WRITING IS FAILING - My 10 Rules for Writing
Damn you rob mclennan for asking me to do this. Do you realize how broad the topic ‘on writing’ is? Do you realize how many words have been sacrificed for this already? Starting with our blog, the trail goes on and on and on website to website. From things like this great collection of links on the topic: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/05/03/advice-on-writing/
To things like this collection of poetry-specific flippancy:
There is so much material, ranging from very specific writing tips or rules to general advice on how to survive this life as a writer, out there, including countless blog posts like this one, that a full catalogue would be pointless. I’m not even going to start talking about the actual physical books that have been written on the subject beyond saying that taking one out of the library every now and then is a great way to satisfy rule 8 below. IN the end, the variations of “on writing” are as endlessly diverse as our population. We’ve all been shaped by those we’ve met, those we’ve read, the things we’ve done.
The best piece of advice on writing that I ever got came from Don McKay. He was the Writer-in-Residence at the University of Alberta when I was finishing my bachelor’s back in the nineties. I was feeling dejected, or possibly hungover, or both, and I complained to him that there was so much poetry already alive, that we were joining the party so late in history that every poem that could be written had already been written. He sat there under his eyebrows for a moment, I’m sure regretting his office hours that morning, before saying something like “yes, but you haven’t written all the poetry YOU’RE going to write.”
That was 20 years ago and I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t think about this advice in one way or another. I’ve also been fortunate to meet a lot of writers and artists at every stage possible in a career. Many beer and nicotine - man do I miss smoking sometimes - fueled late nights have gone into the click-bait style 10 entries below. Consider them grist for your mill, a reminder, encouragement.
1) WRITE. The most common advice for those who wish to write is to read. That’s stupid advice. Of course if you don’t read poetry, you can’t possibly hope to write poetry. The better advice is to stop when you read a poem that speaks to you and write it. I mean copy it. Word for word. Space for space. Writing is of the body as much as the mind. Yes, it is an old, old trick but it works like a hot damn.
2) GET LOST. People who tell you to turn off distractions like the internet or Netflix or comic books or housework or gardening or whatever floats your boat are missing the point. You’re a poet. You are never not writing poetry. You’re writing it as you walk down the street. You’re writing as you read this. Every now and then you’ll reach the point where you’ve got to physically put words to paper so that you don’t drop anything. Which leads to Rule 3.
3) BE PREPARED. Pen, pencil, HB, mechanical, fountain, gel point, notebook, looseleaf, legal pad, teeny tiny plastic coil notebook with kitties on the cover that you pinched out of your daughter’s latest birthday party loot bag, whatever. I know a poet who wears a notebook and pen around his neck on a piece of yarn and will pull it out whenever a thought strikes. Don’t laugh. He’s published more books than you or I have. Well, more than me at any rate.
4) SCHEDULE. If you only wait until you are full to bursting before you write, you’ll never finish anything. You’ve got to schedule time to write. Make yourself sit down and put pen to paper or fingers to keys or whatever your method. Seriously, you schedule meetings at work. You schedule office hours if you have them. You schedule dentist appointments. Why wouldn’t you schedule writing time? You are serious about this writing thing, aren’t you?
5) RELAX. This shit is hard and there aren’t nearly enough places to get your poetry published. You already know that you’re not going to make a living off poetry alone so take a breath and enjoy your life, where you are, what you are doing. Savour the writing time you have. Not everyone gets to be as fundamentally creative as you are when you’re writing.
6) FAIL. You know that whatever ends up on the page is not really going to be exactly what you wanted to say. No matter how much time and effort you put into it. The thing for which you are striving will always be just out of reach. The day you write the perfect poem is the day you run out of stuff to say. Enjoy the process, the results will take care of themselves.
7) DON’T BE AN ARTIST. BE ALONE. Just make art. We’ve all met people who seemed to be more interested in personality than in productivity. Social media has made this even an easier trap to fall in than it used to be. Don’t compare yourself to those in your echo chamber. When you find yourself paying more attention to what you’ve posted on Facebook or your blog than to your current project, it’s time to unplug for a bit.
8) SHARE. DON’T BE ALONE. This is the hardest one for me personally. I don’t like to share anything until it is absolutely perfect and my publishing record reflects that :( And yes, I remember Rule 6. I know that I haven’t said exactly what I was trying to say so why not share it? Remember that we’re all struggling against the same great weight. Sometimes you need to get out and remind yourself that you are not alone. That others value you and your work.
9) DIVERSIFY. One of the most common questions I’d get from emerging writers aside from how to get published, was how to deal with “writer’s block.” If you’re following rules 2, 3, and 4 you probably won’t be at a loss for words very often. Every now and then though, I’ve found myself writing the same poem over and over again using different words. I sometimes find it satisfying to work on a different muscle group for a while. My personal choice is visual through photography and a little bit of digital design. I’ve even taken a few bookmaking classes to try my hand at creating the hardware for my software as it were.
10) KEEP ON KEEPING ON. Do what you need to do to sustain yourself. Know that you are not crazy, at least not completely, and that you are doing what you’re supposed to be doing. Seriously, you’re good. Keep it up!
Paul Pearson lives and writes in Edmonton where he works for the Government of Alberta. It’s not as bad as it sounds though because he works in the Arts Branch and Alberta Foundation for the Arts and is responsible for things like research, policy, and communications for the AFA as well as being responsible for Film Classification in Alberta. He has been published by some of the usual suspects in some of the usual places and in one or two unusual places and hopes to announce the publication of his first book soon.