When my former student Jennifer Crowder told me about how she finally found a way to revise a story she’d be working on for several years (hey, it happens), I asked her if she’d share her experience with you. I’ve read a few drafts of this story set in Vancouver over the last few years and always thought it was a powerful story. I’m so happy she has revised it so that she is finally satisfied with her telling of the story.
Jennifer Crowder completed the Writing the Memoir certificate through the University of Washington Extension Program in 2007 after working for 17 years at a local corporation. She also has an MA in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her essay, “First in Flight,” appears in We Came to Say, a just-published collection of pieces written by Theo’s students and edited by her. Another piece will be published as part of a Canadian anthology in October, 2012, by Brindle & Glass in Victoria, BC.
A Promising Technique for Writing Creative Nonfiction—
From Poetry to Prose
Guest blogger, Jennifer Crowder
Years ago, I had an extraordinary experience in Vancouver, BC, while there for a conference. It started when I happened upon the scene of a suicide that had occurred seconds earlier. That alone was more than enough drama for one evening. But things went from strange to stranger, and I ended up having a long and mystical conversation with a First Nations man.
The evening was so remarkable that the moment I returned to my hotel room late that night, I sat down and recorded by hand 12 pages of text on hotel stationery documenting what had happened
Now, over ten years later, I still can’t say exactly how the evening ended or what the day’s events meant to me. Both the story itself and its effect on my life remain works in progress.
This story should be published. But to date, none of the iterations I’ve written has been just right. The story deserves more skillful and subtle treatment that I’ve yet been able to achieve. When I read what I’ve written, I’m dissatisfied: I find the tone flat and “reporterly,” and feel my telling of the story doesn’t rise to the emotional level of the events. Several people, including an editor of one literary journal that declined to publish the story, have observed that I’m not really in the story as an author—I’m emotionally withheld. .
So while I’ve been successful in finding publishers for a few other essays, I’ve not yet found one for the Vancouver story. I’ve been frustrated by my ongoing stalemate with it—by my inability to fix it, to get the narrative voice right. To find the right structure. More than once, I’ve set the story aside in favor of other projects.
Recently, though, I came upon a promising idea. I was reading Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Carolyn Forché and Phillip Gerard, a set of essays about writing the genre. One essay, “But Tell It Slant: From Poetry to Prose and Back Again,” caught my attention. Its author, Judith Ortiz Cofer, is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia.
Cofer requires everyone in her multi-genre classes to write poems, despite frequent objections. She finds that the discipline helps students identify their work’s subject or “Truth”—the material “worth writing about”—rather than the story’s facts. Too, she feels it makes writing students “more conscious of the writing process as one of self-discovery, not merely of self-expression.”
Once students have “distilled, purified, and polished” their ideas into poems, Cofer has them rewrite the poems as prose. She sees this technique as “a way to arrive dramatically at point that begins serious writing for me: a respect for language that poetry writing demands.” I liked this immediately, having always been very intentional about choosing words when writing.
Although I believe I’ve found my niche as a writer in the genres of memoir and creative nonfiction, my writing always has a significant poetic element. I’m drawn to poetry’s economy and precision, to its spare but vivid images. I like its ability to get at the kernel of an idea. I’ve participated for in poetry writing groups and have taken at least one poetry writing class. But the form never “clicked” for me in the same manner as nonfiction.
Given this background, the poetry-to-prose idea appealed to me and I decided to give it a try using the Vancouver story.
To conduct the experiment, I set aside all previous versions of the story, and looked at none of them. Instead, I quickly wrote a version in poetic form, focusing on being direct, spare, and emotionally honest. The result surprised me. It was powerful and “raw,” and was wholly unlike anything I’d written before. Gone were many peripheral details, including nonessential characters, the context or “setup” I typically provide, and “niceties” such as transitions.
The poetic version hones right in on the story’s core: my conversation with Charles late that night in the hotel lobby, what I learned from it, and how it has affected me. The voice felt much more genuine and immediate. And it was recognizably “me”—it feels like I’m much more “present” to the evening’s events. Above all, the poetic version seems to highlight the story’s themes more effectively. The essential story was still there, but in more focused and distilled form.
Converting the poetic version back to prose proved to be more challenging than I expected. I found myself struggling to write prose that preserved the immediacy and power of the poem, but that also contained just enough added material to ensure a cohesive and comprehensible story. Above all, I wanted to avoid a result that felt “over-processed.” It’s not an easy balance to find.
The new prose version remains very much a work in progress. But I’m optimistic, believing that it is nearer the mark than any previous version. The tone and voice are transformed. And it’s significantly shorter—less than half the length of any previous version. My husband Kevin, who patiently reads and comments insightfully on my writing—and who has seen countless previous versions of this story—read it and said “This rocks!! I think you’re on to something.”
Here’s an excerpt of the poetic version, unedited:
Less circumspect, I tell you
My day’s story: the man in the alley
Missing a shoe, one argyle sock exposed,
Crumbled there, no longer alive
Posed as if in a still life,
His mind and heart laid open
To all who pass this small space
This anonymous expanse
Between two buildings.
Here’s the current prose version of the above excerpt:
Less circumspect than you, I need to speak the horrors I have just seen. “This is a good ending to a terrible day,” I say. Your answering expression blends curiosity and concern, and invites my confidence. You sit down in a lobby chair, ready to listen. I sense you will do so without judgment..
I sit near you and yield my truths. I describe the suicide, lying crumpled on the pavement—the jarring contast between his finely tailored suit and the gritty oil-stained pavement, the odd pathos of his shoeless foot and exposed argyle socks. He had looked almost posed, part of a stll life. No one could know his thoughts now, and yet his mind lay there, open to all who passed by the small space, this anonymous interval between two buildings.
No technique works for everyone. Those who have never written poetry or who find it uncomfortable may find the prospect intimidating. But keep in mind that here, the poem is the means to an end. It’s one stage of a draft, and can be abandoned.
At its heart, I see the technique as an exercise in thinking differently about your material—how you approach a story, how you identify its subject and capture what’s essential, and how to choose precise words that best describe your experience. For me personally, the discipline of writing my story in poetic form enforced focus and economy. It seems to have broken my stalemate with the content. And it forced me back into the story.
It’s worth a try!
The essay’s author suggests this series of exercises:
- Write a short poem about a real-life event, personal or public, that interests you deeply.
- In the poem you write, identify the subject that was triggered by the writing.
- From the poem, write a piece of creative nonfiction about the same subject.