On Writing – The American Haiku

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Today I’d only like to share a musing I had with a friend that I think sheds some worthwhile light on considering the constraints of medium in both form and function. I was talking to my friend about the best definition I have ever heard for haiku isn’t just saying it’s three lines of five syllables, seven then five again. The goal of haiku within that structure is to capture a transcendent moment in time. The challenge, achievement and artistry is in doing so within that confinement and structure.

I then posited that in American art forms, the comic strip is America’s own “haiku.” Yes, I know comic strips exist worldwide, but much like standup comedy, I think the three/four panel structure was truly made an art in American newspaper strips like Peanuts, Blondie, and (the pinnacle) Calvin & Hobbes.

The artists of these and many other strips I admire have the challenge of- within a confined space and set of dimensions- to convey a story/exchange with a prestige like twist at the end for humor or to provoke profound thought. Watterson was a master at this: just as many of his strips land laugh out loud moments in their punchlines on the rider panel as they inspire introspection with the turn.

It’s an easy misconception that novelists have this unending freedom to “just tell the story.” However, pacing is important. If you’re going to drop a 300,000 word epic on a reader, you’d better damn well have your story paced well so they’re not plowing through a third of that to get to the good part. Novels are exercises, within their medium, of measured excess. Aside from the obvious limitations of the two dimensional page, they do have their own set of strictures to follow, and their own achievements to aspire to regarding how they handle their subjects, and how their readers ingest them.

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