Wading in sameness

Lately I’ve noticed a surge of statistics and articles on increasing popularity, discoverability, readability. This idea also seems to be trickling down into the creative writing world, especially poetry. It seems that content is being replaced by style, message by findability. Ok, so this isn’t new, but the sheer volume of noise behind the movement is disconcerting.

Every title of every article is the same, and some of these pieces even offer exact formulae for proper title wording. To me, an old school writer just wading into this new world, it seems self-defeating. It is the definition of vicious cycle: read articles about how to get articles read. While some of the pieces offer great information and insight, many rehash, refurbish, recycle. Does creativity take a backseat to search optimization?

The same holds true for poetry these days. Themes, styles, looks all drain into one homogeneous slush of ‘poeming.’ It is becoming more and more difficult to tell poets/writers apart — it all sounds the same, about the same thing, written pretty much the same way. Where articles use canned headlines, poems use the same short, choppy prose, losing any differentiating, interesting, identifiable characteristics. The essence of voice (see my short piece on voice) is gone.

● Commodification kills style
● Commodification kills voice
● Commodification kills art

Randomly select an article in a publication, on the web, anywhere, and truly try to find the author in it. Do the same with some contemporary poetry. Can you really, REALLY, identify the poet? It is getting tough. This is not to say there aren’t many great writers, poets, novelists, etc… I just find it disheartening that it takes much more effort to wade through the swamp of sameness to reach a little island of beauty. And, people are often instructed to become more homogenous:

● How to get reads
● How to get clicks
● How to get published

In each case, the message is simple: be more like everyone else, and everyone will read your stuff. Journals often tell writers to read what they like, what they’ve published, what they don’t like. If conformity was the goal, we would not have Samuel Beckett, H.D., or any other writer experimenting, excelling, inspiring. Instead of compelling, complex, cerebral writing, we would only have short, simple sentences and paragraphs of a certain length, apps to make us write like Hemingway (no hate, I LOVE Hemingway, mostly because he was Hemingway), apps to cut words we don’t need, to suggest better, shorter, more common words… oh, wait, nevermind…

“They don’t make movies like they used to.”
“Whatever happened to the classics?”
“Now THAT song will never get old!”

When we do find something different, exciting, fresh, a piece, poem, story, novel, song that is identifiable to a particular creator, we instantly know we’ve found something special. It will survive ‘pop’ culture, trends, the ‘must-dos’ of the day. Without differentiation, experimentation, deviation from the blob of sameness, there is nothing special. That’s why, for me, I want quirky titles, non-conforming articles, poems that are still poetry. I think it’s something we should all want, need, demand. My suggestion: make it yours and let the world find you. It doesn’t help to try and make it fit. That just fills the swamp. If it’s good, if it’s yours, if it’s fresh, it will be discovered, remembered, cherished.

Off to a tiny island, to read weird, wild, wacky stuff, I remain — RLR

Old lily pad © R L Raymond

Within

pitch dark
where stars whiten
at the death —albeit short-lived— 
of the streetlamp
cycle-timed for conservation 
frogs creak and croak

he hears them 
   echoed
      reflected 
         deflected
from neighbouring
houses with windows
open to the calm evening air 
that carries the din

there are no thieves conspiring 
or ne’er-do-wells whispering plans 
for mischief

only frogs
those night-sounds that bounce
against constructions and preconceptions


From “Half Myths & Quarter Legends”
R L Raymond

Of Sycophants & Haters

The beauty of online communities, networks, publications, is the abundance of information available. We can learn anything, from anyone, at any time. However wonderful this is, there are too many traps to fall into.

Crickets © R L Raymond

Learn from the Teachers

A lot of advice — a lot — comes from novices, learners, students. This may seem fantastic, a fresh pool of opinions to draw from. It is, however, important to remember that Teachers and Masters have learned from experience. They show what they’ve done, more than expound on what they think should be done. The best example is a college/university course. Would you rather sit in a room with an experienced professor, or with a fourth year student lecturing? Ask yourself what is the difference?

The same holds true for writers. Trust those who have been published, those who have been rejected, those who have proven themselves over time. Sure the new kid on the block may throw his or her ideas out there, but often those are conceptual instead of experiential. Also, those new insights are often ‘borrowed’ or ‘reworded.’ It takes time and living the life to really have the ability to pass along wisdom.

Ignore the Sycophants

However good it feels to have someone like you and / or your writing, there is seldom much value in the sycophant’s comments.

Great writing!

I love what you did here.

Perfect as always!

This ego-stroking, heart-clicking, thumb-upping advice does little to challenge, advance, spark an internal discussion. Beware the folks that fawn over your stuff. Maybe there are ulterior motives (reciprocation, follows/likes by association), but certainly there are few constructive motives.

Don’t Ignore the Haters

Unless a reader is castigating just to castigate, or baiting, or trolling, there may be some useful nuggets of wisdom in the vitriol.

Man, could you drone on any longer!

Wow, haven’t seen this a thousand times.

None of this really connects.

Somewhere, inside that dark cloud that weighs on the writer, there is a silver lining. Maybe a short sentence would work here and there. Maybe that was a weak piece.
Those readers who take the time to criticize, hopefully politely, will give you pause. Are they on to something? Is the challenge worthy? Could this be improved?

Now, take the compliments when deserved and ignore the insults when unwarranted. But, if you are truly searching for lessons, for improvement, place more weight in those that have done it before, for real, in the real world, and that have something to say that may actually make you uncomfortable.

Almost alien

Make your writing unusual

Seasonal Blue Moon © R L Raymond (Aug 21, 2021)

One of the best aspects of creative writing is the ability to manipulate, transform, mystify. Taking the everyday and making it sublime, ridiculous, awe-inspiring is a skill any writer should hone.

Anyone can describe. It takes a special talent to change what one sees in order to make in interesting, provocative, evocative for a reader. The “stuff” is the same, that original inspiration, but the execution is what counts. Without the ability to engage and entertain, we would all be but scribes, recording the everyday.

When you are writing, exercising the voice and vibe that makes the writing yours, remember that you must run everything through the filter of you. Failure to make the world around you yours, presented in such a way as to bring your world to others, will only result in boring retelling or rewording.

Always ask yourself:
● Is it presented in a new way?
● Is it exciting?
● Will people care?

Always answer:
● Yes
● Yes
● Yes

5 reasons to write slowly RIGHT NOW!

There are different opinions on handwriting (longhand) vs typing. The arguments boil down to either personal preferences about speed and efficiency or theories about retention and immediacy. I’ve used longhand for decades, and I’ve used laptops, tablets, phones for years. The analog and the digital both have their advantages and disadvantages, but for me, personally, based on my experience, the old pen/pencil and paper wins every time when it comes to drafts, notes, ramblings.

Here are 5 reasons why I think everyone should use longhand (or cursive, or print, or whatever works, as long as it’s pen(cil) on paper).

  1. The Emotional Link
    Emotions and immediate reactions to the act of writing can be captured, and later felt anew, through strokes, line thickness, pressure. When something is physically underlined, maybe twice or thrice, with a flourish, it’s easy to see its importance. It is NOT an italicized or underlined typed word it’s more, and the line(s) from that very moment in time are immortalized. Strikethroughs are essential to capturing the instant meaning of the writing. The mistakes, retries, frustrated attempts are all captured, frozen, ready to be revived whenever you read your notes. None of this exists in the digital, erase-as-you-go world.
  2. Flexibility
    Writing on paper gives you the ability to add drawings, flow charts, arrows, bullets, palimpsest-like notes over notes. You can circle, reorganize non-destructively, reformat without losing the original intent as it came from head to hand. A list of points, say 5 reasons to slow down and write, can be written in the original order produced by the brain. Then, with a few lines, arrows, scribbles, the order can be changed, however, the original intent is saved. Maybe it was better the first time. If reorganized on a digital platform, the genesis has long vanished. Tablets and styli come closer to giving the writer the ability to mimic pen(cil) and paper, but the urge to cut and paste neatly may be too hard to resist. Also, see point 3…
  3. No Distractions
    Your notepad will never beep, run out of batteries, notify you that your friend posted/ate/procrastinated something/somewhere/sometime. No email will pop up, no text message will ding, no weather alert will take your eyes from the task at hand. Also, you will not accidentally hit a wrong key, drag another app from the edge, swear at the screen when your devices freezes up even for a second. Apps have tried to push “focus” modes and “clean writing” interfaces, but, it is almost guaranteed something will pop up and mess with your train of thought.
  4. The Retention of Flow
    Error and juxtaposition can subconsciously contribute to a final piece. If those connections, be they side notes, eraser-ghosts (you won’t catch me erasing), aren’t preserved, a big part of the reason for a piece of writing can be lost. I have caught myself wondering what the hell did I mean here? More than once. When everything is retained in a longhand draft, the answer may be right there. Forget about answering the question if all that’s left is a clear, focused, clean version on your device. The list order, the birth of that original idea, the bastardization thereof, the tangent that became more important than the first premise, all of if contributes to the flow and eventual feel of the final work. Give yourself the chance to capture all of it.
  5. Longevity and Legacy
    Notebooks will never need updates. Notebooks will never disappear when a company decides to pull its cloud services. Notebooks will never be obsolete, replaced by new compression or encryption methods. With sufficient care against rot or fire, the paper, the ink, the graphite, all should survive, legible and complete. On a more sentimental level, the notebook is a legacy. It is a genuine, physical artifact that tells a story. The best example would be gramp’s notes about the war, or grandma’s cookbook, passed from generation to generation. The mistakes, scribbles, drawings, they are all as important as the entries or recipes. They are a snapshot of a place, at a specific time. The same wouldn’t hold true for gramp’s Evernote login or grandma’s OneNote account.

The real story is in that notebook with the dirty spine, the one that ate pencils and drank inkwells dry. There is a life in there.

A dirty bowl

the dry well echoes
hollow
every sunday afternoon
with a coin secretly
palmed from the
collection plate
the tinny reverb plinked
stone-bounced
all the way down
to the dirt
in the empty bucket
inside

eyes closed
the child mutters
amid cicada shells
twice-dead and desiccated
picked from nearby trees
spiraling castanet
on the backs of
dust witches
dancing at his feet

the old man
startles him
fingering ash
from the bowl of his pipe
looking at his boots
speckled whitish-grey –

kid they all look for water
before they die
you’re just wasting
your time
and that money
wishing her back
she won’t come –
you may as well’ve been
praying for rain


From Sonofabitch Poems, R L Raymond, 2011

Why do you write poetry?

The question “why” is always loaded, especially when it deals with poetry. The inquirer always expects a lofty response.

“I write poetry to satisfy my muse…”
“I must write poetry, it comes from my soul…”
“Poetry is the true language…”

To me, any answer like this, or anything flowery, contrite, haughty, misses the point. Poetry is not an end but a means. Poetry is a tool, a structural element to just plain writing. It provides a framework to

isolate

Or maybe

juxtapose elements that need
juxtaposition to show some
similarity

When looking at line breaks, line lengths, stanzas, really focus on the reason. Does it add to the meaning or

is the line
break simply random to
make the writing look or sound
like poetry?

Poetry isn’t divine, or pure, or mystical, nor is it just chopped up prose. It is a lyrical, metrical, and content-driven building block.

So my answer to “Why do you write poetry?” is pretty simple: I use poetry if the piece requires it. I use poetry to bring meaning and interest to my writing.

So use your “poetry” for a good reason.

Don’t make poetry the reason.

Never erase

We have always been told to learn from our mistakes. It’s a simple enough concept: don’t repeat things that don’t work or things that are bad for you. Wear shoes when you walk on gravel. Don’t stick your tongue to the pole in the schoolyard in winter. Simple.

When it comes to writing, the concept is a little more confusing. Picture the stereotypical frustrated writer, sitting alone in a room, staring at a blank page. Then inspiration strikes! Frantic writing… then, a page is torn, crumpled, tossed across the room in disgust. Zoom in on the pencil. This time, the author is on to something… a sentence, and then, SCRATCH SCRATCH SCRATCH, SCRIBBLE SCRIBBLE SCRIBBLE… blacked out in disgust, as illegible as a classified document. Maybe another ball of paper, thrown away. Zoom out. Scribbles. Balls of paper. Frustration. Fade to black.

For writers it is almost second nature to destroy what we don’t like about what we just put to paper. Why? Maybe we worry that someone will read these unacceptable lines (and care). Maybe we think that the bad stuff will corrupt everything around it, like an algae bloom in the crystal clear pool of our genius. Nonsense.

Never erase
Never throw away
Reread your drafts
Reread your journals

If you’ve thrown away a draft, or erased parts of it in one way or another, you can never learn from it. And don’t pretend to yourself that you’ll remember why it was ‘terrible;’ most times you can’t remember, a few hours later, that good stuff that comes to you as you fall asleep. If it’s gone, it’ll be repeated.

There is also another great reason to make your mistakes visible. When you reread your draft, your notes, your journal, you’ll see the worlds words (wow, an example right here! I meant ‘words’ but typed ‘worlds’ so I’m going to leave it) under the strikethrough. Those were your original thoughts, your original gut instincts. Once you’ve removed yourself from the critical, “this sucks,” heat-of-the-moment hatred of your words, maybe you’ll see there was something salvageable.

Maybe it’s even better than just salvaging a little bit of writing. Maybe you’ll see an error, juxtaposed beside another word, another concept, and it will spark something totally new and fresh and different and inspiring. I remember writing feverishly, writing and crossing out (because I actually take my own advice and never erase), and coming up dry. A page of, well, nothing. But, under one pencil line, I read the word ‘ghost’ which had been either a written-typo (whatever those are called) or a weird mental connection I’d lost as soon as I’d written it. Whatever the case, in the nonsensical context, the ‘ghost’ idea became a fun little poem, using bits and pieces of the unrelated stuff that happened around the error. The original had NOTHING to do with what I eventually wrote. And the word ‘ghost’ didn’t even appear in the final piece.

If I had thrown out the page, or blacked out the ghost, I would never have found those interesting, accidental interplays that made the mistake worthwhile.

Keep the paper smooth, in your journal, notepad, binder, and cherish your strikethroughs, for there may be nuggets of inspiration in those words you originally thought garbage.

Things that are no more

A photograph that captures a scene, a person, a place that no longer exists takes on a certain gravitas. Can the same be said of writing? Through detail, description, vibe, and voice, can the writer immortalize something? Is the image of the piece strong enough to create the same gravitas as a photograph?

A shack long demolished near London, Ontario. Image © R L Raymond

Using an actual image of something long gone may trigger the kind of emotional detail that gives writing its power.

The photograph above will figure prominently in an upcoming story of mine. Whenever I come across it, the scene replays itself like a movie. Everything from lighting to smells comes back immediately. Through it I am transported, and now I just have to write it all down.

Voice Over Everything

The most important aspect of writing is voice: that feel, sound, or signature thing that makes a piece identifiable as a particular writer’s work. Inevitably a writer just starting out will copy a mentor’s voice — subconsciously or not — to start understanding what makes it interesting. Then, through craft, experience, more reading, more experimenting with different mimicry, the writer begins to sculpt a signature vibe. Because it can only develop through careful, calculated practice, true voice may take years to articulate.

Read some of your own juvenilia; does it sound different? odd? bad? not like you? Most likely, that old writing was not crafted with your current voice. Note that your writing will change slightly, as does the way you speak: maturity, lifestyle, location, all will creep in. But this is honing of your voice. This application of life differs from the first stages of development. Early Hemingway (or King, Munro, Yeats, Garcia Marquez, Alexis, Doolittle, McCarthy…) has a different feel than later Hemingway, but the voice is there, loud, clear, identifiable.

Read. Read again. Read something different. Read something you dislike. 

Write. Write some more. Write in a style you aren’t used to. Write in a style you detest.

Although the intangibility of voice can be frustrating, the importance of voice is paramount. When writing, ask yourself: what makes the story yours; outside of physical detail, could someone identify it as yours; what could you add, change, delete, to make it more yours? Eventually all these mechanics, these nuances will start to flow naturally, giving life to your own inner rhythms, rhymes, metres, in the form of voice.