The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Billy Collins’s Advice to Writers

“Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.”

Billy Collins’s Advice to Writers

Every once in a while, amid the serious and often stern prose comprising the canon of great writers’ advice on writing, there glimmers an offering of wisdom no less weighty yet delivered with wondrous levity.

A generation after Charles Bukowski penned his tough-love advice on writing in a poem, beloved poet and former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins offers his own playful and profound perspective in a wonderful poem titled “Advice to Writers,” found in Collins’s altogether delectable poetry collection The Apple That Astonished Paris (public library).

Collins employs his usual method of using warm wit to give shape to wisdom of a higher order — in this case, the awareness that we are embodied creatures whose psychological states are deeply influenced by our physical environment; material orderliness, he reminds us, fosters mental orderliness, and a mind unassaulted by chaos is a mind free to create.


Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.

Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.

The more you clean, the more brilliant
your writing will be, so do not hesitate to take
to the open fields to scour the undersides
of rocks or swab in the dark forest
upper branches, nests full of eggs.

When you find your way back home
and stow the sponges and brushes under the sink,
you will behold in the light of dawn
the immaculate altar of your desk,
a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.

From a small vase, sparkling blue, lift
a yellow pencil, the sharpest of the bouquet,
and cover pages with tiny sentences
like long rows of devoted ants
that followed you in from the woods.

Complement with the cognitive science of the ideal writing routine, Bob Dylan on the optimal environment for creative work, and French philosopher Gaston Bachelard on making housework into a creative activity, then revisit other timeless advice on writing by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Susan Sontag, James Baldwin, Umberto Eco, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

Published May 25, 2017




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