I shared some interesting correspondence with a friend recently. We’re in our late sixties now, but he and I met in college in the 1970’s where we were both English Literature and Creative Writing majors. We also played a lot of pick-up basketball back then. He lives in New York, and I live in San Francisco, so we only see each other once or twice a year, but we do write letters (of course, these days, they’re emails rather than quaint old things with envelopes and stamps).
It was when we got to discussing who is the better writer though, that our correspondence grew quite interesting.
I retired from work at age fifty-six to write novels fulltime, and that’s currently how I spend my days. My friend still holds a terribly responsible and stressful executive position at a New York firm; but he’s begun writing poetry on the side—very good stuff.
He put it this way: “I may have reached a bit of an understanding with myself at this late date. I have been idly dabbling with poetry in recent weeks and finding that it seems to come rather naturally to me. I had written poetry before, but never took it seriously compared to what I had presumed to be the true and necessary challenge of fiction writing. It now seems clear, however, that I don’t have the skills for extended narrative structure and consistency of tone and character that you obviously possess. I do, however, appear to have some facility with language, which I can try to apply to capture a concentrated feeling or perception, which in turn lends itself rather nicely to short poetic form. Who knew?”
To which I replied: “You probably recall that I have, on a number of occasions, told you that I always thought you were a better writer than I. I meant that sincerely each time I said it, but your last email made me think a bit about what exactly I was saying. I suppose that all of us tend to downplay proclivities that come more easily to us, and hold in awe those that are more difficult for us to achieve. I always knew that I had an aptitude for extended narrative structure and consistency of tone and character, but to me these were skills related to what I’d call storytelling. The actual act of writing, which I construed more as putting words together in beautiful, meaningful, and original ways, was something different, something that I worked very hard at because I’m not as innately gifted as some in that regard, and something I admired so much in you. That truly is your gift. And poetry is undoubtedly the ideal medium in which to utilize that gift.”
He concluded the discussion by saying this: “This impromptu discussion of our respective literary strengths and weaknesses has been enlightening for me, too. I think you hit something on the head when identifying your natural skill at storytelling. That is exactly my shortcoming as a fiction writer. I could develop a scene, but then to fit that into an ongoing and evolving sequence was completely outside my range. Instead, I would wake up the next day (or week) in a different mood, and the style and the voice would be incompatible with the previous effort. Poems, at least mine, are short enough that I can complete a working draft of one and then simply start another when a different feeling takes over. So whereas you take consistency and long-range structure for granted, I view them as marvelous and unobtainable gifts.”