How I learned to write fiction by studying poetry

I came to fiction through poetry. I didn’t dare write fiction. Who did I think I was, to do something as audacious as write a story? Some nerve, kid. But poetry, here I could express myself, and did. And yet, writing poetry taught me how to write fiction. Here’s my True Life Story.


I went to a state university aiming to get into a vet med program, and it only took one semester of hopelessly bombing my chem and math lectures to irrevocably crush that idea. So, to the horror of my parents, I changed my major to English. Unfortunately, I was an English major at a school specializing in Agriculture, Engineering, and Veterinary Medicine. I loved my literature classes, but most of my writing classes were not particularly enlightening. It didn’t bother me too much, as, despite having secretly started my first novel, I still didn’t think I could ever be a writer.

All that changed when I met the poetess and professor Diane Wakoski.

I had her for a class on 20th Century American Poetry. And oh, she was tough. A rapier, that woman, slim silver steel. Most of my classmates, who’d signed up in the hopes of Basketweaving 101, were not infatuated.

I was.

I wanted to take everything she taught. As it turned out, the only other thing she taught was a class on writing poetry. I auditioned, got in (probably more on puppyish enthusiasm than anything else) and, after three years of ‘writing classes’, I had my first real introduction to serious critique. I often did well, but also got my first real shred, and sat biting back tears of embarrassment and chagrin as a poem I intended to be an ode to Ursula K. LeGuin was mercilessly flayed to bits.

As well it should’ve been. It stunk.

Though, I was not the only one to flub: one aspiring poet made the same mistakes over and over, never changing his approach. And he took the savaging of his poems personally, every time. Soon he vanished altogether. When we learned he had dropped, the relief in the room was palpable. Although he probably thought us all monsters, no one had enjoyed watching him suffer.

From this I learned: you are not your work. Accept critique and improve your writing, or surrender to ego and abandon your craft.


But Professor Wakoski taught me more than how to take a critique like a big girl, which admittedly is not the sole province of the poet. She also taught me about trope. The word trope is from the Greek tropos, or turn. And the turn, as I was taught, is where the heart of poetry hides; that moment of revelation when a poem rears up and kicks you in the heart.

How do we create trope? Through the judicious use of figurative language, such as:

Now, over the years I have often been told by well-meaning writing instructors that I simply cannot use metaphor or simile in my fantasy fiction, because the reader will be confused… because if she sang like a nightingale, did she actually turn into a nightingale?

To which I say, heartily, BULLSHIT.

Readers aren’t dumb, and if you clearly establish the rules in your fictional world, delineating what’s possible and what’s not, you can do anything you want with language. This ridiculous attitude that fantasists and science fiction writers cannot use figurative language lowers the quality of writing in speculative fiction, and it needs to stop already.

When we play with language, we have the power to create something that resonates, that lasts. All the parts of poetry should have a space in the fiction writer’s toolbox. Metaphor and simile are your friends, they add richness and flavor and yes, poetry, to your writing. Whatever genre you write in, don’t count them out.

After all, whatever we write, we are always striving for the turn, that moment the words rear up and kick your reader in the heart.


Further Reading:

Red Bandana by Diane Wakoski
Thanking My Mother For Piano Lessons by Diane Wakoski

If you like these, you can get any one of her collections here. I think Emerald Ice is a good place to start, as it’s sort of a ‘greatest hits’ compilation she curated herself.