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I found this quote from Henry Van Dyke over at Donna Marie Merritt's Facebook page, and liked it so much that I added it to my commonplace book:

"Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best."

And my friend Pamela (aka writerross) tweeted a link to an interview question for Billy Collins, whose work I happen to love. I have to say that I find the question to be inartfully phrased at best (and quite possibly disrespectful or impertinent at worst); rather than bristling, however, Collins answered it with some words of advice that I think might be useful to authors as well as poets:

The Rattle Bag: Why are the beginnings of your poems uninteresting?

Collins: I tend to start simply. I don’t want to assume anything on the reader’s part. So, I start with something that everybody knows or a simple declaration, like I am standing here at the window with a cup of tea. You could look at that two ways: I am luring the reader in by giving the reader something easy to identify with, or I’m expressing a kind of etiquette – I don’t want to get ahead of the reader. I want to keep the reader in my company. If you look at the first three or four lines of many of my poems, they are pretty flat and ordinary. The hope is that having started with something simple and common, that gives the poem potential for improvement (laughs) so that it can get a little more challenging and move into more mysterious areas as it goes along.

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( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 28th, 2010 07:35 pm (UTC)
I'll have to re-read Collins but my first reaction to the question is "that's ridonkulous!" His poems are SO engaging. The opposite of uninteresting.

But I think I also disagree with your point (apparently too much pie makes me cantankerous.) I think the first sentences of novels have to be INTENSELY, stand-out, engaging. Poetry can perhaps initiate with something simple, flat and ordinary, but I think novels shouldn't.
Nov. 28th, 2010 08:12 pm (UTC)
I don't believe his openings are uninteresting either. And if I had a point, what I intended for it to be was that it can be good when writing to bring the reader along with you and not get ahead of them, something that I think does apply all the way along. I agree, however, that the opening of a piece of fiction needs to be as strong as possible, and that you can't start all your novels with a cup of tea at your kitchen window. ;)
Nov. 28th, 2010 11:07 pm (UTC)
Ah yes, I see. And I agree with not getting ahead of them. For the most part-- I think a bit of confusion, of wtf? can be intriguing. But it's a difficult, twisty line to walk. Otoh, you don't want to be so concerned with them not falling behind that you over-explain and they feel talked down to.
Nov. 29th, 2010 05:02 am (UTC)
As they say in Spinal Tap, it's a fine line between clever and stupid.
Nov. 28th, 2010 08:28 pm (UTC)
Great post, Kelly. I especially like that quote. I might have to add that to my inspiration file. ;)
Nov. 29th, 2010 05:03 am (UTC)
That's why I put it in my commonplace book!
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 29th, 2010 05:04 am (UTC)
I was thinking that "F*ck you. Strongly worded letter to follow" might have been a suitable response. But Collins was WAY classier!
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 29th, 2010 05:04 am (UTC)
You're very welcome!
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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