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Context Answers the "So What" Question

Key lesson: Be sure your work has context. Metaphor and symbolism might give the literary depth necessary to answer the vital question “So what?”

As poets and writers, we should always put ourselves in the shoes of the readers and ask the question, “So what?” or “Why should I care?” about this work. Sometimes we authors fall in love with our writing and miss the reason for it or it might be so personal and exclusive that the reader might not be able to connect to it. If there is context, then there might be sufficient literary depth to have meaning for and connection with the reader.

Metaphorical language (metaphor, simile, analogy, comparison) and symbolism will often facilitate this. Because of the recent topic, “Jumpstart Your Writing by being a Naturalist,” consider nature as an example.

In creative nonfiction, where writers can be poetic and journalistic simultaneously, captivating factual description of nature requires no additional context. The goal is to present information in a creative literary way: poetic language, innovative form, etc.).

In fiction, description of a nature scene might help establish place, create mood, or perhaps foreshadow. If there is context here, nature will provide a metaphor for what might be going on internally in the main character (viz. natural storms vs. storms of life).

But in poetry, all of what has been aforementioned in fiction applies, but more might be needed. In a future writing tip, “Lifting Poetry out of Prose,” we will see that poetic description alone is not enough to make it poetry. But even with well constructed lines, great imagery and rhythm, literary depth has to be implanted.

Let’s examine the evolution of a poem in the summer of 2011. In response to a prompt to incorporate three words in any form (rain, desert, monster) in a story or poem among other speculative fiction writers, I wrote “The Lizard Wind.” But it failed to get published last fall. The editor was kind enough to tell me that there was no context. Though I disagreed at first, I came to realize that more context was needed. Even though the early draft used striking language and did have something to say about not lurking in the dark because it is an unwise thing to do, it didn’t answer the “So what?” question. In a way, I rendered a cliché and offered nothing new. When I asked myself how could this failed poem acquire meaningful context, I made myself the victim of “monsters” and searched for legends involving lizards that might support my poem. I found one among the Blackfeet, http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/tribes/blackfeet/religion.htm:

    Sometimes a man who was lazy, and had planted no tobacco, would go secretly to the patch, and pull a number of plants belonging to some one else, and hide them for his own use. Now, in these prayers that they offer, they do not ask for mercy for thieves. A man who had thus taken what did not belong to him would have a lizard appear to him in a dream, and then he would fall sick and die. The medicine men would know of all this, but they would not do anything. They would just let him die.

    This tobacco was given us by the one who made us.

I adapted and it into the poem with an epigraph to orient the reader. The poem was quickly accepted for publication shortly after submission to another literary magazine (Curio Poetry, February 2012):

 

Early Draft

The Lizard Wind

 

There is a smell
of rain in the air:
leathery & moist.
The desert slithers
under torn clouds,
the prickly cactus
full of blood red
juice. It’s not safe
to lurk in the dark,
though the monsters
are full of sand,
their windy shadows
are full of teeth.

Published version

The Lizard Wind

 

After a Blackfoot legend:
Tobacco was given to us
by the one who made us.

The lazy man planted
no tobacco. In secret,
he took the medicine
man’s. Others prayed
no mercy for the thief
— only for the lizard
to appear quickly to him
in dreams.

 

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