What I’ve Learned from a Life of Reading Jon Pearson
Always be a poet- even in prose.
- Charles Baudelaire
Usually when people ask me how I became a writer I like to blame it on my cousin Jon, who is now a multi-award-winning writer of short stories. Before that though he was just my uncle, who used to come over to the house on holidays, talk with my dad about politics and occasionally read us stories he had written for fun. These were stories he wrote just for us, which he had no intention of actually publishing.
Even as a child I knew I wanted to be a writer, and as such, I wasn’t just delighted by his writing, I was jealous. Specifically, I remember listening to the flow of his writing, and being mesmerized by his use of language and unpredictable details. His characters had rich inner worlds that were full of cowboys, circus elephants, the fun-house mirror of childhood fantasies distorted into something more meaningful.
I thought, I’ll never learn to be clever enough to come up with all of those details. In my own stories I was impatient. I wanted to tell people what happened next, and next, and next. But what really mattered to me was less the plot and more the attention to detail. A great detail can focus the mind, can pull you into the universe of a story, so that you are not only watching a character, but actually with a character, in their world, living the drama with them.
It is ironic that I’ve become, predominantly, a poet, which means I focus more intently on the fine details of a moment. As I continue to read prose and branch back into my first love of fiction, there are three things I’ve learned about incorporating the poetic into prose – why it is important and how to do it effectively.
How to Create Compelling Voice – Quickly
What makes a novel really engaging to read? There are different things for different people, of course – exciting action, a unique world, powerful themes. For me personally, I want a narrative voice that intrigues me. Is it revealing something universal that matters to me? I find the most interesting voices are those that are most revealing about the world around them.
If a novel’s narrator is compelling, honest, and engaged, it doesn’t matter if I’m reading a memoir, a book of poems, a novel, or a manifesto. If your writing shows an investment in painting a specific environment, your reader will be interested too. That’s where poetry comes in.
Whereas studying plot and character development is the purview/prerogative of novelists, making those urgent, unforgettable moment-to-moment observations is the realm of poets. Some of the most compelling novels, memoirs, speeches, short-stories and pieces of flash fiction I’ve ever read are also the most deeply poetic.
What do I mean by that? Well, here are three things you can do to make your prose more poetic:
- Paradoxes: Whereas lots of the writing we’re taught to do in school revolves around picking a side, a thesis, and coming to a conclusion, poetry celebrates mystery, ambiguity, and what Jung would call the “tension of the opposites”. Life is paradoxical, full of both darkness and light, form and chaos, beauty and ugliness. Great writing will fill each scene with the pleasurable and painful without trying to moralize or take sides or make judgements. As Iris DeMent says in the title of her unforgettable song, “Let the Mystery Be.”
- Tiny details: One of my favorite teachers, Jack Grapes, author of Method Writing, gives a great exercise called “Image Moment” in which he lays out compelling ways to draw a reader into the world by showing them a clear image. An image moment might draw attention to a “prop” which Jack defines as an object that functions in a scene small enough to fit in the hand. Part of why this works so well is because it is a way of focusing the mind on something small, which brings to life the bigness of the of the events happening around it. Great writing, even when trained on big themes, intense character conflicts or death-defying plot devices will take time to hone in on the small details that make us feel part of the action.
- Metaphors: In addition to pulling us into a scene, sensory details can also give us insight into theme, tone, or a character’s psychological state. Often this is conveyed using metaphor. What do these sensory details make the characters think about? A great example of this is in John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Garp’s son thinks the “undertow” of the ocean is called the “under toad.” This metaphor reveals the psyche of the character, a child who carries anxiety that something bad will happen to his family.
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