Today I woke up with something on my mind. Something so pressing, engrossing, and all-around all-consuming…that I’m going to share it with you. (If you just said, quietly, “oh dear” and started backing away from your screen of choice, your instincts are wise.)
You see, I’ve been thinking about the ingredients of great stories, great poetry, and great writing.
“Story” is the universal constant, the cold fusion that powers poetry, writing, arts, philosophy, religion, psychology – the better parts of civilization or a sophomore-year liberal arts education. It is the hum that keeps the lights on for all attempts at poetry and writing.
Poetry is, in simplest form, a story given form you can’t forget. It’s rhythm and blues, balance and tempest, rock and roll with the brakes off. From “Do not go gently into that good night” to “Tiger, tiger, burning bright!” – poetry hides in human love for pattern and the things we can’t ignore.
Writing tries to do a bit more than simply be unforgettable. It tries to say something while saying something – either the same thing twice, in which case it is direct, or two things with one set of words, in which case it is allegory. Either of these goals require clear thinking and wits: when you can’t run in through rhythm’s back door, you have to work doubly hard to get inside readers’ brains.
Both writing and poetry succeed best when their link to the underlying story is strong and clear. To complete the cycle, what does story thrive on? Two key elements: pattern recognition – and surprise.
The strongest stories are self-aware enough to build their surprises off of their patterns, so each reinforces the other. These stories start with surprise (aka intrigue – mystery), build with unusual observations (gathering questions) and end, satisfyingly, with an even greater surprise: the proverbial sting in the tail, or tale.
By way of illustration I present to you the progenitor of this extended meditation, the words that woke me:
I eat my peas with honey;Anonymous (that most fertile of geniuses)
I’ve done it all my life.
It makes the peas taste funny,
But it keeps them on the knife.
A thought-provoking work, and one I consider a pocket masterpiece. First of all, it’s unforgettable. As I said, I woke up with it on my mind; I recalled it without even trying, from a half-asleep state. Second – it is a brilliant example of pacing. Let me elaborate.
The piece has us hooked from its opening line: “I eat my peas with honey…” – you do WHAT? The reader progresses through a nuanced emotional response, beginning with outrage and proceeding towards a morbid interest to see what emerges from this grotesque revelation, this bizarre stage that has been set against common sense, good taste, and social mores. The next two lines continue to raise the emotional and intellectual stakes.
In the second line – “I’ve done it all my life” – we gain a sense of timing. The opening action is placed into context, both temporally and societally. The norms of the world of the text are clearly volatile, but the fact that the unnamed protagonist sees fit to mention their pea-eating habits tells us that these habits are still considered abnormal. The fact that they’ve done so all their life paints the action less as one of deviancy than of lifelong dependency, possibly even an obsessive or addictive behaviorism.
The third line secures our sympathy and builds urgency by provoking additional questions. “It makes the peas taste funny.” – Despite the adverse effects, the unnamed protagonist persists in their atypical behavior. Why? What drives their actions? Why has no one intervened? Is there a price?
The final line arguably delays the cut, the final climax, until the very last word: “But it keeps them [the peas] on the knife.” (Emphasis mine.)
This is the answer we wish we didn’t have. Though it neatly wraps up an explanation of the initial question – why eat peas with honey? – it does so at the price of an even greater question: Why would you eat peas with a knife?
This, then, is the piece’s true mastery: it offers no author-provided denouement. It offers no false comfort.
The reader is dropped off a cliff with the final revelation, left to process and untangle their reaction on their own. Think for yourself, seems to be the message. Only through complete disorientation, complete disengagement from societal standards, can a sense of deep individual meaning be achieved. Does that meaning itself have meaning? Who knows? Existential contemplation battles with absurdism, and the resulting (intentional) lack of stylistic resolution echoes narrative questions – solidifying this piece as a powerful antidote to existential complacency.
Like I said – if you started backing away from your screen of choice, your instincts were sound. For those of you who stayed, I hope your understanding of what makes a good story has forever been changed. And the next time you ask for the honey right after saying “Please pass the peas” – remember, if the peas taste funny, at least the story is unforgettable.
Pro tip – molasses is a great vegan alternative to honey. The more you know, right?