Wednesday, October 16, 2013

What Writing Sonnets Taught me about Writing Crime Novels

I didn’t start off my career as a writer of sonnets. Frankly I thought I’d never write one. The form seemed too confining, the rhymes too sing-songy. I had the mistaken idea that so many people have, which is that the form destroys the meaning of the poem.

That’s actually true if you approach the sonnet in the same way you approach a short story or free verse poem. What I didn’t know was that beauty of the form is that if you trust it and trust that you have a rich interior life, it will draw meaning out of you. You don’t have force anything at all.

In any case, I started to write sonnets one summer when I had time, and I had no luck with them. The meter didn’t cause me much difficulty, but the rhymes ended up killing whatever I tried. I mentioned this to a friend of mine who wrote sonnets, and he told me to take one of Shakespeare’s sonnets and use his rhymes. Shakespeare, he said, already had all of these fantastic rhymes set up for me.

It seemed strange, but I tried it. I found out very quickly that it forced me to do two things:

First, I could not try to start with the goal of having any particular meaning in the poem. I couldn’t write a poem about America’s debt or the war or anything else in particular. Shakespeare’s words were what they were, and I had to shape an idea out of them.

Second, I couldn’t really plan ahead. If I tried to get ahead of myself, I would lose the point of each individual line. The only thing I could really concentrate on was the line I was on. Anything beyond that was a distraction to the poem. I had to be in the moment trying to make that next rhyme work considering what the last line had been.

I couldn’t start out with topic or meaning for a poem, but the sonnet is a form that’s designed to pull ideas out of the poet. Because certain things have to happen in certain moments of the poem, ideas are pulled out of the poet. And I have a fairly complex interior life, so the sonnet pulled interesting ideas out of me, ideas I never would have imagined putting in my poem before. I ended up with stronger poems.

What the sonnet form taught me was that form in all writing is a gift that gives writers concepts and things to write about. Just as I was making my breakthrough with the sonnet, I started to write crime novels, which is another form that has its own rules. The sonnet had taught me to relax and allow the form to draw ideas out of me. And that’s what I did, letting go of my preconceptions of what my novel should be and allowing the art to speak to me.

I think the sonnet is good exercise for all writers. Even if the writer never writes another sonnet or another poem ever again, the sonnet gives the writer so much. All form does that. If you’ve never tried it, do. It will teach you to see your writing in a completely new way.


Billie Johnson said...

Thanks, John, for your thoughtful discussion.


Eileen Obser said...

Thank you, John, for taking the slot today and presenting such a great topic. I wish I had studied more poetry in my MFA program; there always seemed to be other courses and not enough time. But we can all learn from your good advice.

John Brantingham said...

What I always tell my poetry students to add to this is that if they want to learn technique and language, they need to write a 100 page poem. It's good advice for us all. No one takes that advice!

Beryl Reichenberg said...

I had a similar experience writing haiku. I had photographed a series of scenes in Japan and decided to write haiku to accompany the photos. Focusing just on the haiku format and the photo images allowed me to stay in the moment. Beryl

Walter Luce said...

John, You opened a door for me. Good job! Thanks Walt

Anne Schroeder said...

I bought a haiku journal and found many of the things you express. My goal was to haiku every day for a year. It caused me to slow down and catch the moment. Took me out of my routine and gave me great respect for poets.