| Don’t Write Alone
Writing Life I’m a Nervous Wreck When I Write Prose
I am yet another poet writing a novel. Which is to say, I find myself in hell.
Novelists write great novels. As it turns out, so do poets. Literary fiction has been seeing more and more writers of poetry successfully making the leap between bookshelves. In truth, this trend is nothing new. When Rainer Maria Rilke took a hiatus from poetry to write his lone novel, he was hardly the first to cross over, nor the last. A survey of the past half century in English-language fiction reveals that many of its most lauded names, from Denis Johnson to Margaret Atwood, launched their literary careers by publishing poems to high acclaim.
Still, the sheer number of poets nowadays taking their talents to prose seems noteworthy: Ben Lerner, Ocean Vuong, Erika Sánchez, Morgan Parker, Kazim Ali, Patricia Lockwood, Hala Alyan, and countless more. (If I were to include poets who write nonfiction, this list would grow considerably.) With so many poets making a home for themselves in long-form fiction, it might seem reasonable to conclude that writing novels comes easily to poets. This, I believe, is a false conclusion.
I am (surprise, surprise!) yet another poet writing a novel. Which is to say, I find myself in hell. I’m afraid to calculate how many hours I’ve spent toiling away, but I figure it must add up to the lifetime of some small but very hardy animal, the sort of woodland creature that can survive many consecutive winters and still muster the strength necessary to bite through skin. While the process of writing a novel has been time-intensive in the extreme, I take comfort knowing that I’m not alone in my suffering. Here’s fellow poet Aria Aber crying out from her respective void:
In case it’s not obvious, Aber is being facetious; poets should of course write novels if they so choose. And yet I’d like to think that this tweet is sincere in its effort to spare uninitiated poets the agony. It’s like one of those bone-chilling warnings printed on a pack of cigarettes.
Aber’s metaphor of the “kitchen scale” and the “little nail scissors” perfectly captures what can be so vexing about the novel-writing experience for a poet. It’s not so much that poets lack the right tools to create compelling fiction — indeed, a facility with imagery and sound are both essential to good storytelling, and many poets also possess an intuitive sense of plot and character development, though they may know them by different terms. Rather, it’s that these tools aren’t designed for a job of such magnitude. Sixty thousand words (which, it pains me to admit, is on the slim side for a novel) cannot feasibly be treated with the same care one might lavish on a sonnet’s fourteen lines. There’s a reason you don’t use nail scissors to trim a lawn.
But scale is only part of the problem. Another obstacle, which I’d argue can prove equally confounding, concerns the issue of shape. Novelists spend a lot of time thinking about shape on a macro level; whether a novel cuts a traditional arc or—as Jane Alison advocates in Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative —charts an alternative path, the fiction writer attends closely to the overall structure of their book. Poets similarly wrestle with questions of structure when shaping poems into a collection, but there’s also an intense scrutiny paid to the shape of language itself.
Because the central unit of poetry is the line, not the sentence, words are set down on paper with a heightened sensitivity to their materiality. It’s true that writers in every genre scrutinize from all angles, but we poets are particularly obsessive about the visual and sonic architecture of our language, how lines branch out before snapping into silence. It can be challenging to get in the habit of filling whole pages if you’re used to linear forms.
On a recent Tin House podcast , Jorie Graham describes how she sees the difference between the line and the sentence: “The sentence has vertical energy . . . [It] moves vertically down the page. . . . And then you have, with each line . . . horizontal energy. You have the hovering, lifting, staying-in-its-own-time line.” In a poem, every word is a small feat of resistance, fighting against the gravitational force that drags it down. It’s no wonder, then, that transitioning from poetry to prose can feel disorienting: the line and the sentence have “energies” perpendicular to each other.
One might think that working with sentences would prove liberating for a poet. I mean, can’t it feel exhilarating to throw caution to the wind and plow through the right-hand margin? Not so fast. Here’s how poet Morgan Parker responded when Hazlitt magazine asked if she found writing a novel easier: “No. [laughs] I mean, I love sentences, but they’re so malleable and flexible.” Interestingly, Ursula K. Le Guin—both a poet and novelist herself—sounded a similar note when she referred to prose as “an infinitely flexible medium.” Given that poetry is a highly fluid art form, prose is typically seen as having more rigidity (Emily Dickinson: “They shut me up in Prose”). And yet, in some ways, the opposite is true: In prose, language bends, bends, but—dammit!—never breaks. For the poet, writing in sentences can turn a dizzying exercise, like extending speech without stopping for breath.
The poet embarking on a novel may face other challenges. One such challenge—or let’s call it a complication —is the prospect of an expanded readership. It’s long been taken as a given that novels reach a wider audience than poetry books. Such thinking may very well be outdated; a number of recent poetry titles have sold in soaring numbers, and long-form fiction is maybe not the financial juggernaut the poetry community thinks it is. (As Ben Lerner puts it: “Poets really haven’t gotten the news that the novel is also dead.”) But regardless of how many readers are or aren’t being reached, certain inherited notions about readership can make venturing into prose feel daunting. Mary Ruefle, from a Paris Review interview :
Poems are my inner life, take it or leave it. I don’t particularly care what the reader thinks because I’m just not invested in other people’s responses to my inner life. . . . With prose, it’s much scarier. There’s something built into its very nature—it’s more open and external, and it’s in exchange with another. I’m a nervous wreck when I write prose, and I’m not in the least when I write poems. If I’m writing a poem, it never occurs to me that somebody is going to read it. It’s taken me an entire lifetime to get over the fact that there are people out there who read my poems. In the beginning I was like, How did you see it? Where did you read it? I was forgetting that it was in a magazine somewhere. It’s like it doesn’t exist anymore, once I’ve written it. It always shocks me that people read poetry, even though I read it and love it and it’s my life. But it doesn’t shock me that people read prose. So I have the expectation of a reader, of a listener , when writing prose that I simply don’t have when I write a poem.
It goes without saying that these sentiments aren’t shared by all poets. Surely, there are those who would push back on this idea that “prose is a public language and poetry is a private language.” After all, isn’t poetry at home in the public square, closely connected to those communities it sustains? Still, I can’t help but nod in vigorous recognition when reading Ruefle here. I, too, have been that nervous wreck! Am that nervous wreck! Even if I know Lerner is right, and that my novel—and yours too—probably won’t reach a mass audience, I still tremble at the thought of its publication. Sentences leave the poet more exposed. There’s less room on the page to hide.
Given that writing a novel is no easy road, and that any financial payoff is sure to seem paltry when compared to the investment of one’s time and energy, why are so many poets pursuing it? Why am I pursuing it? I ask myself again and again, with every new ream of paper I purchase and then lower with a subservient posture into the dark bowels of my printer.
For me, the answer lies in this wisdom from poet and novelist Jennifer Tseng: “ The novel offers freedom, a break from intense scrutiny; one can roam its frontiers in a more anonymous way, as someone else.” I find Tseng’s point about anonymity deeply compelling. Though it’s true, as she acknowledges, that “ poets too find ways to be anonymous,” there’s something unique about how the novel invites its author to step outside the bounds of the self and “roam” beyond the limits of their own existence. This shouldn’t be misunderstood as permission to appropriate the stories of others; rather, it’s a chance to see oneself in perspective and deepen an attachment to the surrounding world. In this way, writing a novel can feel profoundly freeing, even if writing in sentences doesn’t.
Tonight, when I’m back to working on my novel, I’ll be a poet about it. I’ll reach anxiously for my kitchen scale and nail scissors; I’ll tinker with the document’s margins to see how the sentences might settle differently down the page—I’ll spend an inordinate amount of time fixating on minutiae, in other words. But even if the hours are painstaking, I’ll remain grateful for this project and the freedoms it affords me. Within the world of my novel, I get to pretend I’m someone else. And when it’s finished, maybe I’ll call myself a novelist — even if I’m the same nervous wreck I’ve always been.