Writing a verse novel based in history begins with an idea of a time, place, and person I want to inhabit for some time. I research, taking breaks to mull, write ideas for scenes, jot down images to linger with and toss about. Sometimes I find a phrase or line I expect will stay instead of fade into the necessary background. I’ve moved on from most research on my current project, composed some rough poems, patted down lines, and gotten down on my knees to arrange and rearrange them into something I call plot, trying not to choke on the word with its history of personal failure. I prefer to think of this work as Colored Pencil Days. I made a list of questions my main character is asking, and where she gets stymied, and where at last she charges through. I’m happy enough with my order, which will shift.
After laying all these bricks, I’m looking forward to batting some out, cracking the cement. Of course even during this brick laying stage, I’ve had my reverie-ish moments, or why not write straight nonfiction? Now when I have my base, I want to kick a few cracks in the foundation and see how much fancy I can get away with, while still keeping readers who will care about science and history. There will be rubble and bruised toes and maybe a logjam. But I’m going to try to this with bare feet, because it’s time to feel the cold, the grit, and maybe something soft as grass. I want to make sure that every word is alive and awake, which means it can be changed. The walls breaking down, the layers peeling, has an instructive movement all its own. Nothing must be held too tightly.
Figuring out the plot is to take the long view, while this kind of revising calls for the kind of tenderness we feel when something is close enough to touch. I’ll toss each poem into the air and see what scatters, and what I can gently wrangle into new holes. Then it will be time again to stand up straight, put my boots back on, look up, and make sure I have a house.
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