I have learned a valuable lesson about writing this year as a result of teaching writing workshops. This has led to a writing breakthrough that has transformed my poems in the past few months. Here is what I have learned.
Unproductive versus Productive Ambiguity
Many students withhold, delay, or obscure important information in their poems and stories because they hope the ambiguity will pique readers’ interest, build tension and mood, and lead to an unexpected revelation or twist. It almost never does. Readers generally want to know what they are in for right up front, while they are still deciding if they are going to continue reading. Here is an example of unproductive ambiguity:
rising column on fire
to ocean under ice,
robotics package survives, thrives,
and at Europa divides:
This mangled sentence divided into many lines is from an early draft of a poem I wrote titled “Vessel.” It delays the introduction of the subject of the sentence, which is a spacecraft. Professors and classmates at the time scratched their heads every time I brought in a draft of “Vessel” for workshop because they could not parse the sentence or picture the image.
Lela Scot MacNeil, fellow instructor at the Writers Studio, recently rewrote our introductory “Elements of Craft” document to clarify five basic elements we think every student should learn, practice, and come to understand. She describes unproductive ambiguity as leading readers to ask small questions like “what is rising on a column of fire?”, “where is it going?”, and “why would you construct a mangled sentence like that?” If your reader is still asking small, basic questions about your poem or story several lines, stanzas, paragraphs, or pages into it, then your work is suffering from unproductive ambiguity.
I finally wrote a draft of “Vessel” in 2017 that, while not great, at least moves the subject to the first line:
A robotic vessel
rides a rising column
of brief fire
to arrive [...]
at Jupiter [to] divide into orbiter,
lander, and submarine.
Providing important information as soon as possible is especially important in speculative poetry and fiction, where the reader needs to be prepared for the genre and fantastic elements almost immediately. If a story begins with passengers on an airplane and seems to be set in the real world, the sudden appearance of a dragon on page 8 will probably leave readers confused and unable to suspend their disbelief. That far into a story, they should already have been immersed in a fantastic and imaginative world of dragons and airplanes. Instead, they are asking “why is there a dragon all of a sudden?”
I tell my students to mention the dragon up front, even as early as the first sentence. The compelling mystery of the story is not that there is a dragon; it is how the characters are going to deal with the dragon. There is generally no reason to delay or hide the genre, fantastic elements, subject, situation, setting, or even themes of your poem or story. Move it to the top.
But it took lecturing about this and pointing it out in my students’ writing for me to finally see how much unproductive ambiguity and mangled sentence structure is present in my own writing. These issues comes from a fundamental misunderstanding about poetry: I thought poetry had to be hard to understand, opaque, weirdly written, full of unproductive ambiguity and mangled lines.
Now I finally understand the feedback I have been receiving all along. My latest poems and revised poems have been transformed for the better now that I can spot these issues immediately. The real test came this summer when I took one of these revised poems into the Master Workshop I attend at the Writers Studio as a student. For the first time in years of workshopping, my instructor and fellow students finally understood one of my poems.
In my online speculative fiction and poetry writing workshop this session, I pointed to Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti and Beth Cato’s “The Fairies in the Crawlspace” as great examples of clear first sentences, lines, paragraphs, and stanzas full of important information that is not delayed or obscured or told in a confusing way. From Binti (DAW Books, 2015) and Binti: The Complete Trilogy (DAW Books, 2019):
I powered up the transporter and said a silent prayer. I had no idea what I was going to do if it didn’t work. My transporter was cheap, so even a droplet of moisture, or more likely, a grain of sand, would cause it to short. It was faulty and most of the time I had to restart it over and over before it worked. Please not now, please not now, I thought.
The opening paragraphs of Binti begins zoomed in on the protagonist and her actions. Binti has powered on a device but she is uncertain the transporter will work. A description of this finicky piece of hardware follows in the next paragraph. As readers, we might immediately feel tense and worried for Binti, which is one way to hook us and leave us wanting to know how this situation will be resolved.
The transporter also confirms that we are reading speculative fiction, probably science fiction (this is actually a different type of science fiction called Afrofuturism, as defined and described by Okorafor here: https://www.tor.com/2017/11/02/nnedi-okorafor-ted-talk-binti-afrofuturism/.)
What if Okorafor had not included this piece of technology in the beginning of her story? What if the story had started instead with Binti on the road, carrying her own luggage? I think delaying the introduction of fantastic elements might have been confusing to readers, might even have led some readers to assume this was the real world, only to be surprised—and not in a satisfying way—when fantastic elements began to appear later in the novella. Okorafor’s use of a finicky transporter as a framing device keeps this opening scene in action, raises tension, sets genre expectations, and leads Binti through the beginning of her fantastic journey. There is no unproductive ambiguity or mangled sentences to be found here. As poets and writers, one of our tasks with beginnings is to prime the reader for what they can expect from the rest of the poem or story. We are literally teaching our readers how to read our work with opening lines, sentences, stanzas, and paragraphs.
the girl found the fairies
in the crawlspace below her house
where slants of light illuminated
how they fluttered about and spun webs
strong enough to snare mice
she stared, fascinated, for a while
almost forgetting about the
wrathful thunder of
mother’s footsteps above
Cato lets the reader know in the very first line that this is a poem about a girl and fairies, and in the second line we know where these fairies are located: “the girl found the fairies / in the crawlspace below her house.” The title of the poem also does some of this work. Genre (through fantastic elements,) character, and setting are all important pieces of information provided right up front in clear lines and sentences.
The first stanza expands on this information with concise but concrete, vivid descriptions of the setting and the fantastic elements—these fairies, a species that apparently spins “webs / strong enough to snare mice” in this space with its “slants of light.” There is motion (“they fluttered about spun webs”), atmosphere and mood through diction (“slants of light”, “snare,” “wrathful thunder”), and character building (“she stared, fascinated […] almost forgetting […] mother’s footsteps above.”) The first stanza reveals a larger story about the girl’s fraught relationship with her mother.
What if Cato had delayed informing the reader about the fairies, by not including the word in the title and only hinting at creatures in the first stanza and not revealing they are fairies until the second or later stanza? A delayed introduction might have prompted us to think at the reveal later “wait, there are fairies now?” What if Cato had not made it clear where the fairies were located until later, or not at all? This would have robbed the poem of the strangeness of being in a crawlspace, as well as the setting’s representation of freedom to the girl. What if Cato had not introduced the protagonist right away, or her mother as antagonist? We would not have understood right away her vulnerability or the stakes of her hiding from her mother. We would have been left with basic questions like “what are these creatures,” “who is seeing these fairies,” “where is she,” or “why is she in a crawlspace?” These small questions would have indicated unproductive ambiguity.
If unproductive ambiguity leads to confusion and small questions, what does productive ambiguity lead to? In Cato’s poem, we do not learn specifically what the mother has done to her daughter. Her “wrathful thunder” that scares the girl more than the thought of the fairies’ “tiny teeth delving for her marrow” hints at the poem’s bigger story of abuse and trauma in a frightening way. The big story is offstage, above the girl and fairies, but it is still obvious enough to be wrathful and thunderous in the crawlspace. The bigger story leads to big questions about survival and the lengths someone might go to survive. There are other big questions you will probably ask yourself if you read the full poem, big questions about ethical and moral implications, big questions that do not necessarily need to be answered by the writer, big questions a writer can leave readers with so that the poem or story resonates long after it is read.