Notes from "The Triggering Town"
I finished Richard Hugo's The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing. Hugo is best when he's writing about writing. He has a refreshing, no-nonsense point of view on the process, and what separates good writing from bad.
The analogy of the "triggering town" never quite coalesced for me, but the thought behind it inspired me:
"Our triggering subjects, like our words, come from obsessions we must submit to, whatever the social cost. It can be hard. It can be worse forty years from now if you feel you could have done it and didn't. ... Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words. When you are honest to your feelings, the triggering town chooses you. Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary. Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life. The relation of you to your language gains power."
On work ethic:
"You will find that you may rewrite and rewrite a poem and it never seems quite right. Then a much better poem may come rather fast and you wonder why you bothered with all that work on the earlier poem. Actually, the hard work you do on one poem is put in on all poems. The hard work on the first poem is responsible for the sudden ease of the second. If you just sit around waiting for the easy ones, nothing will come. Get to work."
An overly simplified equation, but a good one for bolstering the resolve to push ahead in spite of past failures. As Mary Karr said during her Hippocamp keynote, “When you think, I have failed, you have not. You got rid of the pages that were standing between you and what you have to say.”
I enjoyed the chapter titled "Nuts and Bolts" the most. In it, Hugo bullets some practical writing tips that still hold up in today's digital age:
"Maximum sentence length: seventeen words. Minimum: one. ... Make sure each sentence is at least four words longer or shorter than the one before it. ... Words of temporality, causality and opposition ... often indicate a momentary lack of faith in the imagination. ... Often, the opposition is far more dramatic if you don't call attention to it. Sometimes, the opposition isn't opposition."
The Triggering Town got more lofty as it went on, and that's where it lost me. Hugo's ideas about creative writing classes felt dated, and his essay about World War II seemed disconnected from the book's theme. But his ideas about the musicality of language and the importance of imagination stayed with me.
"You still felt some deep moral obligation to 'reality' and 'truth,' and of course it wasn't moral obligation at all but fear of yourself and your inner life."