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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Writing advice

Illustration: Shared Worlds showcase booklet from last summer, the work of that interesting designer, John Coulthart.

Jeremy Jones, the director of Shared Worlds, has sent me a couple of questions to answer by Tuesday . . . Evidently they will be linked up both to Jeff Vandermeer’s Booklife site and to the Shared World online resources—something like that. (I'll be visiting Wofford for Shared Worlds in July.) So I’m going to fool around with answers here and let them age a day and redo them before I send them off. Unfortunately, I have a terrible memory for just this sort of topic. Perhaps that’s fine; only the big things will stick.

Feel free to criticize!

What is the worst piece of writing advice you've ever received? And how'd you figure out it was bad advice?
I’m not very fond of the advice “write about what you know” because I think it’s too bald and not nuanced enough. Aren’t we always writing about what we know, whether we are writing about another universe or an Anglo-Saxon mead hall? We can’t get away from what we know, no matter how we try.

But I would rather talk about the worst advice that turned out best. One day when I was teaching—I quit teaching as soon as I got tenure and promotion, being of a contrary turn of mind—one of my colleagues said to me, “What does the world need with another poem?” He had no idea of such a question meaning anything to me at all. It was a joke, and I knew it was a joke. But you see, I was a poet until he said those words to me. Then, abruptly, I could not write a poem. It stopped me up completely! So it seemed, indeed, “bad advice.”

Because I could not see how people live without making things, I had to do something else. On the weekends I began writing stories. A year later I was writing a short novel. I was no longer a poet but a writer of fictions. One day I committed a poem—I was a poet again. But something marvelous had happened during the time when I could write no poems. Writing fiction had changed me a great deal. It seemed to me that all my prior poetry was simply too small. I wanted the new poems to be bigger. Sometimes I wanted them to tell stories or to be dramatic. At the same time, I wanted the poems to be as different from fiction as possible, and I picked up all the old tools that I had been advised not to use—the things that we were too advanced to use anymore—like meter and rhyme and delightful, puzzling forms.

Now I move back and forth from poetry to fiction and back again. Each changes the other. Each brings something to the other. The world is always in need of another story or poem—a living story or poem—even though the world does not know it, for the most part. And that is fine with me.

What is the best piece of general writing advice you've ever received? And how did you put it to good use?

The advice I frequently give is to finish what you begin because you learn a great deal by forcing yourself to finish a thing, no matter how ill it looks to you! Solving problems by doing is the only way to move forward as a young writer. “Finish” is advice I dole out often to my daughter, who is a teenage writer and artist and much more.

But what is the best piece of advice that I’ve ever received?

I was a maniacal reader as a child, so it certainly wasn’t advice to read. That is good advice if you’re not much of a reader, but how could you desire to become a writer if you had not been a reader? Every writer has been mad to read at some point.

Writing every day is excellent advice, but I don’t do it. I doubt any mother with three children does.

Probably the best piece of advice I missed entirely was when poet Michael Harper told me with an air of surprise that I was quite good with form. I had tossed off three or four formal poems for an exercise, and everybody else in our group refused to write any at all. If I had taken Michael Harper's remarks seriously, I might have discovered something about myself and what I loved that took me years to find out on my own because I was under the thumb of what the world said was the thing to do.

But you ask about the best piece of advice that I took and used.

“There are no rules that can’t be broken.” I’m sure somebody said something like that to me early on, and it is true. Rules have a kind of fascination for us. We welcome most the ones that seem like something we already believe or do. We enjoy the silly or odd ones. We ignore the rest. But there is almost no important rule that cannot be overturned. (Some of the seemingly minor ones like not overusing adverbs or using complicated dialogue tags like “he gargled through a mouthful of hot soup” are impossible to overturn except in the case of comedy and satire.) I wonder what the biggest rule that I have broken might be. I tend to be violently allergic to doing the same thing twice, and that is precisely what many publishers want us to do: the same thing twice. Or thrice. Etc. Perhaps that is my broken rule.

Or perhaps I have just broken the rule that says that one must answer questions in a straightforward and sensible manner. Yes, no doubt I have just broken that good rule.


  1. Wise and entertaining comments! I don't think you need to mess with them much. I especially was interested by your inability to write poems, which resulting in a transformation. I too had a similar experience, though it didn't make me into a fiction writer. But the same thought that your colleague broached entered my mind and stopped me writing too. Though I confess it was one too many rejection as well.

  2. These are good Marly. Perhaps others faced with similar question/answer requests might learn from your example that there are no short, easy replies to questions embodying complicated ideas. In our short-attention-span age of celebrity interviews and 'black-or-white' demands for answers, it's easy to forget that anything really worth listening to or reading carefully, is going to be the distilled knowledge of a lifetime. Even when that stuff is well-edited, it's never going to be brief. Your replies are useful to those embarking on the journey toward poetry and literature as careers, but they're also fascinating insights for those who read your work.

    Just for the record, you do have a great facility with poetic form. Those other students who refused to write anything must have felt pretty peeved at your astonishing aptitude!!!! I wonder whether any of them regretted their shortcomings demonstrated all unwittingly on that occasion by you, perhaps resolving to go away and better understand what it was that had been so significantly asked of them and that they had failed to deliver. My own response in a similar position when I was a student, would have been to go back and fill in my knowledge gaps. But alas, in my one brief stint as a guest tutor in a regional art school, I found that too many students didn't want to try anything that required application and the acquiring of skills, which they seemed to regard as unnecessary hindrances to raw, exciting talent. It must be so reassuring to be cocky about one's abilities when there's precious little evidence to support the self-confidence, but that's a skill I NEVER learned. (I'd make a terrible celebrity!)

  3. Hi Robbi--

    I am glad to see that you no longer have that trouble! One must have a rejection-carapace.


    Glad you liked them...

    I imagine my fellow students thought me silly for bothering!

    Your experiences are interesting; I do find that the mania for self-esteem in schools has some unattractive results.

    Now, back to the plaguey room. N has a g.i. bug. I hope it doesn't spread and derail the Monologues, which start Thursday.

  4. "Or perhaps I have just broken the rule that says that one must answer questions in a straightforward and sensible manner. Yes, no doubt I have just broken that good rule."

    That's a great rule to break. If you followed it, your blog posts wouldn't be half as interesting and entertaining.

  5. Ah, that was rather sweet, Robert! A flat-out compliment. And very good to receive on a day when one has been home tending the urpling sick...

    I shall come see what you have been doing when the urpling stops!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.