Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Advice to Writers: Stay Home

Given the obvious solitude of writing, much has been made—and rightly so—about the benefits of establishing a sense of literary community, a kind of sangha from which all established and aspiring writers can benefit. A key element of that sense of community is public readings, the chance to connect with an audience, to move or be moved by something as paradoxically simple and transcending as language. Everything has its limits, though, so tonight, I thought I’d offer some alternate advice: stay home.

Focusing on open mics in particular, there’s a reason why they have a bad reputation. It isn’t just that you’re more likely to hear less polished writing (although that’s obviously a part of it). The main problem is that open mics are a lightning rod for people who care far less about writing than they do about looking sexy in their brand new flannels and piercings. They are to sincerity what trust fund babies are to economic humility. And whenever it becomes more about presentation than substance, the work suffers.

That’s not to say that there's something inherently wrong with readings. I’ve been to some that quite frankly changed my life for the better, and I’ve given some in which I’ve felt so profound a connection with my audience that I can’t imagine being anywhere else. But there’s such a thing as skipping a step, and that happens whenever we think more about the mic and less about the page.

So, again, here’s my not-so-humble advice: stay home. Don’t call anyone. Don’t text. Don’t update your Facebook status to say what you’re reading, or how many thousands of words you’re going to write today. Just leave your ego in a shoe box, sit down, and read. And write. And if you look down at your first draft and think it’s golden—well, you’re wrong.

Put it through another draft, then another, then another. Craft every word, every line break, every syllable. Break the rules, if you want, but know that you’re breaking them. After all, this is serious business. You’re crafting a religion here. Fill it with humor and joy, laugh your ass off, but don’t take it lightly. Use alliteration and connotation to fuse your writing with a subconscious sense of harmony, of rhythm that is the chief apparatus of an affecting poem, anyway. Craft it the way a sculpture leaves fingerprints in the down-turned hand of a piece most people will only see at a distance.

Because, in addition to ego, the biggest enemy of an aspiring writer is the gimmick, a technical or stylistic bit of flare that’s designed to draw in the audience, to make them laugh or impress them with some raw turn of cleverness, but upon careful scrutiny, possesses no depth whatsoever. Put another way, the best writing is done on a kind of Zen-like autopilot, but that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook when it comes to revision, or having some idea of why we did whatever we did. It’s fine to leave off a comma or break on an article or describe the butterfly’s wings as the color of menstrual blood, but by God, you better at least try to have some idea in your own head (even if you can’t articulate it) why you’re going to leave it that way. Because that’s what separates true writers from monkeys typing Shakespeare, but more importantly, it’s also what sets up the writer to achieve a kind of homespun enlightenment and catharsis from their own piece—which gets us back to the solitary element of writing.

Billy Collins described the ideal poem (in his opinion) as an Eye Chart--that is, it starts clear (capital E) but gets more complex, more detailed, more enigmatic, as it goes, until the final line feels right, even if you can't exactly say why. What's important, though, is the attempt. It's simply too easy to write something funny and/or clever, then pronounce it finished without putting it through a few (or a few dozen) rounds of scrutiny.

So, again, from time to time, stay home. Read. Write. If you’re popular in the local writing community, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you should also regard that popularity with a certain measure of skepticism. The last thing any of us need is someone who can’t wait to tell us how great we are. Be lonely. Be angry. Be frustrated. Those aren’t bad things; those are merely the other side of the coin, reflections of the raw drive that propels us towards whatever kind of beauty and clarity that poetry can accomplish in the first place.


  1. The writer's ego is a double-edged sword. On one end, it can make a writer think everything they write is golden. On the other end, the ego keeps the writer from falling into depression from a mountain of rejection letters. However, unless the writer can take a step back and look at his work again, there will never be improvement.

  2. I think there's something that can be said for thinking for the mic - keeping the performance in mind is a valid approach to editing if the reading is the writer's intended primary form of delivery. I work on sections of IASG for 1-2 years apiece, but when editing, I'm thinking of how it will sound, not how it will read, because that's the method of delivery I use. If that makes it performance art and not poetry to some people, that's fine, I don't about distinctions like that, but think of how many people you've heard rattle on about how "poetry is meant to be read aloud!"

  3. Shaun, I absolutely agree that poetry needs to be written with a close attention to sound. I also think that the preparation for a public reading can be an additional motivation. However, the problem is that there are plenty of things that one could read aloud that would kill at a reading but, on the page, would seem masturbatory and dumb. It's a balancing act, of course, but I suppose it's also the difference between writing slam poetry and... well, not.