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Advice on Writing from Modernity’s Greatest Writers

What sleep and plagiarism have to do with the poetry of experience and the experience of poetry.

I recently stumbled upon a delightful little book called Advice to Writers, “a compendium of quotes, anecdotes, and writerly wisdom from a dazzling array of literary lights,” originally published in 1999. From how to find a good agent to what makes characters compelling, it spans the entire spectrum of the aspirational and the utilitarian, covering grammar, genres, material, money, plot, plagiarism, and, of course, encouragement. Here are some words of wisdom from some of my favorite writers featured:

Finish each day before you begin the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two. This you cannot do without temperance.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Begin with an individual and you find that you have created a type; begin with a type and you find that you have created — nothing.” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

Don’t ever write a novel unless it hurts like a hot turd coming out.” ~ Charles Bukowski

Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry.” ~ Muriel Rukeyser

A short story must have single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe

You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.” ~ Saul Bellow

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” ~ T. S. Eliot

Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” ~ Stephen King

Good fiction is made of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by.” ~ Ralph Ellison

The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with non-fiction.” ~ Tom Wolfe

You cannot write well without data.” ~ George Higgins

Listen, then make up your own mind.” ~ Gay Talese

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Write without pay until somebody offers pay; if nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for.” ~ Mark Twain

And then, of course, there’s the importance of knowing what advice to ignore:

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Advice on Writing from Emily Dickinson’s Editor

“Oftentimes a word shall speak what accumulated volumes have labored in vain to utter: there may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence.”

Advice on Writing from Emily Dickinson’s Editor

“You can never be sure / you die without knowing / whether anything you wrote was any good / if you have to be sure don’t write,” W.S. Merwin wrote in his gorgeous poem encapsulating his greatest mentor’s advice. No one has embodied this ethos more fully than Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886), who lived and died a century earlier never knowing whether anything she wrote was any good, never knowing whether and how and that her body of work would revolutionize literature and rewrite the common record of human thought and feeling.

In her thirty-first year, on the pages of a national magazine, Dickinson — a central figure in Figuring, from which this essay is adapted — encountered the person who would become the closest thing she ever had to a literary mentor.

In the spring of 1862, exactly four decades ahead of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, The Atlantic Monthly published a twenty-page piece titled “A Letter to a Young Contributor” by the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Thomas Wentworth Higginson (December 22, 1823–May 9, 1911).

Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Addressing young writers — primarily the many women who sent the Atlantic manuscripts for consideration under male pseudonyms — the thirty-nine-year-old Higginson writes:

No editor can ever afford the rejection of a good thing, and no author the publication of a bad one. The only difficulty lies in drawing the line.

A good editor, Higginson asserts, has learned to draw that line by having “educated his eye till it has become microscopic, like a naturalist’s, and can classify nine out of ten specimens by one glance at a scale or a feather.” He chooses a strangely morbid metaphor to illustrate the editorial challenge and thrill of finding that rare undiscovered genius among “the vast range of mediocrity”:

To take the lead in bringing forward a new genius is as fascinating a privilege as that of the physician who boasted to Sir Henry Halford of having been the first man to discover the Asiatic cholera and to communicate it to the public.

He goes on to offer a bundle of advice on how an aspiring writer is to court her prospective editor: Revise amply before sending in your manuscript; write legibly with “good pens, black ink, nice white paper and plenty of it”; develop a style of expression not “polite and prosaic” but “so saturated with warm life and delicious association that every sentence shall palpitate and thrill with the mere fascination of the syllables”; counterbalance profundity of sentiment with levity of style; know that “there is no severer test of literary training than in the power to prune out your most cherished sentence, when you find that the sacrifice will help the symmetry or vigor of the whole”; don’t show off your erudition but showcase its fruits; and remember that “a phrase may outweigh a library.” He writes:

There may be phrases which shall be palaces to dwell in, treasure-houses to explore; a single word may be a window from which one may perceive all the kingdoms of the earth and the glory of them. Oftentimes a word shall speak what accumulated volumes have labored in vain to utter: there may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence… Labor, therefore, not in thought alone, but in utterance; clothe and reclothe your grand conception twenty times, if need be, until you find some phrase that with its grandeur shall be lucid also.

In a sun-filled bedroom fifty miles to the west, a woman who had crowded lifetimes of passion into her thirty-one years and corked it up in the volcanic bosom of her being devoured the piece—a woman who would boldly defy Higginson’s indictment that a writer should use dashes only in “short allowance” or else they “will lose all their proper power,” a woman whose reclusive genius would become his choleric discovery.

Emily Dickinson’s home, the Homestead.(Photograph: Maria Popova)

For more than a decade, Dickinson had been welding her words to her experience with white heat in the private furnace of her being, sharing her poems only with her intimates. Now she felt beckoned to step across the threshold of the door Higginson had set ajar with his open letter inviting unknown writers into the public life of literature.

On April 16, 1862, Emily Dickinson sent Thomas Wentworth Higginson four of her poems, along with a short, arresting note in the slanted swoop of her barely decipherable hand, stripped of the era’s epistolary etiquette. “Mr. Higginson,” she addressed him bluntly, with no formal salutation, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” She was likely making an allusion, whether conscious or not, to her revered Aurora Leigh, in which Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s heroine exults in her calling while struggling to become a published poet:

I felt
My heart’s life throbbing in my verse to show
It lived

And then Dickinson added:

The Mind is so near itself — it cannot see, distinctly — and I have none to ask. Should you think it breathed — and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude.

She didn’t sign the letter, either, but instead enclosed a smaller sealed envelope with her name inscribed in pencil on a cream-colored notecard — a choice that would still puzzle Higginson thirty years later.

Two more letters followed shortly. Dickinson ended the third with the come-hither of a bespoke verse, then asked seductively: “Will you be my Preceptor, Mr. Higginson?” He would, and he did, commencing a correspondence that would last the poet’s lifetime.

Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Art by Maira Kalman. (The New Yorker)

But although Dickinson had so insistently enlisted Higginson as her “Preceptor,” again and again she would reject his efforts to tame and commercialize her poetry, to make it “more orderly,” buoyed by a quiet confidence in the integrity of her unorthodox verse. “Could you tell me how to grow,” she implored in her third letter to Higginson, “or is it unconveyed — like Melody — or Witchcraft?” When he offered criticism, then worried that he might have been too harsh, she assured him with humility and aplomb that it was all welcome: “Men do not call the surgeon, to commend—the Bone, but to set it, Sir, and fracture within, is more critical.” And then she promptly sent him four more poems, unheeding of his editorial suggestions.

Over the years, Dickinson would fracture Higginson’s stiff understanding of art, and through the cracks a new kind of light would flood his world. “There is always one thing to be grateful for — that one is one’s self & not somebody else,” she would tell him. Here stood a writer who was unassailably her own self. Between her unruly punctuation, Higginson would eventually find “flashes of wholly original and profound insight into nature and life,” language ablaze with “an extraordinary vividness of descriptive and imaginative power.” When her poems finally entered the world on November 12, 1890 — four years after her death — Higginson exulted in the preface:

In many cases these verses will seem to the reader like poetry torn up by the roots, with rain and dew and earth still clinging to them, giving a freshness and a fragrance not otherwise to be conveyed. In other cases, as in the few poems of shipwreck or of mental conflict, we can only wonder at the gift of vivid imagination by which this recluse woman can delineate, by a few touches, the very crises of physical or mental conflict… But the main quality of these poems is that of extraordinary grasp and insight, uttered with an uneven vigor sometimes exasperating, seemingly wayward, but really unsought and inevitable.

The volume was an astonishing success, much to the chagrin of Houghton Mifflin, who had originally rejected it. Five hundred copies vanished from the shelves on the first day of publication. Within the first year, the book had gone through eleven printings, and nearly eleven thousand copies had been absorbed into the body of culture.

That year, as the rapids of Dickinson’s verse sprang into the world, William James’s groundbreaking Principles of Psychology coined the notion of stream of consciousness. Soon, as English reviewers launched upon Dickinson attacks unequaled since those on Shelley and Keats a century earlier, Alice James — William James’s brilliant bedridden sister — would write wryly in her diary, itself an unheralded triumph of literature:

It is reassuring to hear the English pronouncement that Emily Dickinson is fifth-rate, they have such a capacity for missing quality; the robust evades them equally with the subtle… What tome of philosophy resumes the cheap farce or expresses the highest point of view of the aspiring soul more completely than the following —

     How dreary to be somebody
     How public, like a frog
     To tell your name the livelong day
     To an admiring bog.

For a different but intimately related side of Dickinson, savor her electric love letters to Susan Gilbert — her closest lifelong bond, who inspired the vast majority of her poetry — then take in some timeless advice on the craft from some of the greatest writers in the century and a half since: James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, Jeanette Winterson, Mary Oliver, Zadie Smith, Susan Sontag, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, John Steinbeck, and Rachel Carson, another heroine of Figuring.

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Astrophysicist and Author Janna Levin Reads “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin: Some of the Finest and Most Soul-Salving Advice on How to Stay Sane as an Artist

Tonic for living with that sacred, terrifying uncertainty with which all creative work enters the world.

Astrophysicist and Author Janna Levin Reads “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin: Some of the Finest and Most Soul-Salving Advice on How to Stay Sane as an Artist

To be an artist is to live suspended above the abyss between recognition and artistic value, never quite knowing whether your art will land on either bank, or straddle both, or be swallowed by the fathomless pit of obscurity. We never know how our work stirs another mind or touches another heart, how it tenons into the mortise of the world. We never know who will discover it in a year or a generation or a century and be salved by it, saved by it. “The worthiest poets have remained uncrowned till death has bleached their foreheads to the bone,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, not fully knowing — or perhaps not knowing at all — that she was revolutionizing the art of her time.

This is the perennial problem of the artist, for the crown bestowed or denied by the fickle tastes of a contemporary public has little bearing on how the work itself will stand the test of time as a vessel for truth and beauty, whether it will move generations or petrify into oblivion. Walt Whitman nearly perished in obscurity when his visionary Leaves of Grass was first met with scorn and indifference. Emily Dickinson, virtually unpublished in her lifetime, never lived to see her work transform a century of thought and feeling. Germaine de Staël captured this elemental pitfall of creative work in her astute observation that “true glory cannot be obtained by a relative celebrity.”

In our own culture, obsessed with celebrity and panicked for instant approval, what begins as creative work too often ends up as flotsam on the stream of ego-gratification — the countless counterfeit crowns that come in the form of retweets and likes and best-seller lists, unmoored from any real measure of artistic value and longevity. How, then, is an artist to live with that sacred, terrifying uncertainty with which all creative work enters the world, and go on making art?

That is what W.S. Merwin (September 30, 1927–March 15, 2019) explores in a stunning poem celebrating his mentor, the poet John Berryman, published in Merwin’s 2005 book Migration: New & Selected Poems (public library). At its heart is the single greatest, most difficult, most beautiful truth about creative work, enfolding a soul-salving piece of advice on how to stay sane as an artist.

John Berryman (Photograph: The Paris Review)

Berryman had co-founded Princeton’s creative writing program and was teaching there when Merwin enrolled as a freshman in 1944. The thirty-year-old professor immediately recognized an uncommon genius in the seventeen-year-old aspiring poet, who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award — “the real thing,” Berryman’s then-wife would later recall his sentiment. Merwin himself would remember his mentor as “absolutely ruthless” — a quality he cherished. That constructive, edifying ruthlessness, for which Merwin was forever indebted, comes alive with unsentimental tenderness in this poem commemorating his formative teacher, read here by astrophysicist, literary artist, and poetry steward Janna Levin:

BERRYMAN
by W.S. Merwin

I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

Nearly three decades after he mentored Merwin, Berryman would encapsulate his advice to young writers:

I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.

Complement with artist Ann Hamilton’s lovely notion of “making not knowing” and this collection of timeless advice from some of humanity’s greatest writers, then revisit Levin’s gorgeous readings of Ursula K. Le Guin’s hymn to time, Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Adrienne Rich’s tribute to the world’s first woman astronomer, and W.H. Auden’s elegy for unrequited love.

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Mary Oliver’s Advice on Writing

“Look for verbs of muscle, adjectives of exactitude.”

Mary Oliver’s Advice on Writing

“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.

Mary Oliver in 1964. Photograph by her partner, Molly Malone Cook, from Our World by Mary Oliver.)

Oliver writes:

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.

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