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To Save One’s Life

Writing is a unique way of thinking that allows a writer to come upon ideas that he or she wouldn't have otherwise discovered. Some writers sit quietly waiting for inspiration to appear; others don't wait but simply begin writing and eventually, they believe, inspiration will occur. They describe things or remember things or argue things, as they wait for the ideas to take off on their own. This is like pushing a car to get it started.

Rainer Maria Rilke, when he couldn't write, would go to the Paris zoo, take out his notebook, and describe an animal, like a panther or swan. This was around 1905 or 1906. As he wrote, his dominating idea gradually took over and the real poem began, which, in this case, was driven by his fear of being confined. The panther or swan existed only as pretext to get someplace else. They stopped being the ends and became the means. They became metaphors.

Any metaphor is an idea. The aphorism "hangs a padlock on his zipper; calls himself good" gives a simple picture about which we ask a question: Why does he call himself good? Then, perhaps unconsciously, we create a narrative about how the padlock may or may not keep him from certain actions. All this happens in an instant as we move from image to idea. Is the man really good if he requires a padlock on his zipper in order to behave properly? And so we arrive at idea.

Here is another: "Mouse grows proud; invites the cat to tea." And another: "He dips his words in honey; you still taste the salt." Both aphorisms express human characteristics, and we probably know people of whom they are true. Again, as we think about those characteristics, they become ideas, but the ideas are not described discursively, but nondiscursively.

A poem is not an aphorism, but it, too, uses nondiscursive language. The poem is itself a metaphor describing, perhaps, some emotional state, and that poem will also have metaphors within it. That mixture of nondiscursive and discursive language within the poem attempts to say something about the dominating idea; that is, the idea that led the poet to write in the first place. This use of the discursive and nondiscursive together can create a clarity of vision and understanding that will not be found in either of them separately. Even the elements of a poem's form communicate ideas nondiscursively, as they give emphasis and control pacing.

Language is inexact. We have an amazing idea, but when we put it into words, it is not quite as amazing as it was in the mind. It has been diminished. This is true in conversation, in an essay, in a poem, in a novel — anyplace where words are used. In speech, precision or nuance can be helped through hand gestures and facial expressions, but written language has always the danger of appearing lifeless.In speech, precision or nuance can be helped through hand gestures and facial expressions, but written language has always the danger of appearing lifeless.

A poem, however, in its potential joining of discursive and nondiscursive thought, can do a far better job of expressing nuance than can prose, and so it is able to come closer to precision in expressing that internal idea than other forms of writing. But there becomes a limit to the poem's length unless it's a long narrative, epic, or meditative poem. The poem that I speak of, if it goes on page after page, becomes too compact. It loses energy and we lose interest. After all, you can't make a meal out of chewing a dozen bouillon cubes.

I don't mean to sound pedantic. I'm trying to say how I deal with the problem of not believing the world exists. If I'm in the business of definition, then I want a utilization of language that potentially is more exact and closer to the original idea than any other. That seems simple enough, and it is one of the reasons I write poetry, along with the goal of creating something of beauty, of reaching out to another person, and so on. And in that writing of the poem, I come upon ideas that I wouldn't have found in any other way, like Rilke and his panther. I don't tell something to someone; I work to make myself potentially understood, even though I write in a form that can be far more difficult to understand than prose. But a poem is meant to communicate, although many poets reject this, and one of my goals in writing is to make the poem communicate.

Well, what happens if I don't do this, if I just accept the appearance of reality and make no attempt to find what I imagine to be the invisible reality? Then the uncertainty takes over, the doubt and confusion. It's like I'm high on reefer or LSD. Is what I'm feeling and seeing really what I'm feeling or seeing, or is it an illusion? I don't find that a comfortable place to live. Therefore, I keep writing and defining and try to make the writing better. You say you don't like the writing? Hey, it's not your life I'm trying to save.

A novel or short story may do it differently. Where did these stories come from? In my case, a little comes from experience, but only a little. You know that period just before sleep when there are conversations and unfolding scenarios in your head? That's where the stories come from, not literally but in essence. This particularly happens to someone with an energetic imagination, and for a writer the imagination is his or her primary tool. For years on most of the nights of the week, I have dreamed of a nonexistent city, a dream city. I know buildings and neighborhoods, railroads and river, hills and valleys, and the people I interact with in that city often don't exist in real life, although some may.

I don't mean to say more about this or explain it or claim that it is in any way special. It's just where I hang out at night. But this is also where my stories come from, again not literally but in essence. And just as the stories are made up of metaphors, so are the dreams. Actually, I remember only bits and pieces of my dreams, but those pieces usually take place in that city. I'm not going to write about this place or interpret it. It's just there. As I said elsewhere, I am superstitious about dismantling the machinery of my writing. Did you ever take apart a watch as a kid and then find it impossible to put back together? It's like that. I study and think about the how of writing all the time: How do I make it better, how do I see how it works? That knowledge, if it's knowledge, makes up the essays in two of my books: Best Words, Best Order and Next Word, Better Word. But the questions of what poetry is and where it comes from, I stay away from. I don't want to mess with the machinery.

These dominating ideas that direct the writing, some have been with me since early childhood; others arise from where I am now — the weakening body and approach of death. I'm aware of them, but I don't want to pick them apart. Where the writing and stories come from is a mystery. It seems like a gift. And every writer has the fear that the gift will suddenly vanish. Then where would I be when all the color drained out of the world? No, this gift, I walk around it on tiptoe.

÷ ÷ ÷

Stephen Dobyns is the author of more than 30 novels and poetry collections, including The Church of the Dead Girls, Cold Dog Soup, and Cemetery Nights. Among his many honors and awards are a Melville Cane Award, Pushcart Prizes, National Poetry Series Prize, and three National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Burn Palace Used Hardcover $9.95
  2. Next Word, Better Word Used Trade Paper $11.00
  3. Best Words, Best Order, 2nd Edition:... New Trade Paper $41.50


Stephen Dobyns is the author of The Burn Palace

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