Craft: Lying in a Hammock, Reading Across Genres by Donna Steiner

We hear it all the time: poets should read poetry, fiction writers should immerse themselves in short stories and novels, nonfiction writers should read memoirs and essays, and so on. But there are good reasons for reading across genres, not the least being pleasure. When was the last time you read a play? A screenplay? When was the last time you bought a book of poetry? Just about everyone reads fiction, but you might think plays have little relevance. And why read a screenplay when you can relax with some popcorn and watch the film?

Reading in other genres might feel like too large a time commitment, or might even be a bit scary.  (Many find poetry daunting…) But screenplays, plays and poetry might enhance what you’re already doing or push you in a new direction. Broadening your reading range can deepen the writing experience.

 

Screenplays

Most screenplays are highly structured. Whether an indie romantic comedy, a thriller, or a superhero blockbuster, screenwriters know that certain plot points must occur by a certain time. They know the range of pages they have to work with, and they are highly cognizant of format. There are strictures that they heed and within those strictures they are able to create vivid characters and scenes.  Screenplays can be particularly helpful to those of us who tend to overwrite or who get stuck in inaction. In movies, something happens – somebody wants something, obstacles exist, obstacles are contended with. Screenplays are the scaffolding for the empathy we feel at the movies, the sense of forgetting about the outside world. That kind of immersive experience is also what readers seek. Studying screenplays can show us ways to structure a narrative, incorporate exposition, and handle pacing.

Screenplays (movie scripts) are widely available online. Here are just a few links:

 

Plays

Like film, plays have (at least) two crucial components: the script and the performances. Almost unconsciously, many of us give more credence to performance. We talk about the acting in a movie or play; when awards are given, it is the acting awards that garner the most attention. There can be, however, no performance without the words on the page. That being said, playwrights themselves believe that their words should be heard/seen on stage rather than (only) read on the page.

Reading even a handful of plays can create a more sophisticated understanding of human speech and how dialogue can be used to create and develop characters. Studying plays can illuminate why words are said, and indicate the significance of when, where and how those words are spoken. Nonfiction writers, particularly those working on memoirs, could create their own master class in dialogue by reading a stack of plays by different authors.

Setting is also handled carefully in plays, since everything must be confined to the stage.  How does one create thematic complexity within the confines of a set? Reading a play can also be instructive in terms of length – full narrative arcs are completed fairly quickly. How does the playwright accomplish this? What is on the page? What is left out?

Plays also give us a way of understanding physicality. Humans are entities, and plays bring those bodies into stark relief. Characterization is at the forefront, but actual physical beings also matter.  For writers like me, who are often studying natural settings or thinking about how words sound, there is something grounding about the human dimensions of playwriting. Plays suggest that it may be, in the end, the people who matter most.

 

Poetry

It’s a little surprising to hear, rather frequently, that many writers don’t read poetry. They say that they don’t get it or that it scares them. Perhaps it stems from some traumatic experience in school where they read poems that were written in unfamiliar language or used heavy end-rhyme or otherwise lacked authenticity or relevance. I don’t know what happened to alienate so many readers, but I do know that contemporary poetry is fantastically diverse and anyone who wants to find good poetry book can easily do so.

But why should you? Well, for starters, poetry is a word-by-word genre. Every word matters. The choice of words matter, and the placement of those words matters. Meaning matters, and sound matters. These elements are revered by poets, but that doesn’t mean that all poems are reverential or seek to fill the reader with awe. One need only check out Tony Hoagland to get a sense of how much earthiness and relevance contemporary poetry offers.  (Try “Lucky” or “Dickhead,” the latter of which can be heard here.

Narrative poetry can give a sense of story: something happens, and something matters. Voice is often paramount, and poetry can be instructive when it comes to tone. Marie Howe’s great book What the Living Do has always felt to me like a series of poetic, real-life vignettes. Re-reading that book has taught me about character, image, the deft handling of strong emotion, and theme. Anne Carson’s masterpiece, Autobiography of Red, features a red, homosexual, winged monster/boy/artist as its protagonist. Yet it is one of the most personally relevant books I’ve ever read, and anyone hoping to enliven their sentence structure or learn to use adjectives more creatively might check it out.

All of this sounds prescriptive, as though I am suggesting that a nonfiction writer pick up a play or a book of poems or a screenplay solely to learn something technical. I do believe that’s possible, and reading with the objective of learning a specific skill is part of our lives…but that’s not ultimately what I’m trying to get at.

The fiction writer, Leigh Allison Wilson, recounted reading the famous James Wright poem, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” She said that the poem conveyed a quiet and direct narrative, and also conveyed emotional truth in a short space. What was memorable to her, and to many other readers, was its devastation – a last line that insists the reader re-evaluate the poem.  “You don’t see it coming at all because of the poem’s brevity,” Wilson said. “There’s this quiet narrative and then bang – the devastation of the final line.” The experience of the poem had a ripple effect for Wilson, who couldn’t shake Wright’s work. It made her want to try writing short form fiction – flash fiction – so that she could attempt some of the things she recognized in that poem. “I didn’t see that coming either,” she said. “I didn’t know that reading that poem would make me want to try something new in my own writing.”

And that’s my real point. You never know what’s going to influence you. You might not see that moment of exquisite devastation that alters how you read, how you write, how you recognize truth.   To me, that’s the beauty of trying something new – you just might be changed forever.

Donna Steiner, Columnist

Donna Steiner’s writing has been published in literary journals including Fourth Genre, Shenandoah, The Bellingham Review, The Sun, and Stone Canoe. She recently completed a manuscript of linked, place-based essays and is working on a collection of poems.  Her essay chapbook, Elements, was released in 2013 by Sweet Publications.

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  • Donna:
    Here is a link to the screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s Oscar winning “Unforgiven,” which I found to be very powerful:

    http://sfy.ru/?script=unforgiven

    Perhaps if I could pick one movie I most admire, though, and the book, it would be the most recent version of “True Grit.” I believe Clinton Portis’ novel is on a par with the greatest literature ever to be written by Americans, “Huck Finn” or “Moby Dick.” From the beginning of the novel, the incredible voice of Mattie Ross, as distinctive a voice as Huck’s, or as the man who declares famously “Call me Ishmael,” carries the plot. And what a plot! Such a combination of humor, pathos, tragedy, action. God, I love it.
    Also, I am a great fan of Jame’s Wright. He is an Ohio poet, and he writes about home. I read every book he ever published. I had the pleasure of listening to him read at Colorado State University, which had a pretty strong creative writing undergrad program. James Crumley taught there for a while, as did (does) Mary Crow. They brought a lot of good writers to campus, the biggest luminary probably being Norman Mailer. Now CSU offers an MFA. Don’t go there, though. Go to CU instead.
    Another poet I would strongly recommend is Gary Snyder. I think a lot of people are put off by modern poetry (as they are by modern art) because it is so damn cerebral and esoteric. Snyder isn’t like that at all. He is earthy. And he writes about concrete, tangible things. He brings his Buddhist sensibility to his appreciation and understanding of nature. Snyder was portrayed by Jack Kerouac as the character “Japhee Ryder” (I think that’s how he spells it) in “Dharma Bums.”
    Good poetry speaks to the soul and heart like nothing else written can, except maybe music.

  • Donna:
    Here are a couple other names of poets I believe are worth reading: James Dickey and Louise Gluck. Dickey was born in 1923, Wright in 1927, Snyder in 1930 and Gluck in 1943. Gluck, as a poet from a different generation than the other three, was a wonderful surprise to find! She and Snyder are the only two of the four still living.

  • Robert Hass. I did not know him before, when I was writing poetry. Reading him, I accept a great gift. Let me quote one of his more simple poems whole:

    PICKING BLACKBERRIES WITH A FRIEND
    WHO HAS BEEN READING JACQUES LACAN

    August is dust here. Drought
    stuns the road,
    but juice gathers in the berries.

    We pick them in the hot
    slow-motion of midmorning.
    Charlie is exclaiming:

    for him it is twenty years ago
    and raspberries and Vermont.
    We have stopped talking

    about L’Histoire de la verite,
    about subject and object
    and the mediation of desire.

    Our ears are stoppered
    in the bee-hum. And Charlie,
    laughing wonderfully,

    beard stained purple
    by the word juice,
    goes to get a bigger pot.

    Me again. For Hass, the fascination is between the word and the thing. How can we understand the thing until we know the word? And once we know the word, is there a difference between the word and the thing, and if so, what is that difference? That is the essence of poetry. That is the essence of understanding the world, and our place within it. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was God, and the word was with God.” What does that mean, exactly? The words and the stones, and the words beneath the stones in the Big Blackfoot River in Montana.