a publisher who will accept it, as many see an online document as being previously published. It may also be ineligible to be submitted for certain writing competitions. Always check publisher’s and competition guidelines before using a draft you put online.