Mary Oliver’s Advice on Writing
“Look for verbs of muscle, adjectives of exactitude.”
By Maria Popova
“I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too,” the irreplaceable Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) reflected in her lovely autobiographical essay on how literature saved her life. But what does it take to write such buoyant literature — be it poetry or prose — that lends itself as a lifeboat to those far from the shore of being?
A decade after she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and three years after receiving the National Book Award, Oliver distilled her wisdom on writing into a short prose poem titled “Sand Dabs, One,” found in her 1995 book Blue Pastures (public library) — just a few lines, largehearted and limber, each saturated with meaning and illustrating the principle it espouses in a clever meta-manifestation of that principle embedded in the language itself.
Lists, and verbs, will carry you many a dry mile.
To imitate or not to imitate — the question is easily satisfied. The perils of not imitating are greater than the perils of imitating.
Always remember — the speaker doesn’t do it. The words do it.
Look for verbs of muscle, adjectives of exactitude.
The idea must drive the words. When the words drive the idea, it’s all floss and gloss, elaboration, air bubbles, dross, pomp, frump, strumpeting.
Don’t close the poem as you opened it, unless your name is Blake and you have written a poem about a Tyger.
Complement with this extensive collection of advice on writing from some of the finest writers in the English language, then revisit Oliver on love, the two building blocks of creativity, what attention really means, and how to live with maximal aliveness.
Published January 14, 2019