Reading “What They Wanted” by Donna Morrissey as a Writer

I remember clear as yesterday those last days in Cooney Arm, the sea dying around us and taking Father’s spirit with it. And my, but he had fought. Long after his brothers and the others left he’s stayed, netting cod, netting salmon, spearing flatfish, hauling crab-pots, trapping eels and rabbits, hunting seals and turrs and boo birds, and landing capelin and squid and all else the sea hove at him.

What They Wanted by Donna Morrissey explores loss of home and all that means, of becoming lost while chasing survival. Memories haunt her protagonist and then one day she asks herself,

What of memory is truth? It was a staggering thought, and for a moment I felt a great fear, like those split seconds sometimes upon awakening when all sense of self is still caught back in the nether world of sleep and the eyes alone are opened onto the blankness of a room without memory. I clutched my arms around myself, needing to feel the solidity of flesh and bone, like the ghosts from Cooney Arm whose lives have been vanquished into time, leaving behind fragments of soul clinging to wood, no longer knowing what, if any of this, is real, and frightened of their invisibility.

In Newfoundland, Sylvie—a sister, daughter, and granddaughter— confronts “what is and what could be.” After a time, she follows her quiet brother Chris to the oilfields of Alberta. There, they face a different kind of fear from the old ghosts and guilts of childhood. Sylvie:

If I’d learned anything from this camp, it was that fear doesn’t necessarily present itself in well-defined situations; more often it’s that darker shade of red flowing through our veins, tinting our views and no doubt stripping us of the courage to make decisions along the way.

In Newfoundland, the graves and past was tangible, but in the oil fields of Albert, the fears were elusive shadows. Yet, decisions are made and consequences unfold.  To say more would be to give too much away and spoil your reading.

For the writers among us:

  1. As you read, pay attention to the details of place and culture. See how these play into and reveal character.
  2. Notice how Morrissey creates situations that, in turn, create the need for decisions, and notice how decisions often carry unforeseen consequences.
  3. Notice how she controls tension, keeping us turning pages.
  4. Notice also how an undercurrent develops, a movement beneath the thread of the surface story.
  5. All these things together lead to a story that we believe; it feels authentic.

Morrissey uncovers the human cost of loss while also revealing the power of family and love and  she does this within the specifics of a time and place that we recognize as also universal. It is what we aim for as writers.

If you have read What They Wanted—or when you read it—please share your thoughts on how Morrissey achieves moving the personal (particular) time, place, and situation of the novel into the universal so that we can each relate, regardless of whether we share the Newfoundland experience of dislocation.

60 What They Wanted

Available through your local bookstore or online: What They Wanted

10 Tips for Poets and Readers

“Tell the truth but tell it slant” (#1263, Emily Dickinson) continues to be good advice, but there are more.

Over the years a collection of writing tips have accumulated along with lessons learned while teaching creative and memoir college-level classes and workshops. Occasionally, I review, add and subtract. This is my current list of things for poets to think about:

  1. Write what you know
    • Experience life (do something out of your ordinary and see with fresh eyes)
    • Write about it
    • Avoid abstractions and ideas alone;
  2.  Ask yourself if your subject and theme are relevant to readers
    For readers to buy your poetry collection, you must create a bridge that joins you, and the subject and theme of your poem is what will attract and hold them;
  3. Choose the best point of view for your poem
    • It makes a huge difference whose perspective tells the story; find what best suits the poem (first person “I” or second person “you,” or third person “he, she, they”);
    • First write it with one narrator and then the same poem with another p-o-v and see the difference;
  4. Choose the best literary form for each poem
    From free verse to traditional forms like ballad, epic, ode, and sonnet;
  5.  Use accessible language and make every word work
    Choose only the perfect words for each poem (invest in a good dictionary and thesaurus);
  6. Create poetry that is clear and accessible
    Avoid being obtuse or vague;
  1. Use literary techniques
    • Create images, sounds (assonance, alliterations, repetition – read your poem aloud), and metaphors and similes;
    • Think about tone and mood and the importance of evoking emotion (and remember that even in the darkest place a sense of wonder often exists and, if you can create it, readers will feel rewarded for accompanying you on the journey – this does not mean happy-happy, but more awe to balance the awful, or perhaps simply wonder that the sun rises even after the nightmare);
    • Create echoes within a poem and across a collection (perhaps a symbol running through as A.F. Moritz’s sparrow);
  1. Look at your finished poem
    • Just as in story writing, you must hook your reader; then, you must maintain interest; and finally, you must reward them for reading to the end;
    • This has meant providing a twist, a surprise, something that builds within the poem but is still unexpected (perhaps it is easiest to see this in the three-line haiku);
  1. Invite readers into your poems by leaving the door open for them to find their meaning
    • As Jane Hirshfield suggests, “a poem needs to retain within its words some of the disequilibrium that called it forth, and to include when it is finished some sense also of uncomfortable remainder, the undissolvable residue carried over….” Leave room for more than your personal meaning (a poem is not an essay) to the dilemma, situation, or question your poem raises.
  1. Read other poets
    • Learn as much as you can about the poets who created the foundation on which we write;
    • Read contemporary poets;
    • Read. Read;
    • Figure out what you like and don’t like and why; don’t copy or mimic but …
    • Learn how a successful poem unfolds.

Of course, this incomplete and inadequate list points to characteristics that I like in poetry and advice that I find useful. After you’ve been writing and reading for a while, create your own list. If you already have a list, share it with us.

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