With Poetry Month just around the corner, I thought this would be a timely tip for fiction writers: Read Poetry.
Seriously. While plot is the foundation of fiction, it is language that makes it truly distinctive. Read the great poets to get a feel for imagery, concision, sound, rhythm–all elements that make prose stand out.
But don’t just read it. Memorize it. One of my favorite teachers in my MFA program, Elizabeth Strout, advises fiction writers to memorize a few poems. Stuck in traffic or driving down the highway, recite those poems, Keep that beautiful language in your head, and it will subtly influence the language you put on the page when you’re writing.
I have a few poems in my repertoire, but my absolute favorite–partly because it was challenging to learn–is Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens. I’ve even used some of the imagery from this poem in a story (“Savage Source” from my linked story collection, In an Uncharted Country). If you see me stopped at a light and I appear to be talking to someone, chances are I’m reciting. “Complacencies of the peignoir . . .”