Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within is, clearly, meant and marketed as a book for poets. But Addonizio notes at several places throughout the book that it’s all about language, sentences, craft, and that all of that is applicable to all kinds of writing. I don’t write poetry, but I loved this book, and I feel like I can use a lot of it.
Here are two quotes that stood out to me:
“Art is energy, held in a form long enough to be experienced. A fresco on a church wall in Italy. A dancer’s controlled movements, the drawing of a bow across a vibrating string. Or an exquisite arrangement of sticks held together by ice that will melt—until there is only a pile of sticks, a memory of the sculpture.”
Energy, held in a form long enough to be experienced. Energy held in the form of words, vibrating on the page.
“One technique you can use to handle emotion on the page is to ‘write it colder.’ This is from a letter written by Anton Chekhov, the great Russian playwright and short story writer:
When you want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder—that seems to give a kind of background to another’s grief, against which it stands out more clearly. Whereas in your story the characters cry and you sigh. Yes, be more cold…the more objective you are, the stronger will be the impression you make.”
Addonizio takes the idea of necessary coldness and returns to it many times, along with the idea of balance; sometimes you need to dive into the emotions, sometimes it’s necessary to be cold. The key to figuring out when to do either is (of course!) practice.
The book alternates between lessons or discussions and exercises, many of which dig into writing and then rewriting with a specific goal in mind, mostly related to language and craft. An exercise that stood out to me was the American Sentence:
“Allen Ginsberg, inspired by the traditional Japanese haiku—three lines of five, seven, and five syllables—invented the ‘American Sentence,’ one sentence of seventeen syllables.”
- Examples of American Sentences include:
Taxi ghosts at dusk pass Monoprix in Paris 20 years ago.
- Put on my tie in a taxi, short of breath, rushing to meditate.
- Crescent moon, girls chatter at twilight on the bus ride to Ankara.
The exercise here is creating a clear image while adhering to a set structure. Like writing haiku, it forces discipline onto your writing and makes you cut down into what’s essential to the image you want to convey. One of my first disciplined fiction exercises was writing drabbles, or a story of exactly 100 words. It could be a vignette, action, or all dialogue, but the challenge lay in cutting it back (or building it out) to exactly 100 words without losing tension or the point.
There are lots of other great exercises here (both thought exercises and writing ones), as well as some broader ideas and discussion. I recommend it as a shelf staple to go back to regularly when you want to check in with the bones of craft.
The other book I do this with is Stephen King’s On Writing. I need to re-acquire copies of Natalie Goldberg’s books as well; I relied on them a lot when I was younger but misplaced my copies over the years. I’d like to see what I take from them now, after such a long hiatus.