My writing tends toward condensation. When I write poems, I never trickle onto the second page. When I write stories, they almost never exceed a thousand words — and they’re often just a single paragraph. This interest in the tiny and the compact has a practical foundation. I lead a busy life — and I doubt I have the concentration and stamina to pull off writing something like War and Peace. Generally speaking, this interest in the miniature and the distilled extends to my reading life as well. Couldn’t Chapter 8 of Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading be understood if he gave us just this sentence: “Incompetence will show in the use of too many words.” And when we want to refresh our memory of, say, T.S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” doesn’t a review of our own underscorings get us just as far as a rereading the whole thing?
I certainly don’t want to argue against the beauty and the necessity of long works. But there’s much that can be appreciated without them. It’s in this spirit that I offer up the following maxims and observations — it’s an effort to avoid my having to write 30 essays explaining my positions, and an effort to keep you from having to read those essays:
- Don’t regard any maxim too highly. Its opposite is equally true. If you haven’t heard it yet, that’s because no one has stated it cleverly enough. Consider this an assignment.
- Every good poem has form. To say otherwise is like saying some water doesn’t have temperature.
- On setbacks: You can’t sing with a broken jaw, but you can learn to play the piano.
- The impulse that begins a poem is almost never strong enough to finish it. You must be willing to let go of what ceases to be useful—like laying down your walking stick when the crags turn into plains.
- Some poems fail because of just one word — as troubling as a hornet on the railing of a crib.
- One vase lets you see the scum and filmy water that power the bouquet of goldenrod. Another one doesn’t. Which is better? Beauty or the beauty that tells us where it comes from?
- When compiling a book, it is best to start with a large pile of poems—the survivors will need something to rise above.
- To have successful poems over the long haul, you must be the kind of person who dusts the furniture when there is no hope of visitors.
- Poets collect themselves into schools for the same reasons as fish: safety in numbers, a flash in the shallows.
- On lacking inspiration: The pearl diver comes up with nothing almost every time. And still he goes down hugging a boulder, his prybar at the ready.
- On publication: A first book is like gristle coughed onto your plate. Getting it out lets you keep breathing, but nobody wants to pick it up.
- On rejection: It is the favor for which we never think to ask. It is the chance to make things better.
- To complain that poetry is too accessible is to complain that the streets are too efficiently plowed after a sudden and devastating February snow. A good poem tells us the way.
- A purist is someone incapable of progress.
- We must continue to write even when the poems are shitty. Stabbing at dirt will polish a knife.
- Every pearl began as irritation.
- She recited the prayer by rote, making him think her soul had a bar code.
- The predictable occurrence of stressed and unstressed syllables becomes more pleasing when the pattern is violated, here and there. We prefer a bouquet with a few broken petals for the same reason. We don’t guess for a moment it might be fake.
- The thing that is most accessible is not always the best material for a poem. There’s a reason the pyramids were not constructed of sand.
- On listening to poetry that I know is not: The wind can howl in the midnight pines but morning will find them standing.
- Details should be chosen as carefully as if you were covering up a murder. A poem is a lie you must make the world believe.
- There is a difference between the predictable and the probable, between the vague and the mysterious, between deviation and variation. The poet must learn when each is acceptable. Reading widely helps.
- Exclamation points are too often a cry of wolf. I prefer people to scream when they are actually on fire.
- Some poems end like surgery—the problem solved, the pain a memory, the stitching so tight that nothing leaks. Other poems end like a diagnosis.
- We respond to clichés the way we respond to form letters and junk mail — something the writer didn’t bother to craft, a kind of boilerplate for the soul.
- Having too strict a meter can be like having the bass up so high on your stereo that you can’t make out the harpsichord. Too loose a meter can be like static.
- There are no five-leggers. Nature prefers symmetry.
- Of course, poetry should strive to substantiate truth in particulars, but it is possible to be too particular. Think of the person who gives crowded directions. He risks our safe arrival by making us read through the intersections.
- About sestinas: In all but the best, the uninitiated finds them vaguely repetitive, the expert finds them predictable.
- Too many poets still use “heart” to mean the seat of love and desire and passion. This is archaic. A heart should show up in a poem only as something that beats beside a surgeon’s blade. When we hear the word misused, it’s like watching a man put on a hat so long out of style it’s laughable. We turn away.
Charles Rafferty’s new short story collection, Saturday Night at Magellan’s, is available here: http://fomitepress.com/FOMITE/Magellans.html.
- Guest Post, Charles Rafferty: Maxims and Observations on the Writing Life - November 20, 2014
- Guest Blog Post, Charles Rafferty: On Writing - September 26, 2013
20 thoughts on “Guest Blog Post, Charles Rafferty: On Writing”
Very interesting list and I love number 17; the one that mentions people prefer bouquets with broken petals because we don’t think it to be fake. Though I’m not really one for flowers, I ended up taking a picture of a bouquet once for a photography class which led to an argument between me and my father about picking out the dead flowers beforehand. I argued to leave them partially for this reason–because it’s proves they’re natural and not fake. There’s beauty to be find in natural discord I think, be it in writing or nature.
That is a nice insight, Bianca. Thank you for sharing it.
I have never thought of writing in this way before, but the list was certainly intriguing and highly witty. I especially liked #14 as well as #17 about exclamation points. I’ll have to attempt to think about these points when I write next. I’m the exact opposite myself; I typically write longer things. Despite that, I feel that this may help me to polish things up that seem extraneous.
We are glad that you enjoyed the post.
This a very enlightening list. I especially liked number 3. On setbacks: You can’t sing with a broken jaw, but you can learn to play the piano. It’s important to never give up with something you’re passionate about, and as hard as it is, writing is definitely something to not lose hope on. Also number 16. Every pearl began as irritation. This is so true. Sometimes you just have to write something down that’s been on your mind. Thank you for this list. 🙂
Thank you for your comment. We hope you keep writing.
This list was a very good read and provided a lot of information for someone like me that is an aspiring and wants to understand how to make the writing better. This list will definitely come into play in my future creative writing
Good luck, Kris!
This is such an excellent list. Rafferty’s writing is so witty and engaging. All his points are so explained so perfectly in such few words. I tend to overwrite, so this was really helpful in teaching me to only include the necessary.
Our passion for language can make us a wordy lot, it’s true. I’m glad you found Rafferty’s post helpful to you. Thanks for commenting.
I found this to be very helpful, especially in terms of the benefit of writing concisely. Although there’s nothing necessarily wrong with a little bit of meat and length, I think that in my own writing, I need to work on limiting my word count, and making every word count. Brevity and ambiguity can often be more powerful than weighty descriptions and what can be considered fluffy language. Also, I like the note on rejection. Without it, we wouldn’t strive to improve our work. We need it to get better, and it won’t get there without pushing through the fear and being vulnerable.
Glad you found this post helpful. Thanks for commenting.
This is all very impressive advice for all sorts of writing, not just poetry. I live number eight almost every single day, but it’s important to keep writing, even if you’re the only one who sees it.
True! Sometimes that is the only person who counts.
What a truly great list. While I find a beauty in many words, there is something striking about less in a story. I feel that the drama of a simple sentence can express more many times then the over abundance of word that can muddle a thought. I think that this list is not just for poetry, but for all styles of writing. I think my favorite of this list was number 27. It was funny and it struck me, at that very moment, how true it is. Symmetry just makes sense, when writing and reading.
Symmetry feels good; balanced and complete. It’s comforting to experience art that way; but sometimes I like to be thrown off balance a little too. 🙂
Overwriting isn’t necessarily a problem for me, but these are definitely tips anyone writing would want to have a look at. I particularly liked #11. I feel like this is the case for so many authors!
Thanks for your comment.
“4. The impulse that begins a poem is almost never strong enough to finish it. You must be willing to let go of what ceases to be useful—like laying down your walking stick when the crags turn into plains.”
Completely relatable! Definitely one of my favorites.
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