On Moving From Poetry To Fiction

Via email, from a recent graduate:

Q: i’m wondering how you got to be a fiction writer since i know you used to be a writer of poems. do you have any advice for a would-be fiction writer? i know that line breaks should be less significant but in all seriousness, i’d love to know about your transition.

A: One day, to apply for a fiction class, I sat down and wrote a story.

I had made things up before: in grade school, as a kind of test, I wrote book reports for nonexistent books. Two, to be specific. I was testing my teachers, to see if they would check on us. I remember thinking, I bet they can’t read every book. But also, I discovered as I wrote it that it was really fun, to write things that were made up and pass them off as true. I  also sensed that was dangerous territory–I realized I didn’t want the shame of being caught lying to my teachers–so I stopped, and eventually used my powers for something like good instead of evil, and became a Dungeon Master, for Dungeons & Dragons games that I ran from 5th to 10th grade.

That game, actually, had a huge impact on me. To be Dungeon Master was to be in control of the game’s story, and yet you had to give up control through the performance of the game’s players, who were characters, and the chance elements introduced by the roll of the dice. Too much exposition and the players would yell at you to hurry up. It was like an early writing workshop and a poetry slam but with McDonald’s food delivered.

Until the writing of that story, I had written poems and had even won a prize from a national foundation, one of those high school writer’s prizes, and a short play also, for the gifted and talented program at my high school, but nothing like this.

When I look back at what I was doing as I wrote that first whole story, I sat down with several intentions, one being the intention of making someone believe that something was real that wasn’t real, i.e., lying. But I was also anxious to make something that expressed something of myself that didn’t otherwise fit into the narrative of the self. I didn’t know yet about fictional narrators in poetry, so there was that—I believed very firmly about poetry then that it was something that absolutely emerged from the narrative of “me”. That it had to be something “I” wrote, and was even a sort of confrontation with the self. Fiction, though, to me, could be anything, about anything, and go anywhere, and I leaned into that. There’s a wild freedom in that, and I stepped into it and never really looked back too much. When I write a novel, or a story, the chance to drop myself and move into the world always elicits in me an excitement and a sense of relief. I feel like the edges of myself vanish, and that in that place, I can say or do anything.

I still write poems. For a while in my career, I was even considered an emerging poet, in the mid-90s. And I’ve since discovered the fictional narrator for poems. But I never really thought of myself as a poet, per se, just as a writer, the old-fashioned “man of letters”, who wanted to write fiction, essays and poems. I think there’s nothing wrong with deciding you are one or the other, as long as you don’t let it become some strange, pulverizing boundary that keeps you from doing work you want to do. These days, writers in the US have taken to thinking of themselves too much as poets, memoirists or fiction writers, and they treat it like it’s an ethnicity. This is a mistake, I think, and I don’t recommend it.

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