About Me

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


I just read a renewal offer from Poetry Magazine, with an interesting quote from the editor:

Let us remember... that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both. Christian Wiman

I'm primarily a fiction writer these days, though I go through intense poetry writing phases. I've been thinking poetry a lot lately, since stumbling upon and joining a poetry writer's group. My early influences include William Carlos Williams, e. e. cummings, Diane Wakoski, and Dylan Thomas (Dylan Thomas for his prose more than his poetry), Robinson Jeffers' "Cassandra," and a poem called "White Dove of the Wild Dark Eyes" by Joseph Mary Plunkett, from Poems of The Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood; also, my favorite T. S. Eliot line, "My life is measured out in coffee spoons." These poets and poems taught me the power of language and internal meter and the freedom of the page. Electronic publication makes it more difficult to translate my poems into copy and paste. In some poems, my lines sprawl or form into shapes, but I believe the words speak for themselves, without the visual enhancement.

I have a poem up for critique now, and I realize, I've held back. My poems are autobiography, and the use of my family seems a betrayal. It's easier when a poem is about my feelings or my observations, only me, and does not directly involve others. I withdrew a poem from publication I couldn't let my son or my childhood family read. My fiction is not autobiography, though, of course, we draw from who we are and where we've been; but there's no direct correlation (other than the themes of betrayal of trust, and transcendence).

I have learned some poets approach their poems the way I write fiction: They explore a concept, and make it up as they go along, seeing where the narrative will lead. All of my poems are personal. Up until now, I considered poetry to be the closest form of expression to the self. This is true of many poets, like me. For others, now, I am not so sure.

There's an interesting article in the November/December 2008 issue of Poets & Writers about Paul Guest, titled "The Guest List." In it, he expresses he was tired of readers assuming every poem he wrote was autobiography, so he's decided to lie on purpose.

I think if I'm going to lie, I'll lie in fiction. My poetry expresses my self. It is autobiography, and if I must, I'll be cautious and circumspect about what I allow others to read, and add to the piles of notebooks and drives I've marked: Destroy Upon Death.

In an earlier post, I wrote about my approach to both poetry and fiction: http://anniekingwrites.blogspot.com/2008/09/why-i-write.html. The difference is, my fiction constantly surprises me. As I revise a poem, the facts may change, but the truth remains; I work toward accuracy. My fiction tells another kind of truth; it is creative play, and in its initial draft, I am never sure what will happen next. There is a distance between myself and my fiction. In fiction, I express myself through my characters, who are not me, so I don't know what they'll do until they do it. My poetry defines me, my thoughts and emotions, in that moment of time; first person or third, agent or observer, I am always the speaker. (I guess I shouldn't divulge that. I am not a brave or a bold writer; my writing is bold.)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Appreciating Margaret Atwood

In a university level advanced fiction writing class I was given the assignment to read Margaret Atwood's short story collection, Bluebeard's Egg, to analyze her technique, and to mimic her writing style. I objected to this assignment: I dislike reading short stories. I dislike reading first person stories. I dislike stories about everyday life. Can't you give me a novel in third person by another first rate author that takes me out of this world and into another?

Reading Margaret Atwood's Bluebeard's Egg, analyzing her writing techniques and applying them, freed me from third person, past tense. I've experimented with first person. I've experimented with third person, present tense and future tense. In short, I've experimented, and I now feel I can choose the best tense and point-of-view for each of my stories. Like Atwood, and Alice Munro, I feel like I can move fluidly between the tenses, within a story, as the need arises.

I've always enjoyed alternating points-of-view within a single story or novel, or novel chapter. It's part of what I do and why I write. I still avoid omniscience, viewing it, in my own writing, as "authorial intrusion," and I often think of first person as a veiled form of authorial intrusion (who's really speaking here - the character or the author?) But, I accept it from Atwood, and Munro, and from Joyce Carol Oates. I want to know their personal point of view. Sometimes, in their work, it is clearly a character speaking, and sometimes it is the author, guiding me, sharing her world view. Isn't that what we all do anyway? When we write from the point of view of a character we abhor or pity, aren't we showing the world the opposite of how we'd like the people in this world to behave?

After analyzing Atwood, I can't help analyzing the technique of other authors I read, to see how they achieve their effects. I enjoy a short story on two levels: as a reader, and as a writer. I've read many a short story since then, and written quite a few. My appreciation for the short format is sealed.


For what it's worth: here are large excerpts from my essay, edited to leave out references to my "imitation" short story, which ended up being it's own thing, and not a direct imitation of Atwood:

Bluebeard’s Egg: A Study in Writing Technique © 2007 Annie Swann (Note: This is my original thinking. If you use any idea from my article, cite the source, and the copyright information.)

Margaret Atwood’s Bluebeard’s Egg consists of twelve short stories, five written in first person, and seven written in third person. With the exception of “Scarlet Ibis,” all of the third person stories, and most of the first person stories, are written in present tense for present action, and past tense for past action (interior thoughts related to the past, including flashback scenes).

The third person story, “Uglypuss,” frequently switches between past and present tense (p. 67): “He goes out to the kitchen and rummages through the refrigerator, finding not much. Of the two of them, it was Becka who’d done most of the shopping.” Later, the main character eats at a restaurant (p. 72): “Joel wipes his mouth, pushes the plate away. He’s stuffed down everything…”

“Scarlet Ibis” is written in third person, past tense. Atwood retains a sense of immediacy by using brief opening statements to establish a time frame and a setting, then moving the reader into the significantly detailed action of the story. The story begins (p. 152): “Some years ago now, Christine went with Don to Trinidad. They took Lilian, their youngest child, who was four then... The others… stayed with their grandmother. (Second paragraph) Christine and Don sat beside the hotel pool in the damp heat... Lilian wanted to be in the pool all the time…”

In every story, all of the third person narration is filtered primarily through a point-of-view character, but the omniscient narrator freely adds reflective commentary or points of fact, an effective combination of telling and mostly showing. In the title story, “Bluebeard’s Egg,” Atwood employs this technique (pp. 110-111): “For it must be admitted: Sally is in love with Ed because of his stupidity, his monumental and almost energetic stupidity… He’s a child of luck, a third son who… manages to make it through the forest… and end up with the princess, who is Sally, of course.”

In the first person stories it is the first person narrator who reflects upon what other characters think, what she thinks of other characters, and the meaning of her life’s events. In “Unearthing Suite,” the narrator surmises (p. 227): “… I could not have been born, like other people, but hatched out of an egg. My parents’ occasional dismay over me was (like)… the bewilderment of two birds who have found a human child in their nest and have no idea what to do with it.”

In all the short stories, Atwood gives the reader a little information at a time, at the point it is needed, so that the story fully emerges in stages and what the reader has already experienced takes on renewed significance. For example, in “Bluebeard’s Egg,” the reader learns Sally’s husband is a heart man, and later learns this means he is a heart surgeon. In “Loulou; or, The Domestic Life of Language,” the reader learns over the course of the story, all of the male poets who eat at LouLou’s table were her husbands or her lovers, and she is currently married to one of them.

In both the first person and the third person stories, Atwood employs scenes, varying in length from two paragraphs to many pages, dictated by the needs of the individual story. Some scene breaks consist of white space, and others are full scene breaks demarcated with a series of three dots. The scenes range from two in “Scarlet Ibis,” to thirteen scenes in “Hurricane Hazel.” Atwood ends each scene in a story with a question, an observation or a reflective statement, and she begins and ends most stories with a symbolic thought or image.

In her story collection, Bluebeard’s Egg, Margaret Atwood often uses seemingly ordinary domestic scenes to illustrate the inner lives of her characters. In Atwood’s short story, “The Salt Garden,” symbolism is employed at the beginning of the story and at the story’s conclusion. Atwood begins (p. 171): “Alma turns up the heat, stirs the clear water in the red enamel pot, adds more salt, stirs, adds. She’s making a supersaturated solution: re-making it. She made it already, at lunchtime, with Carol…” Atwood repeats key words to emphasize her points and relay a rhythm to her stories... Later in Atwood’s story, the reader learns the significance of what Alma is doing, that her world is on the edge of annihilation. At the end of “The Salt Garden,” Alma reflects (p. 194): “After everything is over, she thinks, there will still be salt.”

Margaret Atwood tells her stories using vivid descriptions of domestic scenes, people, and nature. In the “Scarlet Ibis,” she describes the setting for the appearance of the birds (pp. 162-168): “It was cloudier now, and not so hot… It began to rain, not a downpour but heavily enough, large cold drops… Now they reached the long aisle of mangroves and emerged into the open; they were in a central space, like a lake, with the dark mangroves walling it around…”

Analyzing Margaret Atwood’s techniques in a variety of stories, both first person and third person, has been a valuable experience. Her writing style reveals the positive benefits of tense changes within a story, and choosing a tense and a narrative voice based on the needs of the particular story. Atwood elegantly shapes her stories and her scenes, fluidly integrating action, imagery, meaning, and symbolism.

Edition Used:
Atwood, Margaret. Bluebeard’s Egg, New York: Anchor Books, c1983

© 2007 Annie Swann (Note: This is my original thinking. If you use any idea from my article, cite the source and the copyright information.)


I've skipped around reading Atwood. Alias Grace is my favorite Atwood novel. Several of the stories in Bluebeard's Egg are among my favorites (there are others in this particular collection I find tedious, however intriguing). I'm just now starting Moral Disorder: stories.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Why I Write

Because my mind expresses experience and emotion poetically, my journal entries often read like poems, and sometimes they become one. The origin of the poem will be factual, but the outcome may be symbolic with a truthful core. When I write fiction, a first line pops into my head, setting the initial rhythm and the tone for the entire piece. I write fiction that takes me to another place, because that’s where my characters want to go. I follow their lead.

The essay by Elizabeth Bowen http://anniekwrites.blogspot.com/2008/09/elizabeth-bowen-notes-on-writing-novel.html made me realize, it's all in our heads, everything that's come before in our lives and what we thought and felt about it, and writing is the process that brings it out, solid.

How I Write

I’ve been thinking about how I write a poem, or begin a short story. In the simplest of terms, I just write. I don’t plan. When the mood is right, I amaze myself, and come up with something I never expected. In a first draft, I don’t analyze or censor. I let the words flow. And then, the rest of the work begins. I may re-arrange words or phrases. I look for the words that can be cut, resulting in an improved idea or image, so that every word counts. Where it’s needed, I substitute a new noun, verb or adjective to better express my meaning. I consolidate. When I’ve got the piece down to its bare bones, I may add images or ideas, as they occur to me, in the reading and re-reading of a piece. Often, as I re-read, I will become aware of symbolism and I may work to intensify it. I’ll come back to a piece again and again, until I feel it says everything in that particular piece, I want to say, or can.

Simple 5 step process: (1) Write. (2) Cut, Substitute, and Re-arrange. (3) Add (Maybe). (4) Revise again and again. (5) Rest.

Days later, months or weeks, I am compelled to go back. If a piece is done, there’s nothing left to change, and if I try, I’ll change it back again.

My difficulty has always been shaping longer fiction to its completion. I’ve written stories and poems that please me. I’ve written admirable, numerous chapters in books. But the chapters don’t stand alone. My method loses its way when it comes to writing a novel. I think it has a lot to do with the interruption of my own “fictive dream.” If I could write a novel, start to finish, without the interruption of life, family, or work, I’d get finished with the story, before my mind starts working on another, with a different set of characters in a new situation. I often suspect that’s why some writers, like Alice Munro, largely stick to short fiction. I admire the writer who can write “literary quality” novel length fiction, and still maintain a life with others. That is my aspiration: to grow my family, finish the novels I’ve started, and get them published by a major press. And, in my writing, at least, I’m a perfectionist.

Submitting my short stories, poetry, and ten-minute plays, is a way to “get my feet wet,” and seek validation. But the true test of what I’m capable of achieving will be the first novel, out of the five I’ve substantially started, to be completed and published. I haven’t abandoned these novels. The characters live and breathe within me. It’s a question of time to tell their stories.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Elizabeth Bowen: Notes on Writing a Novel

Narrative Magazine published a wonderful essay, originally published in Orion II in 1945, by Elizabeth Bowen. I read these words and it struck a chord: "Plot must further the novel toward its object. What object? The non-poetic statement of a poetic truth." I have personally shortened that statement: "A novel tells a poetic truth." I believe it is possible to write fiction, telling a poetic truth, utilizing the poet's sensitivity to language, not the flowery words that draw attention to themselves, but the turn of phrase that is joyful in the mouth, and in the mind. When I am writing, there are words that fit together, because they must. In revision, they are often tweaked, or deleted altogether, but I find the rhythm and the sound of language shapes the content as I write. Each character has their own rhythm, whether they are speaking or I am writing in limited third (I rarely write in first person). Her entire essay helped define for me, what I do as I write. Here's the link: http://narrativemagazine.com/issues/fall-2006/notes-writing-novel (It's free to sign up for Narrative Magazine, and view the full article.)