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Be More Imprecise

Stunning Sentences

In nearly every creative writing workshop I’ve taught, someone asks for more—more details, more specificity, more singularity. Rarely does anyone recommend vagueness or imprecision.

In story, you need both. Specificity brings your characters to life, moving them from cliché to a complex, idiosyncratic individual. Specific details also flesh out the narrative dream, helping the reader experience your fictive world.

But lack of specificity, giving only a partial glimpse, can create suspense and an opening for the reader to engage more fully in the story. By being imprecise, you spark a reader’s imagination, and the result is a richer, more engaging experience. James Baldwin uses lack of specificity to great effect in his stunning short story “Sonny’s Blues.” Continue reading

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The Poets of the Future are Just Fucking with the New Yorker


Early in her New Yorker profile of Matthew and Michael Dickman—two young poets from Oregon who happen to be identical twins—Rebecca Mead quotes one of their detractors, who says: “The Dickman twins have put their life story, not their poetry, front and center, and have made that the reason you should find them interesting.” But in the very next sentence Mead disagrees: “In fact, the Dickman twins have made efforts to resist the pairing of their work.” She explains that Michael Dickman’s poetry was accepted for publication by Copper Canyon Press, and it’s merely an accident that his twin brother Matthew is published by the same people. (Matthew won a poetry prize that included a book contract with distribution by Copper Canyon.) Her argument that the Dickman brothers are loath to exploit the rare circumstance of their birth actually makes them look more suspicious.

Halfway through the profile, Mead lets slip that the Dickman brothers—whose poetry, she argues, is very working class, marked by “the rough neighborhood of their youth, with its violent fathers, beleaguered mothers, and reckless, neglected kids”—are related to Sharon Olds, a successful contemporary poet. “Michael and Matthew have strived to avoid taking nepotistic advantage of their relation to Olds, and have preferred to conceal it,” says Mead. They can’t have been striving too hard, if their secret is now being printed in a magazine with a circulation of just over one million. But Mead helps them appear humble by burying this fact partway through the article, in an aside about their family life.

Once, Matthew Dickman approached a geriatric (and famously lecherous) Allen Ginsberg after a poetry reading with the line, “I can’t promise you anything, but would you like to meet my twin brother?” They proceeded to Ginsberg’s hotel room, where Matthew, who is apparently straight, allowed the godhead of Beat poetry to kiss him on the mouth for 15 minutes. Is this an example of how rapturously the Dickman brothers love poetry and its greatest practitioners, or an example of a young man trying to score points with a more established figure, by whatever means necessary? Mead offers the encounter simply as proof that the Dickman brothers “know how to surround themselves with people who have enormous hearts and generosity and are enthusiastic about art and literature and music.”

The thrill that runs through Mead’s profile is a creeping suspicion that the author has no idea she is being manipulated by two ambitious, savvy young poets. Each time Mead argues that the Dickman brothers are utterly guileless—and she argues it frequently—she seems to prove the opposite. But the most persuasive evidence that the poets are manipulating the journalist is the fact that this profile exists at all. When was the last time an up-and-coming poet—someone without the fascinating subplot of an identical twin—was profiled in The New Yorker?

It should be rather clear that people who hire a talent agent and flirt with acting careers—the Dickman brothers played minor roles in Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise, directed by Steven Spielberg (photo above)—are keenly aware of their roles as performers, and the importance of self-promotion. But Mead doesn’t investigate along these lines. She quotes Michael, who characterizes the brothers’ acting careers as nothing more than a hobby. “Whenever we weren’t actually shooting, we would be in our trailers, reading Ted Hughes, and then we would leave and take cabs to bookstores and spend our per diem on poetry.” So it was just a happy accident they made every effort to cast themselves, as identical twins, in an $80 million movie?

In spite of all this, Matthew and Michael appear to be good poets. Their lines quoted in the profile are spare, vulnerable, and unsettling. It’s hard not to be glad when a major magazine presents a serious profile of young poets. And it’s downright reassuring to hear the Dickman brothers praise their favorite contemporary writers: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Louise Glück, Philip Levine, and Charles Bukowski. There are young people in America who care about poetry! And they’re pretty good at writing it! That revelation is worth an article in itself.

But instead we get a New Yorker writer who’s in denial about her subjects. Mead keeps insisting the Dickman brothers are poets of the old school, working-class dreamers who pulled themselves out of the rough streets in order to make their fresh voices heard. Her profile runs aground on all the questions she neglects to ask.

Charming, unassuming, media-savvy, mentor-kissing, self-exploiting, and seriously good at writing poetry, Matthew and Michael Dickman might be a glimpse of the future of the fine arts.

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