Saturday, June 30, 2007

A Method of Composition

I ran across an intriguing essay at Bartleby the other day. It's called "The Philosophy of Composition" and was written by Edgar Allen Poe. In this essay, Poe writes about his composing of "The Raven". I had always pictured him in a gloomy mood of an evening with, perhaps, a raven perched outside his window when he wrote the poem. Not so. Who knew?!

This is a fascinating look at the writing of a poem and it isn't done in the way that we think of poems being written, but it may well provide you with some insight and a different way to go about your writing, at least some of the time.

Some excerpts:
Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis—or one is suggested by an incident of the day—or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative—designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view—for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest—I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone—whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone—afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.
For my own part, I have neither sympathy with the repugnance alluded to, nor, at any time, the least difficulty in recalling to mind the progressive steps of any of my compositions; and, since the interest of an analysis, or reconstruction, such as I have considered a desideratum, is quite independent of any real or fancied interest in the thing analyzed, it will not be regarded as a breach of decorum on my part to show the modus operandi by which some one of my own works was put together. I select “The Raven,” as the most generally known. It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.
Holding in view these considerations, as well as that degree of excitement which I deemed not above the popular, while not below the critical, taste, I reached at once what I conceived the proper length for my intended poem—a length of about one hundred lines. It is, in fact, a hundred and eight.

These points being settled, I next bethought me of the nature of my refrain. Since its application was to be repeatedly varied, it was clear that the refrain itself must be brief, for there would have been an insurmountable difficulty in frequent variations of application in any sentence of length. In proportion to the brevity of the sentence, would, of course, be the facility of the variation. This led me at once to a single word as the best refrain.
The question now arose as to the character of the word. Having made up my mind to a refrain, the division of the poem into stanzas was, of course, a corollary: the refrain forming the close to each stanza. That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt: and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant.

I will leave it to you to read the rest of the essay, but I assure you it is quite fascinating to read of the rather mechanical way in which Poe composed "The Raven." And yet, it is very effective. Perhaps you will find some useful ideas here.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Personal Reflection

Another week has come and gone. Time flies whether you're having fun or not!

I have been reading nature writing, especially Henry David Thoreau. I have some other writers to sample, such as Barry Lopez and a book of essays by different writers. I want to read a variety and get a notion of how they write their material.

I am not what you would call an environmental activist, but I do believe we have a responsibility to God to be good stewards of the earth. That will be the place I am coming from when I begin my own nature writing. I do not know whether it will fit in the published world, but I will give it a shot!

I do want to promote an enjoyment of nature and science. There is much to learn and it is fascinating! It's a wonder to learn what happens and how things work, or at least how we think they work. Nature is also a great stress reliever--to just get outside and observe the plants and animals is to unwind and let go of life's business--and busyness.

I have always enjoyed botanical drawings and would like to improve my drawing ability so that I can create some of those for my own pleasure. Birds and animals as subjects of art are appealing to me, too, as are landscapes. I also love drawings of old houses and barns.

Sometimes I wish I weren't so interested in so many things!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Literary Science and Nature Writing

I have been thinking lately about literary science and nature writing--how enjoyable it is to read and the possibility of writing in that genre. My inspiration was these posts by Patricia Karamesines at A Motley Vision blog.

I have found an online essay by Barry Lopez in which he discusses what nature writing is and something about its evolution. He mentions many books and authors, so his essay will also give you plenty of material to try out at the library. I don't necessarily agree with some of his statements, but overall it is a good essay and a thought-provoking one. His opening paragraph reads:

In recent years, partly because of a tendency in market-based economies to niche all information, but also in response to a relatively sudden awareness of the social and political impact environmental legislation and thought have had on American society, people have come to speak of nature writing as a distinct, even emergent genre. It is more accurate, most critics assert, to say we are witnessing a resurgence in the genre; and, setting it alongside other genres, it is arguably more helpful to see it as that strain of American literature that, more than others now, is pursuing the ancient discourse on human fate.
A later paragraph says:

The philosophical roots of this work, obviously, lie with Thoreau and Emerson, and the genre includes elements of misanthropy (often, in my view, exaggerated) in people like Edward Abbey, Robinson Jeffers, and Loren Eiseley. But, again, it is hazardous to try to maintain strict bounds. Certain writers frequently cited as nature writers bring with them an additional emphasis -- Wallace Stegner's citizenship, say, or Gary Nabhan's ethnobotany. John Muir, though central to any definition of nature writing, is also considered a focal political figure; Aldo Leopold, another pivotal figure, is not literary enough for some, while Thomas Merton is often regarded as peripheral because his writing is too "spiritual." (I would argue that Merton, more than any other contemporary prose writer, maintained the tradition of spirituality in American writing now thought to be integral to nature writing.) And, in any given critical article, we may learn that, say, Mary Austin, author of The Land of Little Rain (1903), like Susan Fenimore Cooper, author of Rural Hours (1850), has just been "rediscovered" as a nature writer.
It's an interesting essay for those who would like to learn a bit more about nature writing and have some examples of authors to explore.

Henry David Thoreau is probably the nature writer who leaps to everyone's mind when considering this category--I know I enjoy reading his writings. I haven't read a great deal of science and nature writing, but I did read some selections in my anthology classes in literature.

There are any number of ways to go about producing literary science and nature writing. One can emphasize facts or one can emphasize personal observation. One can write poetry, essays, or fiction. Some travel writing could fall into this category, as well. The genre interests me, though, so I will be sampling some various authors and styles and perhaps tackle some writing myself. Also, see my post here at Scholar and here at By Study and Also by Faith, my other blogs, for more on this topic.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Information for Writers

At a site that I greatly enjoy, Fiction Factor, there is a page of writing articles sorted into categories. Beside articles to help you with your writing at all levels, they have articles on the business of writing which will help make you aware of all the things you need to keep in mind as you seek to sell your writing and become a published author.

As far as research goes, the entire internet is at your disposal. Although Wikipedia needs to be double-checked since anyone can post to it, it is still very useful for finding names and dates to look up elsewhere. There are science sites and history sites and you-name-it sites to research background for your stories. If you want to use a far-away setting, you can go to travel sites and geography sites for descriptions and pictures. This is a great blessing since most of us can't afford to travel somewhere just to consider using it as a setting. In addition, you can read about your own city/state/country and learn things that you never knew, which might trigger an excellent plot or provide a more exotic background that you thought possible from your own backyard.

Of course, you don't have to sell your writing. You can start a website or a blog and post to your heart's content!

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Thoughts on Storytelling

Why do people write? I believe it is largely because of an innate need to tell stories. Storytelling has been a part of the human race since the beginning. It is, perhaps, our way of making sense of life. Whether it is a tiny slice of life in a short poem, or a multi-generational saga in an epic novel, we are trying to sort out our experiences and observations and come to some conclusions about them.

Long ago, before it was easy to even write one's own thoughts, much less print multiple copies of books containing our creations, storytelling was oral. The use of poetic devices such as rhythm, meter, rhyme, alliteration, simile, and metaphor made it easier to memorize even long and involved stories so that they could be passed on. Singing the story, such as medieval troubadors did, also helped people to remember. Now, of course, we are blessed to live in the computer age, when we can type our thoughts quickly into our word processing programs and then go back and refine what we've written to make it as clear and as interesting as possible, so that others will be able to read and understand. These stories can then be published in books or in blogs or anything in between.

Those who hear or read stories gain the same benefit as those telling the stories--making sense of life. The hearer/reader comes away with much to think about. Some may be rejected, some may be incorporated in one's viewpoint. Whichever occurs, the person who received the story gains some insight into life.

Stories told don't have to be fiction. The writing of history or the reporting of news involves selecting what to present and how to present it. When a story is fiction, it is a telling of observations about human nature disguised in a highly imaginative costume. Either way, we come away with much to ponder.

To me, those who write contribute something special to people's lives, something that can provide insight and knowledge. Not all writing is equal, of course, but the thoughtful reader can sort out that which is intelligent and good and wise from that which is trivial or false. Even that exercise can contribute to our making sense of life.