ENG340 – Weeks 1 – 3

Blackbird. Image from Kitchen Witch

Blackbird. Image from Kitchen Witch

It’s been an interesting time for me. I’ve been away from uni for such a long time, and now I’m sinking my teeth back into it. Last study period, I completed WEB309, which consisted mainly of blog posts (hence nothing here), and prior to that I was recovering from surgery so no uni was completed.

This SP, I’m doing Creative Writing: Narrative and Structure, which is quite different from flourished, descriptive styles. It’s a follow on from ENG210. I normally write rather tersely, so I’m finding this a real challenge, to pare my writing back to almost nothing. We are also doing two workshops this semester and commenting each week on other’s contributions. This unit I am completing it with the incomparable Kate M (a good friend of mine) who constantly keeps me inspired and murderous at the same time. It’s a great combination for creative writing. She completed week one’s workshop and I was listed for week two. Week 3 is when we submit our first writing task. I’ve included them both below.

Things I have learned so far.

Kate Grenville, in The Writing Book, discusses ‘Event’ as follows:

A story consists of a series of events. The most straightforward way to arrange them is chronologically: first this happened, then this, then this. But that’s not he only way and it may not be the best way for your particular story. Here a few other possible ways of arranging the events:

  • End-at-beginning: the first scene is the climax of the story, then the story goes back to some point in the past and moves forward until it catches up with the climax again. The reader learns right from the beginning what happens and spends the story finding out why.

  • Telling-the-story-backwards: the story starts with the most recent events, then works progressively backwards, usually in defined sections, to the most distant events. There are really to movements going: within each section the action moves forward, but the overall movement of the piece is backward.

  • Flashbacks: the present action of the story can be interspersed with past events so that the two illuminate each other.

  • Subplot: weaving in and out of the main action, a secondary action.

  • Parallel stories of equal importance: taking a subplot one step further, into the ‘meanwhile, back at the ranch’ structure. For this to work, both stories need to be equally strong, or a reader starts skipping the weaker one. (pp 171-72)

The thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird sucks. I had to read this poem for another unit (Writing Poetry (CWR210), I think it was) and it was a dumbarse poem back then and still is.

Our lessons say this about the poem:

From Bill Manhire, Mutes & Earthquakes, Victoria University Press, Wellington, NZ, 1997

 Stevens’ thirteen short, numbered poems ‘glimpse or evoke or somehow react to a blackbird’ (281). On setting this poem as a stimulus for his writing class, Manhire writes:

            ‘It is not just that the structure of Wallace Stevens’ poem makes the day-to-day world seem more interesting than unusual; it also implies that there might be more ways of thinking about it than are actually there on the page – a fourteenth, maybe, or a fifteenth. Knowledge is partial and fragmentary, and depends on perspective. A single thing is composed of a range of different things; how can we know anything completely? Thus as the poem unfolds, section after section, you get a sense of exploration. The text is finding out about something; it is not trying to offer you some complacent, final piece of wisdom.

            It helps if poets aren’t too complacent about the things they think they know. The Stevens poem teaches the importance of care and focus and particularity, and it also leaves the writer room to move during the process of composition. The words can be found and accumulated over a quite a long period. Some sections may come quickly, some may slowly inch their way into existence. You may end up with twenty ways of looking at something, but find yourself reducing them to seven. Then, as well as selection, there is the task of ordering the various sections. Because the poem has no predetermined beginning and end, you must try to decide which section would be best first, which last. And, after the beginning and ending are settled, you need to arrange the pieces in between. Do you want to imply a narrative, or a deepening of perception? Or do you want to play up the possibilities of contradiction? Is your poem predominantly about a particular thing, or about the process of mind thinking bout that thing’ (282-83)

I don’t agree with this. I still think it’s just a crap piece of poetry, but poetry, like art, tends to be something you either like or don’t. Anyway, our task relating to the blackbird was “Read the extract from Bill Manhire’s Mutes & Earthquakes on the readings page for this week, and try using ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ for a series of short poems of your own on any one topic. eg. ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Anzac Day Parade’ or ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Tree Fern’ etc.”

So here’s my attempt:

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Bad Poetry

I

Thirteen stanzas too long;

a blackbird could never be as interesting

as the bad poetry written about it.

II

The card filled with a scratchie,

a ten dollar note and scrawled words of affection

settle underneath a plethora of bad poetry.

III

Doof Doof

Rappin’ and Crappin’

There’s bad poetry in every song

IV

Recording air drums

with their biggest fan

Bad Poetry Band

V

August eighteenth

to celebrate and curse

bad poetry day

VI

5-7-5 for

a seasoned haiku

bad poetry

VII

Nineteen lines criss-crossed, crosshatched

Convoluted bad poetry crafts a contortionist.

A Villianelle is villany.

VIII

Plath who walked into the ocean

to drown out her sorrows did not dare to offer us the same

respite from her bad poetry.

IX

Tercets, quatrains, iambic pentameter

Bad poetry makes a such a hash of these.

X

Trees

led to fear, to shame and to fame

and now to the Alfred Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest

XI

To take the time to ruminate

to question when you can just generate

The bad poetry generator

XII

Not only do I create the mess

that bad poetry lets me express

but I do it in such much less

time it takes to feel depressed.

XIII

Thirteen. No blackbirds here.

Just bad poetry.

 

It is better to challenge yourself more thoroughly than not at all. Our writing task (and my first workshop) consisted of giving us a specific task to write narrative only with a set of caveats that must be included in the work. These consisted of sensory cues and the use of specific words all within a very tight word count. For one of my attempts, I challenged myself to use ALL the words they gave us and found that by giving myself this challenge, it helped me to really hone in narrative writing, rather than descriptive.

Writing 1 Exercise Requirements:

Writing Exercise 1 – a short narrative, quickly written

Part 1: Write a short narrative of around 50 to 60 words. A narrative tells a story, and contains actions or events, so yours will need to be fairly focused. It does need to have a neat, ‘closed’ ending. This is NOT a descriptive passage.

  • Refer to one or more of the senses directly or indirectly: smell, touch, hearing, vision, taste.
  • Use one or more of the below words in your draft (you can modify the tense if you want to). Notice that I’ve focused on verbs:
    bite, shout, pinch, lick, dig, shave, scratch, stumble, snort, swallow, curl, tear, tug, heave, gallop, soar, blink, tickle, grind.
  • You can lay out the words any way that you like on the page.
  • Use as few conjunctions as possible without losing the sense of the story. (Conjunctions are words used to connect clauses or sentences such as, ‘and’, ‘then’, ‘but’, ‘if’.)
  • DO NOT rhyme.

Part 2: Write two-three of these short narratives.

Part 3: Choose your best and expand on it, phrase by phrase. The short 50-60 word narrative is to be used as the scaffolding for the longer narrative. Word Length for Part 3: 350 words max. Please use clear headings.

So now I’m going to tell you a weird story. I went camping just before this study period began, and my mother in law visited us and made a joke about her dying with her fingers gripping a tea towel in her hand (she was drying up at the time). There was something about the imagery of this that stayed with me. When I read our writing assignment, it instantly came to mind.

Attempt 1 at this task.

Part 1

Her fingers curled around the tea towel. She dried a plate. The plate was returned to the pile in the cupboard. She dried the cup. Her hand shook. The cup fell to the floor. It shattered loudly. She swallowed hard. She sank to the floor. She wept.

Part 2 (a)

His paws clawed the earth. The left lip curled, lifted. His snout quivered. His ears flattened. He drew back. He wanted to bite through the layers and tug the fur free. His eyes narrowed. He focused. He paused. Galloping with mouth ajar, he sank his teeth into the toy.

Part 2 (b)

He robbed the bank. He drove to South Bank. He abandoned the car. He went to the markets. He bought a duffle bag. He transferred the money to the duffel. He caught a train to Roma Street. He transferred to a train heading to Sydney. He slept. He awoke in Sydney Central station. Police surrounded the train. He was arrested.

Part 2 (c)

They abandoned shaving. They snorted cocaine. He tickled her. She stumbled. He bit her. She shouted. She pinched his nipples. She licked his neck. He tugged off her clothes. The clothes tore. Scratch marks remained. He entered her. Heaving, he pushed her to the wall. He ground his hips against hers. Her toes curled. They soared together in a galloping rhythm. He swallowed hard. He blinked slowly. He was alone. He could dig that.

[Author’s note: I have gone over the word limit in this narrative because I wanted to challenge myself to find a way to use all of the words given to us in this task and still have an effective plot. I’m pleased to say, I believe I succeeded.]

Part 3

His paws clawed the earth impatiently, leaving fluffy balls of dust in their wake. Lowering his head, the left lip curled; then lifted. Growling, his snout quivered. The nostrils slightly flared. Hairs down the ridge of his back sprang into life and rose like tentacles. Muscles tensing, a ripple shuddered through him.  He drew back waiting to pounce – his forelegs stretched low with his rump high in the air. The bushy tail stood erect, striving to the sky; a stark warning to all that this was his kill, and his alone. His face radiated eagerness – impatient to bite through the layers of his prey and tug the fur free. His keen eyes focused, narrowed, and dilated. Then, with a heaving gallop, he sprang forward, mouth ajar. He skidded as he landed; his mouth precisely on target as he sank his teeth deep into the victim. It was time to die. The teddy bear didn’t stand a chance. With a look of supreme satisfaction and confidence, the pup carried the toy to his bed for a well deserved nap.

So based on this, there’s a good chance my part 3 is too descriptive. So I decided to try and expand and broaden my initial ideas. I looked at the bank robbery as an opportunity to do this.

He pointed the gun straight at the teller. Her frozen look of fear told him he would be successful. “All the money,” he said quietly. His curt tone showed none of the adrenaline coursing through him. He was electrified, whilst outwardly he appeared serene. Serene and determined. He placed the weapon back in his pocket but kept it pointed toward her. In what seemed like an age, she handed him a cream bag filled with bank notes. He tipped an imaginary hat at her and strolled confidently from the bank. As he started his car, he could hear the bank alarm sounding violently. At the second set of traffic lights, he watched three sets of police cars pass him. He continued on, three kilometres below the speed limit. His breath was steady. He remained calm. He drove to South Bank and entered the underground carpark. He exited the car after wiping down his prints from the steering wheel, gear stick and door knobs. In his left pocket was the gun wrapped in the rag; the other held a bag full of banknotes. He casually walked up the stairs. At the nearest bin, he dropped the weapon and car keys. As expected, the markets at South Bank were particularly busy.  It wasn’t long before he had bought himself a nondescript duffle bag and in the male toilets, he transferred the bulge from his pocket to the bag. Walking more briskly now, he entered the nearest train station and caught the next train to Roma Street. He transferred to a train heading south to Sydney. It wasn’t until he was alone in the sleeper cabin that he began to relax. He counted the money. Not as much as he’d hoped, but enough. Finally, he slept. Hours later, he awoke as the train pulled into Sydney Central station. He stretched and started to head toward the passenger doors. Suddenly he felt himself jerked backwards. Glancing up, he saw the scores of police advancing towards the train. On the train. In the train. He was surrounded. There was no going back. He was done.

So I’m not sure which is better and which I will end up using but one thing is for sure – I am really enjoying this unit.

Books to consider buying:

Kate Grenville: The Writing Book

Stern: Making Shapely Fiction

 

Writer’s Workshop Week 3

So from the week one writing assignment, I expanded my tea towel concept into this poem for my workshop piece.

Life through her fingers

A loud cry.
A mother’s delight.
Her fingers gripped a rattle – they’re ready for battle.

Little lunch;
Ruler claps dusters.
Her fingers gripped a pencil, crayons and stencil.

Giggling.
Dreamboats on the wall.
Her fingers gripped headphones, tapping to The Ramones.

Broken heart.
Push up bras, tight skirts.
Her fingers gripped a photo, sobbing into cocoa.

Graduate.
Perfect internship.
Her fingers gripped her resume, off to make her own way.

Blushing bride.
Lovely lace layers.
Her fingers gripped a bouquet: pause in the aisle halfway.

Wistfulness –
Ruing might-have-beens.
Her fingers gripped a tea towel; her forehead in a scowl.

Her first born.
Loved and yet crying.
Her fingers gripped a nappy – her heart full and happy.

Retired.
Nothing left to do.
Her fingers gripped golf clubs, lawn bowls, lunch at the pub.

Silencing,
Sharp roar of blankness.
Her fingers gripped a rose, waiting to decompose.

Comments:

I was given some good constructive criticism about this poem. Most seemed to like it but there was a general consensus that it was too short. That her early life was full but her end seemed rushed and that she needed more milestones. Whilst this was my intention (I wanted her early life to seem full of opportunity and the last of her life without much in it) it is perhaps too sparse, and maybe some more regretful events would amplify her isolation.

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