Chris Vondracek on Poetry, Teaching and Finishing a Book


This week I had my friend, Tangential collaborator and Hamline teacher Chris Vondracek as my guest. Chris always has hilarious things to say about writing literature, and he is tickled by things no one else notices, like the “woosh” sound street cleaners make. He even admits to taking notes from Wishbone‘s storytelling structure while editing his Lawrence Welk musical memoir.

Get to know Chris more below. (Oh and make sure to subscribe on the iTunes Store and on Sound Cloud!)

What did you learn about writing poetry from being in a band and writing songs? Why do you think poetry is still important?

I learned about fitting words into beats and settling on just the right word. Song lyrics only make sense when sung. Or at least MORE sense. Same is true with poems. Yes, poetry is important, but like me, many people who believe this likely can’t explain why. I turned to it when I needed it, and it was there. Billboards. Tumblr. My old Robert Frost anthology at a friend’s Air BnB bedroom with my annotations from a college class. I really loved the day that book came back into my life. Perhaps I should part with it again.

What’s your process of writing something more long-form? 

I think long-form I need to first get all of it out. And then I go to structure: chapter notes, reader awareness. You need tension. As much as I love my own home movies, people won’t generally as much as I do unless there is some inherent drama (these are videos of my dad right before he left; these videos are while I was going through some drama, etc). You need to somehow keep in mind the reader, and this is a tough, tough kind of insanity (thinking two separate things at once). It’s like the first draft is for you. Then it should be for someone else.

What are your tips for revising and sticking with something?

My advice for sticking with something is to find something that sticks to you! My most personal stories are the ones I’ve needed to tell. After that, I suggest returning a month or year later to your material and see if it still resonates with you. I also recommend that 90% of your writing time will be on 10% of your story, though I know I’m stealing that idea from someone.

Any advice you share with students that you want to share here?

My advice to students changes often, but I often tell them to write something risky. Or new. That’s why I don’t like legalize weed papers (or, increasingly in Minnesota, anything hockey-related). Because it’s so difficult to say something new. Writing, after all, even creative is about stimulating minds. Minds are curious animals. They want something new. Even if it’s the same ole narrative arc. Something needs to be new. And for our A-students, RISKY.

Thanks for coming on Chris!

Pick up Chris’ poetry books while you’re at it!

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