Tag Archives: form

Blog Party: Lesley’s post

For those who have no idea what “Blog Party” refers to, I encourage you to read this post to see what it’s all about. 

It’s glorious spring in my neck of the woods, and the woods I walk my dogs in is bursting with all shades of green: emerald, jade, sea-foam, M&M, spearmint. And these greens come in all shapes and sizes, from mayapple to fern to clover to rambling rose to cottonwood saplings. Each different, each thicker in some parts of the woods than others: the mayapples tend to cluster where sunlight makes its way through the thickening canopy; the ferns seem to prefer darker slopes; the saplings dot the areas where an older tree has fallen—they need the light that’s available to them in those gaps.

So many greens! So many shapes!

So many greens!                   So many forms!

And so it is with the forms that our stories may take: just as the majority of the plants in the woods are green, so many of our stories are made of words, words of all types: sacred, profane, Germanic, Latinate. And the form these stories take also varies: spoken word, poetry, creative nonfiction, drama, short story, novel.

I have been banging my head against the proverbial wall in regards to form for my writing: short stories are encouraged in the MFA program, I believe because getting a short story to “work” is a practice that can be applied to longer (and shorter) pieces of prose. But I’m only human, and I’ve worked with three- or five-act structure for years; I know Aristotle’s incline intimately, and Freytag’s triangle is my good friend. It’s like being in love with ranunculus or daisies and not noticing hyacinth and coral bells, and there’s nothing wrong with having a preference, for loving what we love.

For story structure, my love has been to include a fair amount of backstory. Last semester, while I floundered with a short story, my advisor suggested I get rid of all backstory and revise the story entirely in one scene. What?! No no no no my writer self hollered, I need backstory! At least a little bit!

I was wrong. Completely, totally, entirely wrong. When I cut out the backstory bits (carefully saving them in another file, because, well, because) the characters did and said everything necessary for the story in the present moment of the story. And in fact, once they were unencumbered by the backstory, they soared up and out and behaved in some startlingly interesting ways—the story blossomed.

Oh.

There are a gazillion ways to structure every piece of writing. OK, maybe not a gazillion. But more than three. How to become familiar with more than the major three? First learn the basics: Aristotle’s incline, Freytag’s triangle. There are all kinds of resources for this: Deepening Fiction by Sarah Stone & Ron Nyren. Imaginative Writing by Janet Burroway. The Practice of Creative Writing by Heather Sellers. In Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor, page 19 has a wonderful jump-start process for an essay. Also Robert Ray’s The Weekend Novelist does a terrific job both teaching structure and providing the beginning writer with the scaffolding to complete the draft of a novel. And while learning, or reminding yourself, of the basics, read like mad. Take stories apart. Re-type them. It’s amazing how a writer’s process is revealed by simply re-typing their story. I’m doing it today with a chapter of Renata Adler’s Speedboat.

Because even if we love only some of the greens the world has to offer, our stories may demand that we expand our aesthetics. Writers are here to serve the stories that come to us, not cram them into the little boxes we’re familiar with.

Here’s to spring’s wild greeny excesses, its bounty of difference.

May your stories find their shape.

 

Form!

Today my thoughts about writing are inspired by a stranger, a woman I see during weightlifting classes, usually Sunday afternoon, sometimes Wednesday mornings. She’s about my age — I’ve seen her in these classes for all the 15+ years I’ve been going — and we’re both starting look our half-centuries-old, though she far less than I. In fact, if you don’t look too closely at her face or her softening tummy, you’d take her for ten years younger that our late forties.

Weensy weights

Weensy weights

The nearer I get to fifty the more I find correct form to be critical to my day-after-the-gym feeling, aka good ache or ohgodIthinkI’mbroken. Form like not rounding my back during a dead-lift, not pulling from the shoulder for a bicep curl, not pushing my knees beyond my ankles for the squats. In the choreographed classes I favor, the teachers run us through the moves at a variety of tempos, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes a combination. For me, the coveted burn inevitably happens on the slow moves. Pushing weight up and down for eight slow counts requires more of my muscles than a one-two, up-down motion. I load my bar with only 12-15 pounds for squats, less for everything else. This is a puny amount of weight.

My fellow weightlifter, however, piles on triple those pounds.  She follows neither the instructors’ directions about form, nor their tempo. Her arms flare out during overhead triceps kickbacks, her back is the St. Louis arch when she dead-lifts, and during squats her knees overshoot her ankles by a good six inches. Until this past week, I hadn’t seen her follow the tempo; regardless of what the teacher says, she does the move in two counts, up-down, and then stands waiting for any remaining beats.

But Sunday’s instructor, himself a middle-aged fella, looked directly at her while addressing the class: “Don’t go faster than me. If you finish the move before me, you’re not doing the work.” She began to follow the suggested tempo.

Lo and behold: the first eight-count up and down squat, she barely made it back to standing. The eight-count squat immediately following she did at half her range. Then she skipped every other repetition. This continued for the remainder of the class. She wasn’t strong enough to lift her weight slowly, without resting in between.

But she looks great! So does it matter, really?

Enh, maybe yes, maybe no. If she’s not hurting herself, exercising with “incorrect” form is probably better than not exercising at all. Besides, everyone’s body is different, and perhaps form is all relative.

revision

Revision notes

But I found myself thinking it’s a lot like writing. Sometimes when I’m inspired I throw words down and they look brilliant! They are fabulous! It is only when I re-read them the next day, with pacing and rhythm in mind, that I notice those slap-dashed words do not carry the weight of my ideas through to the end. And just as I love the burn of the slow moves in the weightlifting class, I love revising. I love looking for exactly the right word. I love playing with phrases and clauses.

I prefer to be able lift all my weight for all the repetitions, at whatever tempo is suggested. I prefer to have an idea about when to use a compound sentence, and when to use a simple sentence, and when to use a fragment. I’d also prefer to have the genius of Shakespeare and a muffin-top-free waistband.

Alas. Neither the muse nor the fat fairy has gifted me thus.

The burn ...

The burn …

No matter. I still enjoy the burn, and whether my words live on after my plump self has gone, I continue to find satisfaction in aiming to get the form right.

May it be so for you as well.