Poet and novelist reflects upon both her crafts

Kolaya tells writers she used poetry techniques to coax herself into writing a novel

By Amanda Cibulka, ‘17

Chrissy Kolaya is a writer of both poetry and fiction. On her visit to Mount Mary as part of the Writers on Writing series, Kolaya shared her thoughts on poetry and fiction, along with insights she has gained—and questions she still asks herself—as a writer in multiple genres.

Here are some insights from her presentation, sponsored by Mount Mary’s graduate program in English.

1.Welcome the reader in

As you page through Charmed Particles, you come upon charts, lists and other creative uses of formatting interspersed with the text: a simple two-column chart of questions and responses from one character's letter to his wife; library catalog cards; the index from an imaginary book. Kolaya’s use of space on the page comes from her preferences as a reader. “I started to pay attention to when do I feel invited into a piece, when do I feel welcomed into a piece, and I realized that one of the moments...is when on the page the writer is being playful,” Kolaya said. As an example, she talked about “The Pain Scale,” a piece of creative nonfiction by Eula Biss, which incorporated the images from pain scales used in doctor’s offices to illustrate and complement the text.

Chrissy Kolaya2. Trick yourself into the project

After grad school, which she spent immersed in the study of poetry, Kolaya decided to try her hand at fiction for the first time in years. But it was intimidating to go from the shortened genre of poetry into prose and ultimately a full-length work of fiction. “I found that I had to trick myself into...writing with any kind of length.” She broke up the story into sections, viewing it as a series of interconnected prose poems – and it worked.

She recommends writers reframe a daunting task in terms of its familiarities, and take it step by step. Now she has moved on to a new challenge: “trying to trick myself into writing creative nonfiction.”

3. Fit the form to your purpose

Though the lines between poetry and fiction aren't always clear, Kolaya sees key differences in their characteristics and functions. "Poetry," as Kolaya puts it, "allows us to capture and hold for a moment in time something that we have seen, or someone we have see, or some event. It allows us to zoom in on it and hold it in isolation." Fiction, on the other hand, centers around narrative and allows for more fleshed-out characters and backstory. At times, Kolaya said, she finds herself wanting to include more backstory in a poem, "and maybe that's the moment when I realize that this is probably going to be something bigger."

4. Go down a rabbit hole – but don’t get lost

Kolaya's ideas come from “just allowing myself to go down this rabbit hole of weird obsession over whatever I’m geeking out over in the moment.” Curiosity is a valuable resource so long as it motivates you to write. At the same time, she cautioned, “It's possible to go too far [down the rabbit hole] and to only ever research, right?”  To avoid that while writing Charmed Particles, she made a deal with herself: she could research all she wanted, so long as the information she found was necessary to the story.

5. Immerse the reader with (relevant) details

In fiction, sensory details are what immerse us in what we’re reading. But there is such a thing as too much detail. Kolaya referenced a book she often teaches from, The Art and Craft of Fiction by Michael Kardos, which emphasizes “the extreme importance of relevant detail.” As Kolaya put it, “We don’t just want a firehose of detail shot at us, we want relevant detail.” In order to justify each detail she suggests asking these questions: Does this nugget help guide the reader or move the action forward in some way? If not, why is it there?

6. Make friends (or enemies) with your characters

In writing Charmed Particles, Kolaya came to regard her main characters as friends or even as family. As she sees it, in order to create characters the audience cares about, you need to care about your characters — whether that means loving or hating them. Beyond that, it's important to know more about your characters than will ever be revealed in the story. "You can't write a cardboard character whose tragic secret from high school you know. The more you get to know your characters, the better," Kolaya said.

Kolaya’s debut novel, Charmed Particles, chronicles the conflict in a small fictional town of Nicolet, Illinois when plans are announced to build a Superconducting Super Collider that will extend under the properties and homes of many residents. Previously she has written a collection of poetry, Any Anxious Body. Her poems and short stories have also been published in a number of anthologies and literary journals.