Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “advice for writers”

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.

ADVICE TO WRITERS

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.

BP

Gwendolyn Brooks on Vulnerability as Strength and Her Advice to Writers

“Wherever life can grow, it will. It will sprout out, and do the best it can.”

Gwendolyn Brooks on Vulnerability as Strength and Her Advice to Writers

In 1950, a year after she made her debut, poet Gwendolyn Brooks (June 7, 1917–December 3, 2000) became the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize. She was only thirty-three.

Exactly forty years later, having by then become one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century, the recipient of more than seventy honorary degrees, and first black woman appointed poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, Brooks took the stage at Chicago’s Poetry Day to reflect on her life and read from her work. In this excerpt from the lecture, Brooks shares her best advice to writers, originally published in her 1981 prose book Young Poet’s Primer (public library) — advice that applies as much to poetry as it does to all art and even to the art of living itself:

In writing your poem, tell the truth as you know it. Tell your truth. Don’t try to sugar it up. Don’t force your poem to be nice or proper or normal or happy if it does not want to be. Remember that poetry is life distilled and that life is not always nice or proper or normal or happy or smooth or even-edged.

Brooks goes on to read from her evocative 1988 pamphlet-length poem Winnie — a tribute to South African political leader and human rights activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, written in Mandela’s voice. The poem’s central message stands today as a powerful invitation and incantation for our own time — a timeless ode to life’s tenacity, to the relationship between vulnerability and strength, and to poetry’s singular power to wrest from the smallness of a single life, a single day, a single moment essential bigness of being.

Yet I know
that I am Poet!
I pass you my Poem.

A poem doesn’t do everything for you.
You are supposed to go on with your thinking.
You are supposed to enrich
the other person’s poem with your extensions,
your uniquely personal understandings,
thus making the poem serve you.

I pass you my Poem! — to tell you
we are all vulnerable —
the midget, the Mighty,
the richest, the poor.
Men, women, children, and trees.
I am vulnerable.
Hector Pieterson was vulnerable.

My Poem is life, and not finished.
It shall never be finished.
My Poem is life, and can grow.

Wherever life can grow, it will.
It will sprout out,
and do the best it can.
I give you what I have.
You don’t get all your questions answered in this world.
How many answers shall be found
in the developing world of my Poem?
I don’t know. Nevertheless I put my Poem,
which is my life, into your hands, where it will do the best it can.

I am not a tight-faced Poet.

I am tired of little tight-faced poets sitting down to
shape perfect unimportant pieces.
Poems that cough lightly — catch back a sneeze.
This is the time for Big Poems,
roaring up out of sleaze,
poems from ice, from vomit, and from tainted blood.
This is the time for stiff or viscous poems.
Big, and Big.

Complement with Brooks’s trailblazing vintage poems for kids celebrating diversity and the universal spirit of childhood, then revisit John F. Kennedy’s timeless speech on poetry and power and James Baldwin on the poet’s role in a divided society.

BP

How to Handle Criticism: Advice from Some of the Greatest Writers of the Past Century

Wisdom and wit from Kurt Vonnegut, Aldous Huxley, William Styron, Truman Capote, and other literary titans.

How to Handle Criticism: Advice from Some of the Greatest Writers of the Past Century

“Reading criticism clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas: cultural cholesterol,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. “Criticism,” artist Ai Weiwei told an interviewer, “is, in the Chinese context, a positive, creative act.” The truth, of course, is that it’s both — criticism is a technology of thought and, like any technology, it can be put to constructive or destructive use depending on the intention of its originator and the receptivity of its object. One thing is certain: For every artist — that is, for every human being who gives form to his or her inner life and shares that form with the outside world — critical response is inevitable, for every successful act of engaging with the world guarantees that the world will engage back. How to relate to criticism in a healthy way is therefore one of the essential survival skills of the creative spirit.

That’s what some of the most celebrated writers of the past century address in a section of The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers (public library) — George Plimpton’s wonderful 1989 collection of wisdom from Paris Review interviews, which also gave us James Baldwin’s advice on writing.

Illustration from Enormous Smallness, a picture-book about the life and genius of E.E. Cummings

Two centuries after David Hume contemplated the only good response to critics and half a century before “don’t feed the trolls” became the self-protection mantra of the Internet, Truman Capote offers:

Most of all, I believe in hardening yourself against opinion… There is one piece of advice I strongly urge: never demean yourself by talking back to a critic, never. Write those letters to the editor in your head, but don’t put them on paper.

Aldous Huxley reflects on why he doesn’t read reviews of his own work:

They’ve never had any effect on me, for the simple reason that I’ve never read them. I’ve never made a point of writing for any particular person or audience; I’ve simply tried to do the best job I could and let it go at that. The critics don’t interest me because they’re concerned with what’s past and done, while I’m concerned with what comes next.

John Irving inverts and subverts this notion, quoting Cocteau:

Listen very carefully to the first criticism of your work. Note just what it is about your work that the reviewers don’t like; it may be the only thing in your work that is original and worthwhile.

William Styron considers an inescapable yet professionally inconvenient byproduct of our humanity:

I think it’s unfortunate to have critics for friends. Suppose you write something that stinks, what are they going to say in a review? Say it stinks? So if they’re honest they do, and if you were friends you’re still friends, but the knowledge of your lousy writing and their articulate admission of it will be always something between the two of you, like the knowledge between a man and his wife of some shady adultery.

[…]

There’s only one person a writer should listen to, pay any attention to. It’s not any damn critic. It’s the reader. And that doesn’t mean any compromise or sell-out. The writer must criticize his own work as a reader. Every day I pick up the story or whatever it is I’ve been working on and read it through. If I enjoy it as a reader then I know I”m getting along all right.

Kurt Vonnegut laments critics’ growing taste for blood as a writer’s reputation grows. He recounts how critics who had previously praised him on his way up began tearing him down once he reached a certain tipping point of success:

All of a sudden, critics wanted me squashed like a bug… It was dishonorable enough that I perverted art for money. I then topped that felony by becoming, as I say, fabulously well-to-do. Well, that’s just too damn bad for me and for everybody. I’m completely in print, so we’re all stuck with me and stuck with my books.

In a sentiment that calls to mind the poet Donald Hall’s terrific advice to writers, Thornton Wilder offers the most lucid disposition of all:

The important thing is that you make sure that neither the favorable nor the unfavorable critics move into your head and take part in the composition of your next work.

Complement this particular bit of the wholly magnificent The Writer’s Chapbook with Neil Gaiman on the only adequate response to critics — some of the most lucid and luminous advice on the creative life ever articulated — and Adam Gopnik on Darwin’s brilliant strategy for preempting criticism.

BP

Patti Smith, Umberto Eco, and Other Celebrated Contemporary Authors Offer Their Advice to Aspiring Writers

“Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money… If you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.”

For several years, I’ve been compiling an evolving library of timeless advice on writing from more than one hundred of the craft’s greatest masters, dead and alive — authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Neil Gaiman, Joan Didion, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, and dozens more.

Now, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art’s Louisiana Chanel offers a bite-sized counterpart of advice to aspiring writers from eleven acclaimed contemporary authors from around the world: Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, Alaa Al-Aswany, Herbjørg Wassmo, Richard Ford, Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, Lars Norén, Umberto Eco, Patti Smith, Sjón, and Kjell Askildsen. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy:

Patti Smith, whose most recent memoir remains one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, on maintaining creative integrity, not compromising, and the best advice she ever got, from none other than William S. Burroughs, which stayed with her for life:

Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful — be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.

Umberto Eco, who has offered his more extensive advice to aspiring writers elsewhere, on working your way up rather than aiming straight for grandeur:

You cannot become a General if you [have not] been before a corporal, a sergeant, a lieutenant… So, go step by step.

Alaa Al-Aswany, echoing Jack Kerouac’s thoughts on whether writers are born or made, on talent and dedication:

You are talented, but you must know that the talent is not the end — it is just the beginning, and you must keep the writing as the most important thing in your life. And whenever you feel that the writing is not the most important thing in you life, you’d better stop writing — because you will never make any difference.

Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, in a sentiment reminiscent of Leonard Cohen on hard work and the creative process, on doggedness as the route to refinement:

The secret of writing is this: Write, write, write, and write again — and you will get it right.

Kjell Askildsen, with all of his 87 years’ worth of wisdom, echoes Steinbeck’s counter-advice and offers:

Don’t take any advice. Write based on who you are and what you’ve learned from the books you have enjoyed the most.

Lars Norén on letting your life speak:

If you want to become a poet, an artist — you can’t fight it. If you want to be that, you will. It’s not about desire — it’s about necessity. There’s no other way.

[…]

You have to trust your inner drive, for the disappointments and the efforts are so tough that you must have an inner conviction that this is what you want.

Sjón, calling to mind Maurice Sendak’s insistence on keeping our inner child alive, on the raw material of our individual inspiration:

My advice to a young writer would be that he or she works with he or she is made of, and by that I mean that we should not be afraid of working with the things that fascinated us when we were at our most impressionable… We are all informed by the things that fascinate us and excite us when we are quite young.

Lydia Davis, two centuries after Mendelssohn’s spirited defense of creative integrity over commercial success, on working with love:

Don’t ever cave in to the pressure of publishers or agents… Do what you want to do and don’t worry if it’s a little odd or doesn’t fit the market.

Complement with Seamus Heaney’s words of wisdom to the young, Cheryl Strayed’s no-nonsense advice to aspiring writers, Hemingway’s reading list for those starting out, and Jane Kenyon’s magnificent advice on writing, which doubles as some of the finest life-advice you’ll ever receive.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.