Wednesday, 30 April 2014

I’m not a poet, and I already know it - Lari Don

This month, I’ve taken part in NaPoWriMo14: National Poetry Writing Month 2014. I’ve faithfully written a piece of poetry every day, though I haven’t actually gone public with any of it. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to inflict any on you here either.)

Why did I want to do NaPoWriMo? I’m a far-too-busy prose writer, with deadlines to meet and children to look after (when I remember), so why take on another creative responsibility?

Because I thought challenging myself to try something new as a writer would be interesting, and possibly even useful.

I already knew I wasn’t a poet. I was put off poetry at school (yes, just like everyone else) so I don’t read poetry very often, and I never attempt to write it. I do write riddles, because my Fabled Beasts adventure series contains lots of magical creatures and characters who use riddles as clues, tools or weapons, but I think of riddles as verbal puzzles than poetry.

And NaPoWriMo14 has certainly confirmed that I’m not a poet.

I did enjoy writing the poems, I did manage at least one a day, and it was fascinating discovering that the subjects I wanted to consider in poetic form were very different from the subjects I’m drawn to examine in fiction. (Observation rather than question, emotion rather than thought, location rather than journey.)

However, the most important thing I discovered is that I don’t like rhyming.

I can find rhymes easily enough, but I don’t like them. I don’t feel fulfilled or satisfied by writing one line which rhymes with another line.

But I tried very hard to rhyme a few of my poems this month, and while doing that I discovered why I don’t like rhyming. I want to pick the absolutely right word for the job, the word which most precisely and vividly tells the story. I don’t want to pick a word just because it ends with useful letters and sounds.

I don’t feel like I’m telling the truth when I rhyme.

None of this means I can’t admire and enjoy rhyming verse written by someone as skilled as Alan Ahlberg or Julia Donaldson. But when I try to rhyme myself, it comes out as either forced or flippant.

So this month of poetry has taught me more about what kind of writer I am. I am a writer who cares about the meaning of the words much more than the sound, and as I already knew I was a writer who cares more about plot and ‘what happens next’ than any other aspect of a novel, that makes sense. Perhaps that explicit realisation will allow me to be more analytical about my editing decisions in the future.

This sudden discovery (well, month-long discovery) about my relationship with words reminds me of the night I discovered that I’m not a stand-up comedian. I already knew that too, but I was invited to take part in a project linking storytellers and stand-ups, and I do love a challenge. So when I was telling a story in a comedy club, with lights in my eyes, unable to see the audience, only able to hear them when they laughed (which they did, occasionally!) I realised that I’m not primarily interested in the moments of humour in a story. I’m not interested in the laughs. I’m interested in the moments which make an audience or reader gasp or sit forward or hold their breath. I’m interested in the moments of drama.

So I had to stand up in a comedy club to realise what is important to me in a story.

And I had to spend a month writing poetry to realise what is important to me in a word.

Perhaps that’s the main value of trying out new ways of writing or performing: it allows you to discover more about the core of what you do best.

Did anyone else try NaPoWriMo14? And if so, what did you discover?

Lari Don is the award-winning author of 21 books for all ages, including a teen thriller, fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers. 


Nick Green said...

I've always felt that the sound of a word is an inherent part of its meaning - I don't think the two are entirely separate. For instance, 'break', 'snap', 'crack', 'shatter', 'shiver', 'split', 'fracture', 'disintegrate' (etc) all mean approximately the same, but the sound of them adds an extra flavour that refines the meaning. That, I think, is where the realm of poetry lies.

Lari Don said...

Yes Nick, I do completely agree. I love reading my work out loud, and I often use alliteration, so the sound of works is something I take great joy in, but I realised that structuring a piece of writing solely around the sounds of the ends of words made me feel trapped!

Renita Boyle said...

Fantastic, Lari Don! I am writing my last NaPoWrIMo today. I did take the very brave (and vulnerable) of publishing them on my blog AND (because I am completely mad) also painted/drew pictures to go with many of them! I had only ever painted one picture in my adult life before then! I will be writing a blog post about my experience too- but (in a nutshell) really loved doing it on many, many levels. I am amazed at how the discipline really helped to focus me and my writing. - Renita Boyle

Lari Don said...

It does require discipline, Renita, and I really admire people who did NaPoWriMo to create finished poems. I just did it to find out how writing poetry worked and felt for me! Well done you for all 30 poems!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Lari. I know it sounds pretentious, but I think most creative writing involves a measure of self-discovery. If you'd asked me last week, I'd have said that the thing I learned from NaPoWriMo was that I was a real misery guts. But as of yesterday, I also discovered I was surprisingly angry! (I wrote a rather agressive poem beginning "you should have bitten the dragon".) When I started NaPoWriMo, I fondly thought I'd produce carefully crafted poems, maybe even playing with some forms - always fancied trying a vilanelle, but have never got round to it. But what I discovered was that it was just the excuse I needed to splurge on the page.

Lari said...

thanks for saying you found the post interesting, Carol. I did wonder after I'd written the post whether it was all a bit self indulgent - both writing poetry for fun when I'm meant to be a professional prose writer, and than also subjecting you all to a blog on what I found out in the process! But I think you are right - all writing is selfdiscovery (so is most good reading of course...) So perhaps my self indulgence might encourage others to be similarly self indulgent and discover things about themselves. And I LOVE the first line - you should have bitten the dragon!