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THE TRICK IS PLAYED:
REFLECTIONS ON LITERARY CRAFT

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By Michael Milburn

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The Montréal Review, May 2014

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Christine de Pizan

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I have an idea for a short story, but doubt my ability to pull it off. I haven’t written any stories since high school, where I received enough encouragement to convince me to apply to a fiction workshop in college and to a poetry workshop as a back-up. I was rejected by the fiction class and accepted into the poetry class and thereafter wrote only poetry. I’m not sure if the rejection hurt my confidence or the acceptance motivated me, or if I was simply a better poet and this came through in my writing sample. Now, thirty years later, I’m hungry to write stories again. Writers often talk about a piece of writing making them want to write, and these days it’s short stories rather than poems that inspire me this way. This frustrates me because I neither feel competent in this genre nor young enough to start over learning the craft.

Learning one’s craft—after three decades of writing and teaching writing I have said and heard that phrase many times, but never thought through what it entails. In some fields, craft learning involves acquiring technique, as when a master sculptor shows an apprentice how to hold a chisel a certain way. A comparable poetic technique—one that I learned on my own through reading and have pointed out to many students—might be the use of enjambment to affect a poem’s pace and meaning (although this wouldn’t help me with my story). I suspect that literary craft is mostly intuitive—writers don’t consciously apply it so much as incorporate the fruits of their experience and education. Mary Oliver describes craft as a kind of subliminal resource:“What is learned consciously settles, within the chambers of the mind, where—you can count on it—it will ‘remember’ what it knows and will float forth to assist in the initial writing.”

“Craft” is sometimes used interchangeably with “style”—we call Hemingway a craftsman with his spare language and sinuous sentences, though these features also characterize the famous Hemingway style. “The tool with which the novelist thinks is the scrupulosity of his style,” Philip Roth said. “Here, in all this, lies whatever magnitude his thought may have.” In relation to poetry, the word “craft” tends to connote prosody, especially formal prosody; it probably gets applied more frequently to Emily Dickinson’s verse than to Walt Whitman’s. Hearing a contemporary poem praised as “well-crafted” makes me suspicious: I worry that its formal virtuosity will outstrip its passion. In the examples below, Linda Pastan’s “First Snow” strikes me as an exercise in prosody, its stresses, syllables, and rhymes its most notable attributes. In contrast, W.D. Snodgrass’s rhyming syllabics sound like the natural expression of his anguish over losing custody of his daughter:

The clouds dissolve in snow—
a simple act of physics
or the urge to just let go?

On hills, on frozen lakes
all definition fades
before the rush of flakes

until, bereft of light,
the moon gives up
her sovereign claim to white.

Linda Pastan, “First Snow”

The window's turning white.
The world moves like a diseased heart   
   packed with ice and snow.
Three months now we have been apart
less than a mile. I cannot fight      
   or let you go.

W.D. Snodgrass, “Heart’s Needle #9”

Of the origins of the “Heart’s Needle” series Snodgrass recalls, “I was very much moved by a cycle of songs by Gustav Mahler called Kindertotenlieder, Songs for the Death of Children, with texts from the poet Friedrich Ruckert. First I tried to translate those songs and wasn’t very successful. Then I started trying to write my own poems.” Like many statements by writers about their craft, this is more interesting than instructive, of practical use mainly if one is dealing with similar subject matter. For example, having also been separated from my child by divorce and written about this, I identify with Snodgrass’s statement that he wrote his poems “at least partly in the hope that the child would eventually see them.” I was ambivalent about this motivation and Snodgrass reassured me, adding that his daughter, now an adult, “only told me within the last month that yes, she had read those poems again and again when she was a child. It did indeed show her that I cared a great deal about what happened to her.” This lesson may sound personal rather than poetic, but it illuminated Snodgrass’s poems and gave me the confidence to keep mining this subject matter.

In a workshop that I took in college, my teacher assigned The Craft of Poetry, a collection of interviews with W.H. Auden, Richard Wilbur, Denise Levertov, and others. Asked how he begins a poem, Wilbur says, “I never write out the matter of a whole poem in prose or in jottings, and then proceed, [though] sometimes…I’ve got lost in detail toward the end of a long effort, and have made a little outline so as to discover its argumentative dimension.” That sounded like a useful tip, though I’d read elsewhere that Yeats began his poems with prose summaries. Whose example to follow?  I could try both methods, or wait to arrive at my own, which is what I did. Over time I grew comfortable composing my first drafts rapidly with minimal attention to line breaks. When a passage wouldn’t cohere during revision, I wrote out my meaning in prose. These strategies borrow from both Wilbur and Yeats, but I doubt that either one would have served me as well if I had adopted it outright in college.

This experience makes me skeptical about learning to write short stories based on the advice of my favorite fiction writers. Knowing that Alice Munro experiments with first and third person narrators, or that William Trevor advocates knowing one’s characters “inside out,” as these authors told The Paris Review, will be of limited help in bringing my story idea to fruition. Even when an interviewee gets explicit in the Paris Review series, it’s in relation to the demands of a particular work. Richard Ford’s account of choosing the right word—“I don’t want dark. I might, though, want a word that has four syllables and a long a sound in it”—sounds like a craft lesson as intimate as the sculptor guiding the apprentice’s hand, but unless that situation came up in my draft, Ford’s example wouldn’t help me. What it does do is suggest that my experience as a poet who labors over word choice will count toward my craft as a short story writer.

One tip that I can see being of practical use, perhaps because it’s less obvious than Munro’s or Trevor’s and more broadly applicable than Ford’s, appears in Henry James‘s preface to A Portrait of a Lady, in which James describes the challenge of generating interest in the character of Isabel Archer: “By what process of logical accretion was this slight ‘personality,’ the mere slim shade of an intelligent but presumptuous girl, to find itself endowed with the high attributes of a Subject?”  James’s strategy was to focus on “the view of her relation to those surrounding her. Make it predominantly a view of THEIR relation and the trick is played: you give the general sense of her effect, and you give it, so far as the raising on it of a superstructure goes, with the maximum of ease.” This technique, while specific to James’s task, would serve any fiction writer attempting to bring realistically ordinary characters to literary life.

When it comes to poetry, the most valuable lesson that I learn from other writers’ discussions of craft is not how they write, but how I do. Each time I read about a technique that I already use or deem unsuitable, I become more aware of and therefore able to refine my own practice. For example, if I tried to control a poem’s effects based on Mary Oliver’s analysis of “turning the line” in her A Poetry Handbook, I’d end up crippled by self-consciousness:

A self-enclosed line may be an entire sentence, or it may be a phrase that is complete in terms of grammar and logic, though it is only part of a sentence. In such a case…the pause works as an instant of inactivity, in which the reader is “invited” to weigh the information and pleasure of the line….

When, on the other hand, the poet enjambs the line—turns the line so that a logical phrase is interrupted—it speeds the line.           

My most helpful lesson in line-turning would occur if the issue of self-enclosed versus enjambed arose during revision and I addressed it based on the needs of my poem. Reading Oliver’s explanation afterwards, I would find an articulation of a technique already in my repertoire, giving me a better understanding of my practice.

Oliver did teach me one new technique that I applied to my own work and have passed on to my students.

There is a particularly effective device that can break into the established tempo of the line, thereby indicating—almost announcing—an important or revelatory moment. It is called the caesura. It is a structural and logical pause within and only within the line, and usually, but not always, within a metrical foot itself.

Looking back at some of my favorite poems after reading this, I realized that varying the placement of pauses in both free verse and metrical lines varies their pace and rhythm. Caesuras add a note of improvisation to Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” (“I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, / some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent”) and have a braking effect on the syntax of Donald Justice’s poem “Landscape with Little Figures,” leading into the fluid last line.

It’s winter, it’s after supper, it’s goodbye.

O goodbye to the houses, the children, the little red ball,

And the pieces of sky that will go on now falling for days.

Returning to these poems after reading Oliver, I realized that attention to caesura placement might alleviate the monotony of some passages in my own drafts.

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What one discovers through practicing one’s art isn’t so different from what one learns from teachers. As a writer gains experience, John McPhee says, “it’s as if an amateur is being replaced by a professional.” My own practice has taught me to better recognize obscurities in my poems and to be ruthless in excising personally meaningful but unnecessary information—the same lessons that my teachers imparted. Also, after years of finding arresting first or last lines buried in the middles of my students’ drafts, I began to apply this strategy to my poems, thereby adding teaching to my list of craft-learning activities. In my current job as a high school English teacher, the questions that I formulate about the way a poem works reveal as much to me as to my students. Richard Ford credits his students for honing his craft when he “us[ed] conversations about their work to articulate principles for myself that I could then ‘teach’ to them.”        

Practice at transforming drafts into poems also sharpens one’s sense of when a draft is worth investing time in. Philip Levine, now in his eighties, says that he spends less and less time on recalcitrant drafts—if a poem isn’t coming, he goes on to the next one; his time is too precious. Conversely, anyone who has read the worksheets of Yeats, Eliot or Lowell knows how unpromising some of their masterpieces looked in their early stages. This brings up a psychological aspect of craft: perseverance. Eventually, all poets have the experience of a problem resolving after dogged revision, as when Yeats finds the appropriate line and stanza length to suit his subject in “Sailing to Byzantium” or Lowell painstakingly shapes his autobiographical prose into the free verse of Life Studies. Persistence can yield breakthroughs, and the more often this happens, the less discouraged one feels the next time things are not going well.

As revealing as these worksheets are, the most applicable craft that I learn from other poets comes from reading their poems. I learned about enjambment from Lowell’s early poems, about assonance from Robert Frost, and about internal rhyme from Sylvia Plath. I once led a poetry workshop with a group of adults who declined all of my attempts to integrate reading and discussion of published poetry into our meetings; they only wanted to present their own work. Their disinterest struck me as so antithetical to learning to write that I withdrew from the group. Without the combination of curiosity and envy that makes a poet want to figure out how an admired poem works, he or she will never move beyond seeing writing as a one time utterance rather than a crafted work of art. In a recent interview Richard Bausch said, “I have not read a single line of fiction in the past thirty years that I was not parsing for the secrets of its writer.”

I have probably taught my students some craft by cutting verbiage from their poems and identifying musical or flat language, but ultimately the responsibility for revision will lie with them. Poets improve mainly through doing—the adage that writing is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration allots no percentage to education. “You don’t teach piano playing at lessons,” the pianist György Sebők told his students, “you teach how to practice—the daily rite of discovery that is how learning really happens.” For two of twentieth century poetry’s most famous teacher-student pairs—Allen Tate and Robert Lowell at Kenyon College, and Lowell and W.D. Snodgrass at Iowa—education was less a matter of instruction than of contention. Lowell hated the “Heart’s Needle” poems that Snodgrass debuted in his class, telling him, “You have a brain. You can’t write this kind of tearjerking stuff!”  When Lowell subsequently started writing his own intimate family poems, he showed them to Tate, who responded, "All the poems about your family ... are definitely bad. I do not think you ought to publish them.” Ignoring this advice, Lowell published the poems as the groundbreaking final section of Life Studies

These judgments notwithstanding, both Lowell and Snodgrass credit their teachers with shaping the way that they thought about and wrote poetry. Recalling his student days with Lowell, Snodgrass makes no mention of the latter’s editing of his poems, but returns repeatedly to the quality of his mentor’s mind:  “When [it] was working, it was just unbelievable. I’d never been around a mind, such a gigantic piece of machinery as that. It was just marvelous.” This corresponds to my experience as a student in the last class that Lowell taught before his death in 1977. His health was poor and his workshop comments unfocused, but hearing him hold forth on his favorite poems from the Norton Anthology was transformative. Of this aspect of education Robert Hass says,

It is a useful thing for a teacher to remember…that the students are learning not just from the content of your teaching, but from the privileges that go with the observer standpoint. They get to watch you with detachment, perhaps with amusement. They can listen with sympathy and without.

My other college teachers were more helpful in their critiques of my poems, but thirty years later I doubt that my writing is significantly better for their edits, or weaker than if I had gone on to pursue an MFA degree after graduation. Thanks to assignments, deadlines and rigorous readings of my poems, workshops improved my craft, but I can’t point to anything I gleaned from them that I could not or would not have learned, albeit more slowly, through practice. The poet Katha Pollitt recalls a workshop she took with Elizabeth Bishop at Harvard in 1972:

Miss Bishop was a very valuable teacher to me, although having said that, I have to say that I remember very little of what she said, but that’s true of my other teachers as well. All this advice and line analysis that everyone spends so much time giving you goes in one ear and out the other, because you’re on your own track, really, or at least I was, for better or for worse.

Urging me to apply to MFA programs as an alternative to writing on my own, one of my college teachers said: “You’ll get there, but you’ll get there faster this way.” It didn’t occur to me to ask what she meant by “there,” though as I contemplate devoting myself to a new genre at age fifty-five, now might be the time to take her advice. Or maybe my do-it-yourself impulse was right, and craft is just a fancy word for practice—keeping at an activity in the hope that one will improve. My poems have improved over the years, but I wonder if this progress would extend to fiction, exempting me from a second literary apprenticeship.

Not that I’m done with my first apprenticeship. That’s my point: my ratio of failure to success in poetry is still so great that the prospect of taking on a new genre feels daunting—I couldn’t face writing badly for years before producing something of quality. But that assumes that writers require an apprenticeship. How much craft could Rimbaud have learned before writing his masterpieces as a teenager?  His talent appears to have come accessorized with a lifetime’s worth of craft. Prodigies aside, I believe that a significant part of learning craft is learning about one’s talent—how much of it one has and what one can do with it—and about the world—either the physical world or the world of one’s imagination. For example, I recognized early on that I was most comfortable writing autobiographically and struggled to make anything up. Maybe this self-knowledge steered me away from fiction then and should keep me away from it now.

Imagination might seem to have little to do with craft, but when it comes to telling stories, craft without imagination is as useless as craft without emotion in poetry. For a fiction writer, imagination feeds craft, and the more of it one has the more effective one’s craft will be. But poets also use imagination to select and shape experience. In the poem “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” from Life Studies, Lowell records his childhood impressions of his uncle:

Uncle Devereux stood behind me.
He was as brushed as Bayard, our riding horse.  
His face was putty.
His blue coat and white trousers
grew sharper and straighter.
His coat was a blue jay’s tail,
his trousers were solid cream from the top of the bottle.  

Writing from the perspective of one’s five-year-old self about a scene that happened over thirty years ago requires as much imagination as writing about characters that never existed and events that never occurred. The poem must be faithful enough to what happened to give the illusion of veracity. Creating that illusion is the autobiographical writer’s way of smoothing out memory’s inconvenient gaps and contradictions. Stacey Schiff’s comment that memoir must be better-proportioned than real life also applies to poetry.

For all the poetic craft that I have acquired through education, experience, and practice, and the imagination that goes into my poems, I’m still not convinced that my skills would carry over to a new genre. When I was starting out as a poet with no craft, having something to say and the challenge of saying it well were sufficient motivators for me to write, but today I would take no pleasure from producing amateurish fiction. Reading good short stories makes me want to write them, though perhaps more in the way that watching dance or listening to music makes me want to master those arts, as a fantasy rather than an achievable goal. The craft that I have learned over the years may not make my dream of excelling as a poet come true, or it may be the difference between wanting to do this and actually getting it done. The Montreal Review, Copyright 2014

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MORE FROM MICHAEL MILBURN:

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JACK'S ROOM

My three brothers, eighteen, sixteen, and fourteen years my senior, lived away from home for most of my childhood. Our interaction was limited to their week-end visits to our parents' house, or the occasional longer stay when they would reoccupy their rooms during intervals between schools or apartments... | read |

ON PERSONALITY

There's at least one at every party, in every classroom, commanding attention, enlivening conversation. And invariably, off to the side or in the back row, there's another watching and listening, as withdrawn as the first is outgoing... | read |

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ON INTELLIGENCE

Although I recognized the concept of intelligence from an early age, it wasn't until high school that I realized that being smart meant more than getting good grades, and that different people could be smart in different ways. | read |

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Michael Milburn's book of essays, Odd Man In, won the First Series Award for Creative Nonfiction and was published by MidList Press in 2005.  He is the author of two books of poems, Drive By Heart (2009) and Carpe Something (2012). You can find more of his work at michael-milburn.com

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"Odd Man In: And Other Essays"

"Not many poets coach lacrosse teams. But it is the improbable connections in his life that make Milburn such a refreshingly unpredictable essayist. Whether pondering the affinity between uncoached athletic talent and untutored poetic genius or comparing his own social status as an oft-stereotyped WASP to that of an oft-discriminated-against African American, Milburn cuts through conventional wisdom to reach fresh insights... An authentic and engaging voice."

-- Bryce Christensen

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