Class Lecture: Words And Their Signs

Today’s lecture is about poetry, prose, a failure, and the best piece of writing advice I ever got. All rolled into one lil’ thing. Aren’t you lucky?

When I was in college I took some poetry classes. I’d read a fair amount of poetry, but I’d never written a word of it. At least, not in a purposeful, formal way. I guess poetry has this whole question about what is and isn’t poetry, and I’m not too interested in that. Let’s just leave it at “I never sat down intending to write a poem, and I never sat down and wrote something I thought turned out to be a poem.”

Until college, anyway.

What I learned in poetry classes was that everyone should study a little poetry. Why? Because poets, more than just about anyone, have a boner for using the exact right word in the exact right place. They’ll cross out little things and replace them with something that, to the casual reader, seems to be the exact same thing. They’ll reverse the order of two words. They’ll do anything to give the poem a little extra punch.

Oh, and poets are really good at losing the shit that doesn’t matter. Or, I should say, the shit that doesn’t matter to the poem. It may matter to them a lot, but that doesn’t mean it matters to the poem. These are two different things.

I wrote a short book of poetry after college. It was the first thing I sent out to contests and whatnot, and it was the first ebook I ever put up. I quite like it still, which is a good sign.

It was several years later when I sat down with one of the best teachers I ever had, and he related an experience he had in school.

He took a poetry class, and the teacher of that class said that the difference between poetry and prose writing is that in prose, each word is holding up a sign that says, “Don’t pay attention to me, plot’s that way!” I assume the sign is shaped like a big arrow. And the word is in some kind of mascot costume. It’s very easy to get carried away with this idea, which means it’s an interesting one.

My teacher heard this, and he thought, Bullshit. I mean, yeah, that happens a lot of times. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Prose writing can work the same way. The word choice, the structure, even the way things sit on the page can be just as meaningful in a book-length work.

I agree with my teacher. Yeah, it takes a shitload of work. But it’s do-able, and in writing, sometimes doing something very difficult is worth doing. Not always, but sometimes.


Cut to years later. I’m entering a contest where you have to tell a story in less than 200 words.

For those who don’t know, this is brutal. 200 words sounds like a lot, but by the end of this sentence, this section is already at about 50. A quarter of the way through the story.

I took a true story, changed it a bit, and wrote it out. It was something like 1500 words.

I spent the next month or so paring it down. Hacking away at it. Pulling out the parts that, like I said before, meant something to me but nothing to the story. I got it down to under 200, sent it in, and did not win.

But here’s the thing: I had no choice but to get this motherfucking story out in seriously short order, and I had to feel like the writing was really, really good.

On the one hand, there was no choice but to have a good economy of words. “Good economy of words,” that’s the writerly version of calling someone “frugal” when what you mean is “this dude dumpster dives for his anniversary gifts.”

On the other hand, picking the right words that told the story that I wanted to tell, that clashed with the economy.

The story ended up a little bit of both. The words had to vie for attention as individuals, and they also had to propel you through the story.

It was a great lesson. Which is why I’m relating it to you now.


Here’s your assignment this week.

We’re going to make the worlds of propulsion and beauty collide.

Here are the opening pages of Twilight:

My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. I was wearing my favorite shirt – sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka.

In the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington State, a small town named Forks exists under a near-constant cover of clouds. It rains on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America. It was from this town and its gloomy, omnipresent shade that my mother escaped with me when I was only a few months old. It was in this town that I’d been compelled to spend a month every summer until I was fourteen. That was the year I finally put my foot down; these past three summers, my dad, Charlie, vacationed with me in California for two weeks instead.

It was to Forks that I now exiled myself – an action that I took with great horror. I detested Forks.

I loved Phoenix. I loved the sun and the blistering heat. I loved the vigorous, sprawling city.

“Bella,” my mom said to me – the last of a thousand times – before I got on the plane. “You don’t have to do this.”

My mom looks like me, except with short hair and laugh lines. I felt a spasm of panic as I stared at her wide, childlike eyes. How could I leave my loving, erratic, harebrained mother to fend for herself? Of course she had Phil now, so the bills would probably get paid, there would be food in the refrigerator, gas in her car, and someone to call when she got lost, but still…

“I want to go,” I lied. I’d always been a bad liar, but I’d been saying this lie so frequently lately that it sounded almost convincing now.

“Tell Charlie I said hi.”

“I will.”

“I’ll see you soon,” she insisted. “You can come home whenever you want – I’ll come right back as soon as you need me.”

But I could see the sacrifice in her eyes behind the promise.

“Don’t worry about me,” I urged. “It’ll be great. I love you, Mom.”

She hugged me tightly for a minute, and then I got on the plane, and she was gone.

Okay, we’ve got a story.

And you’ve got two things to do with this story.

First thing, chop it down to 200 words. Tell what happens here, get all the events in. Kid gets on a plane, leaves mom. There’s a beginning, middle and end here. In an artsy class of some kind, this would be the entire story. We haven’t even gotten any vampires or werewolves or ripped abs yet.

Second thing, make it beautiful. Once you figure out everything that needs to be here, shine it up for me. Make it sparkle like a vampire in the sun.

Here’s what you’re meant to take away: you can have economy of words (you cheap fuck) without sacrificing story. Your story can pull readers through and be beautiful. It’s not one or the other.

Have fun with this one. Until you get to the point where you need to gut like 8 words and can’t figure it out. At that point, fun is over.