Find Focus by Asking What the Story is Really About

My pal Chip Scanlan now teaches writing at Columbia, and I assume he is asking his students a couple of questions that he introduced into Poynter's writing workshops years ago. These two questions have become the rudders for our little ship of learning:

"What is your story about?"
"No, what is your story REALLY about?"

Enter Edgar Allan Poe, known more as a Gothic storyteller than a literary critic. It turns out, Poe was a self-aware writer and an insightful reader, as evidenced by an essay he wrote called "The Philosophy of Composition." I found a moldy copy in an old bookstore and was astonished by the rigor of its argument. In short, Poe explains how his best writing strategies are exemplified in his most famous poem "The Raven." Along the way, Poe reveals what he thinks the poem is "really about."

The essay begins with an exchange of letters between Dickens and Poe about another writer who was said to have written a novel "backwards," that is writing Part II first and then Part I later. Poe takes this not as a scribal eccentricity, but as a tribal requirement:

"Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement [resolution] before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the denouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention."

As a rhetorical grammarian, I get a little chill at the word "intention" because of its inevitable relationship to "effect." The writer, if on target, intends a particular effect, then marshals the strategies that can help create it. This planning does not determine the reader's response. The reader may laugh when the author wants her to cry. But without some intent, it is difficult to achieve that crucial stage of the writing process that Chip describes as "focus."

It does not appear that Poe would favor Chip's notion that a free form of drafting helps the writer discover a focus, that to understand what a story is really about requires more than sitting in the study staring out the window. For Chip it requires a moving of the hands.

Poe writes that he prefers "commencing with the consideration of an effect." He then reveals that he wrote "The Raven" not by "accident or intuition" but with a "step by step" process from beginning to end "with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

That analogy interests me because it may rub against Poe's notion that the narrative writer needs the climax and resolution first; after all, few mathematical problems begin with the solution. The solution is achieved, discovered at the end of the process.

But let's follow Poe's line of thinking using "The Raven" as an example. This poem, however claustrophobic it may appear on first reading, has a strong narrative line. It is a dark and stormy night, if you will, and a raven seeks shelter through the lighted window of a young man's study. He alights on the head of a statue, and the student, at first amused, engages the bird in a dialogue. To every question, the raven answers with a single word: "Nevermore." But the questions become more serious with a back story revealed: that the young man mourns the death of his lover, the lost Lenore.

Poe says he started the poem "at the end, where all works of art should begin":

" Prophet, said I, thing of evil! prophet still if bird or devil!
By the heaven that bends above us -- by that God we both adore
Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore --
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.
Quoth the raven 'Nevermore.' "

It is from that stanza, and the two concluding stanzas, Poe argues, that the reader will begin to seek "a moral in all that has been previously narrated. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematic ..." But an emblem of what? Chip would ask him that question, along with "Edgar, baby, just between the two of us, what is your poem really about?" To borrow a notion from T.S. Eliot, the bird is the object that correlates to the poem's dominant message and emotion, described by Poe in this essay as: "Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance." That's what the poem is about!

Chip would appreciate Poe's use of abstract language to describe his intended meaning. Other writers might have said to Chip, "It's about a bird and kid and his dead girlfriend." Whether you write to discover your theme -- or write in the direction of your pre-determined theme -- the moral cannot exist in language until you, the writer, are ready to climb the ladder of abstraction.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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