Garth Greenwell on Writing Fiction like a Poet
"I did, in a weird way, write a novel like a poem."
The following is an edited excerpt from a conversation with Courtney Balestier on WMFA, a show about creativity and craft, and first appeared in Lit Hub’s The Craft of Writing newsletter—sign up here.
I love long sentences. I’ve always loved long sentences. I’ve always loved a kind of expressive, baroque syntax. In poetry workshops, people had said, rein it in, rein it in, you have to be severe with yourself. To just let myself go and indulge all of those eccentricities—even if I knew what I was producing at a particular moment was terrible—to follow an impulse, instead of trying to rein it in to action, to try to follow it to its endpoint… I did find, again and again, that the endpoint was interesting. Even if three pages of digression was terrible and self-indulgent in a bad way, it would deliver me to some discovery—about the character, about a particular scene—that would be valuable and worth the journey.
One of the reasons I stopped writing poetry is because those editing skills and those workshop voices—those voices of the really great poets I was privileged to work with—became so strongly ingrained that writing poetry did not feel like an experience of privacy anymore, because my head was full of other voices as I wrote poetry. To just write in prose, and not think about the same formal questions that you think about when you’re writing poetry, allowed me to clear out those voices and to just be weird. I didn’t worry about putting off any reader or putting off any kind of authoritative voice that was going to evaluate what I was working on. I just let myself indulge all of those things that are peculiar about my own sensibility.
I think that I did, in a weird way, write a novel like a poem: I mean a novel that works like a poem, where the coherence of the book is less the cause-and-effect of plot mechanics than it is a poetic resonance, a kind of echoing of image and an echoing of structure in some cases, too. And I let myself do that.
I remember, working on the first section, how certain images kept recurring, and I let myself build something out of them, as I would if I were writing a poem. Like the image of faces, or the image of exchangeable faces, was something that kept coming up, that I allowed myself to indulge. Also, sometimes, there are diction choices: one of them, actually, is in the first sentence, which I did fight with my very brilliant editor about. She felt strongly that it was a mistake, and I just felt strongly that it was the only possibility.
In the first two sentences, there are a couple of words that really do stick out as weird words. Probably the most egregious one is the word coterminous. That’s a word that I think many people would say is not a great word to have in the first line of a novel. But I love words like that, and I think that comes from being a poet. I love those bulky, syllabic, crunchy words that have fallen out of common usage but are actually wonderfully illustrative. And I came to feel that those sorts of words are like a calling card or like a signature that says, This is the kind of book this is going to be.
I have two MFAs; I am not an anti MFA person. But I do think there are dangers in workshop and things to be concerned about in workshop. Probably the most important is that the structure of workshop can suggest that success as a writer means appealing to the largest number of readers. I just don’t think that’s true. I don’t think there’s any strong book that is pleasing to everyone. Many of the books that I love best are books that seem to be pleasing to quite few people. In the education of writers, more emphasis should be put on the idea that your peculiarities and your eccentricities are the things you write into. There’s obviously this balance between working at a craft level to acquire skills that you don’t have and trying to be the broadest writer you can be, and then also diving into things that are distinctive. To some people they will seem like advantages, and to other people, they will seem like flaws, and that’s okay.