We are pattern recognition machines — and by “we” I mean writers.
Be it prose, poetry or slightly burnished truth, writers use the evidence of a life lived, imaginary or very real, to such a degree that it resonates with some distant reader — who is also seeking patterns.
This week literary journal River Styx held it’s first literary festival, the Big River Literary Festival in St. Louis, Missouri (where I live). The festival was spread out over several days and a series of talks were open free to the public; these were the ones I could attend because, well, as a writer I ironically could not afford the festival tuition as it were.
Novelist and short story writer George Singleton; poet and essayist Dorianne Laux and memoirist Kathleen Finnernan all spoke about the writer as a re-creator of vibration and arrangement.
Writers on Pattern
Singleton — Focusing on short fiction, he said to begin with conflict as soon as possible in the first sentence if possible, in the first paragraph at minimum. He read out over twenty examples of openings and all gave this similar pattern of establishing quickly conflict between two poles of some kind. He also suggested “reader-friendly” opening paragraphs with the journalistic measures of who, what, where, when and why fulfilled. And, whatever is mentioned as conflict or thematically in the beginning should be embraced in some fashion in the ending of the story. Citing an former editor Singleton said the opening of the story should be “kissed” by its terminus.
Laux — Poetry she attempts to sound like the thing it is describing and in doing so makes a connection from the poet who experiences the event to the reader who is to share in it. This is accomplished, she said, through rhythm. Use rhythmic pattern for conflict, to reflect the emotional content of a poem. She gave the example of Li Young Lee composing his verse in a pattern of three monosyllabic words followed by a multi-syllabic word and so on. “We’re trying to figure out how the rhythm of our lives cane transferred to another.”
Finnernan — The memoirists’ goal is not to lie, not to fabricate, but to speculate and imagine. Citing examples of memoirs where the author was not present for what happened, selected phrases “I can imagine,” or “I could not know,” help to signal to the reader that what follows should not be misconstrued as journalism, yet still be viewed as close to the truth as one can get. Familiarity, speculation, and imagination help establish authenticity in memoir.