This blog provides advice to writers on their literary work.
See the end of this post for links on these topics: How can you get the full benefit of workshops? How can you work best with your mentor? What, when, and how should you publish?
I was sitting at
the San Francisco Giants baseball game the other night with poet Judith Serin,
and we started talking about the order of poems in a book, and almost lost
track of the outs and balls and strikes on the field.
“You have no idea
how many problems it solved just to change the order,” Judith enthused,
discussing a series of poems she’s writing based on dreams and how they
illuminate her waking life.
generally a rebellious bunch. “Order” is something we like about as much as a hard
drive crash. But the order of pieces in a book is as important as the batting
order of a baseball team, or the order of dishes in a meal. In baseball, you
don’t want to have your power hitter bat first, where no one would be on base
when he hits a home run, or your pitcher hit leadoff, where he’s likely to
start the inning by striking out.
a collection of poems, short fiction, or essays for the first time are drawn to
putting the selections in the order they were written. This can work in certain
limited cases, when the writer is telling a linear story and begins at the
beginning and ends with the story’s conclusion. But that’s rare outside of the
novel or a book-length work of nonfiction.
For a collection
of short stories, poems, or essays, it’s best to let go of the chronology of
when you wrote the pieces. You wouldn’t serve the dessert before the
appetizers, even if you’d baked the cookies the day before the meal. When you're serving a meal, you consider the experience of the diners, not your preparations. Similarly with a manuscript, think about the reader’s experience of your book, not your experience writing it. What is the story the pieces tell as an
ensemble, rather than individually? How do the pieces fit together to create
the curve that shows that a transformation has taken place, from the beginning to the end of the collection?
When I have a
fairly good idea of which poems I want to include in a book manuscript, and
I’ve got a reasonably finished draft of each poem, I go back to the old school
way of choosing an order. I print them all out, and lay them down one by one on
the floor, where I can see all of the pieces at once, or at least their first
Oddly enough, the
pieces begin gathering themselves into groups almost on their own. They choose
companions they have something in common with, like kids on a playground.
These groups are fluid—they can shift around. One way of looking at the overall
arrangement can produce a very different order from another. Make sure you’re
telling the same story that the pieces are telling.
Once the pieces
begin forming into groups, it’s much easier to see the way the groups want to
line up. And within each group, there is also the question of an order. But
that’s a much easier problem to solve than an order for all the poems or
stories or essays. Once you see the arc of the whole collection, the
order of the sections is much clearer, since each section needs to move the
By the end, it’s
like the final step of a card trick. You’re sweeping up poems or stories or essays
quickly into bundles, and collecting the bundles into one sheath.
There could be an
individual piece that doesn’t fit into any of the groups. That suggests to me
that the piece may not belong in this collection at all. It could possibly
stand apart as a prologue or an epilogue, but that requires a certain tone, an
introductory or conclusive note that very few pieces are likely to have.
Consider saving the piece that doesn’t advance the story for a different project, even if you like
it on its own. No, don’t just consider it, do it!
In my next blog,
I’ll discuss the beginning and endings of book manuscripts.
full-length book of any genre is not like writing a chapter of a book of prose,
or like writing a short story or poem. You can’t polish off a first draft of an
entire book in one sitting. You’ve got to pace yourself.
You don’t actually
know when you start to write a full-length book how long it will take. Most
likely it will take years. To embark on and finish a project that lengthy you
have to be patient with yourself. You’re not going to do your best work every
day, or even every week. Maybe not even once a month, depending on your work
Some books spill
out of a writer like the Trevi Fountain, others an author has to gather one
morsel at a time, like an ant carrying bits of ripe leaves to its nest. The
novelist John Fowles once said in an interview that he wrote the entire first
draft of The French Lieutenant’s Woman
in three weeks. That's very unusual. Marcel Proust spent his entire adult life writing one many-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time, also
translated into English as Remembrance of
Things Past. That's equally unusual.
However long it
takes to write your book, keep at it, accumulate that manuscript one page at a
time. Build towards the complete vision you have of the finished book.
If you start to
get bored with your project, that’s a sign you’re heading down a dead end. You
can’t get your reader interested in a part of your book that you don’t enjoy
writing, or that doesn’t satisfy or fulfill some deep impulse in you. Go back
to where you started to get bored, cut the part that doesn’t interest you, and
find a more exciting direction. Do something unexpected, off-balance, kooky, kinky—as
long as it fits with the rest of the project.
something that interests you may seem like a simple proposition, but there are
times when that question can create an earthquake in your life, bursting all
I once went to
hear the New York School painter Larry Rivers speak. Larry Rivers was a friend
of several writers, especially the poet Frank O’Hara. In fact, Rivers drew the
cover illustration for TheSelected Poems
of Frank O’Hara, a sketch of the poet naked. That night I went to hear him,
someone in the audience asked Larry Rivers a dumb question, probably one he’d heard
a hundred times before: “Why do you paint?” But Larry Rivers’ answer deeply
impressed me: “Because there’s something I want to see.” So simple, but so precise. Yes, we write
because there’s something we want to see in a book, there’s something we wish
we could read. Write the book you want to read.
manuscript for a book is a bit like getting interrogated by the police about a
crime that’s been committed. Figure out your story, and stick to it. Decide
what it is that you want to tell the reader, and keep only what advances the
book along that story arc.
That doesn’t mean
you have to have a simplistic narrative. You can still go off on wonderful tangents
at times. But all the tangents should intersect on one plane or another.
Thomas Mann, in
his novel masterpiece The Magic Mountain,
has many chapters where he meditates on topics such as the nature of time.
These might seem like complete digressions from his story of the tuberculosis
patient Hans Castorp in a sanatorium and his adventures with the doctors and
the other patients. But since the patients are confined to a spa in the Swiss Alps
with nothing but time on their hands, it makes perfect sense that time should
be a vein that runs throughout the novel. The ruminations of the third-person narrator
fold beautifully into the plot and the setting.
Another example: Mark
Doty, in his unforgettable poem “Fog,” weaves together imagery from a flower
garden, sessions with a Ouija board, and HIV testing of the narrator and his
partner. Some of that material may at
first seem disconnected, but if you read the poem over, the themes of life and
death and blood and illness are tightly braided.
So when I say, Figure
out your story and stick to it, I’m not saying, Be simplistic, or Don’t change
your plot. Surprise yourself. Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no
tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
But once you do glimpse the book’s arc—and that may not happen till you’re
several drafts into the manuscript—pull out anything that does not fall on that
curve or very close to it. If your story breaks down, you’re going to be the
one who takes the fall.
If you’re writing
a book, no matter what the genre, you probably have a page length or word count
If it’s poetry you’re writing, your target is probably 50 to 70 pages.
about how long a novel should be. According to Deborah Ritchken, an agent at
the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency, “There really is no set
rule but the average novel runs about 110,000 words. Obviously, there are
novels where the word count runs much higher!”
If you’re J.K. Rowling, then the
sky’s the limit. (Some might argue that the later Harry Potter books needed a
good editor.) A book of nonfiction should also clock in around 100,000 words. I
would think a collection of short stories should be closer to 60,000 words.
Whatever the genre,
you should write much more material than you actually need. You want to have
the luxury of cutting work that isn’t up to the quality of the rest of the
book. For my collection of poetry My Mother and the Ceiling Dancers, to arrive at 50 pages of published poetry,
I wrote about 135 pages. I cut two thirds of it. That wasn’t easy for me. There are
still poems in that 85 pages of crossed-off material that I get a twinge of regret
when I read and remember that I couldn’t include them in the book. But I know
the book is better off without those deleted pages.
The trick is to
write more than you need but not to get so attached to what you write that you
refuse to part with the sections that are weaker, or extraneous to the direction
of the book as a whole. Ultimately, it’s the reader’s experience you have to
prioritize, not your affection for your own words.
All writers create
bad drafts, and/or writing that is not up to
their best work, or doesn't mesh with a current project. The challenge is to keep
that work somewhere private, rather than try to publish it.
I have a file I
call “Uncollected Poems,” which is my euphemism for poems that never made it
into any of my books. Ultimately they didn't make the grade or fit in
the collection I was working on at the time. I’m not throwing those poems out.
Some of them I continue to polish. I enjoy revisiting many of them. I occasionally will send one or two out to magazines or anthologies. But I realize they rarely end up in any collection of my work.
In the literary
world, the quality of your work is judged not only by what you publish, but by
what you don’t publish. If you
establish a consistent standard for your writing and keep to that, readers will
see that sheen in your work, and be drawn to it. If you don’t keep to that
standard, you risk being judged by the worst of your creations.
A remarkable event
happened in Moscow on, May 13, 2012. Twelve Russian writers organized a walk to
protest President Vladimir Putin’s recent attacks on dissidents, and 10,000
Russian citizens turned out to join them, defying police and the recent mass
arrests and physical attacks on demonstrators in Moscow and elsewhere. I salute all those brave human
The turnout for
the May 13, 2012 walk by the Russian writers, from the statue of poet and playwright
Aleksander Pushkin to the statue of playwright Aleksandr Griboyedov, was
testimony to two important facts. First, a great many Russians revere their
writers and love literature. Not a small thing, in the age of reality TV and
gladiator-style entertainment. Second, Russian writers have often stood side by side with the
people of Russia. From novelist Leo Tolstoy freeing his serfs, to poet Vladimir
Mayakovsky’s revolutionary politics, to Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelshtam circulating
secret poems to protest Stalin’s purges, to Solzhenitsyn’s documentation of Soviet prison camps, Russian writers have taken a strong stand in support of human rights.
The bond between
Russian writers and the Russian people is closely connected to the moral vein in that country’s writing. When I say “moral,” I don’t mean
“moralistic.” I mean bravely speaking out in the face of dictatorship, or
dictatorial actions by the current government.
North American authors
have much to learn from the example of the dozen Russian writers who called
the 2012 protest walk. Where are the writers of the United States protesting
the enormous weight of debt that burdens so many households in our country,
when annual interest rates on credit cards soar above 20%? Where are the
writers calling for demonstrations against the U.S. dependence on fossil fuels? When are writers
going to announce a protest of our military budget, now $700 billion annually,
while our people lack health care and quality schools, and the number of
homeless is in the hundreds of thousands?
writers are marginalized in the U.S., but part of that we have inflicted on
ourselves, by avoiding the issues that are most pressing for our people.
Most writers get
excited about the work we’re doing right at the moment. That work usually feels
like the most urgent, authentic, and developed. Our previous work
often seems to us out of date, sophomoric, passé, even at times something we
would like to forget or walk away from.
The writer André Breton, in his “Preface for a Reprint of the Manifesto” of Surrealism,
distanced himself so much from his earlier writing that he proclaimed, “Those
[books] attributed to me do not seem to me to exercise any greater influence on
me than many others…” Our earlier works sometimes seem to us as if another
person wrote them, a person much less wise than we are now.
But the reality of
the writing world is that it can take years, sometimes decades, to get a work
published and publicized. When I worked with the poet Bill Zavatsky on
translating André Breton’s principle collection of poetry, Earthlight, it took me and Bill seventeen
years from the time we first sat down at a café on MacDougal Street in
Greenwich Village to begin the project, till we finally held a printed copy of
the book in our hands. There were many reasons for this long gestation
period—our personal lives intervened; it was difficult to get the rights from Breton’s
French publisher; Bill moved to Texas for two years, making it impossible for
us to meet (this was before Skype and email).
We usually have to
edit and submit and publicize older work that feels like it’s not our most
mature. It’s as if our writings are younger siblings trailing along after us,
embarrassing us with their lack of grown-up knowledge and behavior. Sometimes
we wish those juvenile writing would just get lost and leave us to our more urbane
current work. But, like younger brothers and sisters, they won’t. They keep
following us, wanting our attention.
So, give them that
attention. While the less-current work you are sending out, or publishing, or
reading from may not seem that fresh to you, remember that it’s new to your
readers or audience. When you read from your recently published but not
recently written work, inhabit again the emotions and ideas that sparked it.
Open up to that hurt and laughter. If you devoted that much time and energy to
write them, those earlier works must still have a claim on you, and their
energy and innocence might even be able to teach something to your more sophisticated
You can dance by yourself, and that can be
creative and fun, but it’s much more fun to dance with someone else. Why?
Because the pooled energy of two people working out a dance together is much
more than the sum of the parts. You find yourself inventing steps you didn’t
realize you could do. You have cartridges of adrenaline you didn’t know
It’s similar when you’re working with a
creative writing mentor. The concentrated energy of having a person focused on
your work for a sustained period of time produces results you would have a hard
time achieving all on your own. Just knowing that someone who is knowledgeable
about the field of literature is waiting for your new work is an enormous
incentive to do your best and even to exceed your own expectations for
yourself. That kind of directed concentration on all the details of your work
is a rare opportunity.
Use that energy you get from your mentor’s
attention and interest in your work to produce both more and better work than
you’ve done previously.
That doesn’t mean at all that you have to
imitate your mentor’s dance steps. You have your own dance as a writer, and
that’s what you’re developing. Your dance may in some ways mirror the steps of
your mentor’s work, or the concerns of your mentor’s work, but it also needs to
be your own, or you risk stepping on your mentor’s toes.
In what ways does your work have to be your
own? In the same way that your childhood is your own, or your ancestry is your
own, or your family history, or your cultural and religious heritage, or your
circle of friends, or your values. You have so much that is your own to draw
on, there is no need to imitate anything about your mentor’s work.
Your mentor can also step on your toes in this dance. A mentor can
overstep his or her authority, making comments that are too personal or too
much in the vein of asking you to write the way he or she does. But if that
happens, that’s your mentor’s problem.
Your job is to explore your own project as a
writer as deeply as possible, even more deeply than you thought possible. Your
job is to polish your work as thoroughly as possible, even more thoroughly than
you thought you were capable of. That’s where that attention from your mentor
gives you energy you didn't know you had.
Eventually, you need to move on to dancing
solo, to filling the stage on your own. But even when you’re dancing solo, your
mentor is still in your mind sitting front row center, watching every step, and
the first to lead the applause for you if you’re dancing the way you know you
Later on, you can also regain some of that
dancing energy by collaborating with other artists, creating texts that can be
acted, illustrated, sung—or even danced.
The word “archaic” in the poem’s title resonates in different ways. It refers specifically to the Archaic period in ancient Greek art from 600 to 480 B.C.E., when it was standard for sculptures of human figures to have a smiling face. In fact, that type of expression is called The Archaic Smile.
Greek statue with "The Archaic Smile"
But the word “archaic” is also partly ironic in the title of this poem, since nothing could be as immediate as this
statue the way Rilke describes it. The poem is contemporary in its diction, but
it’s a Petrarchan sonnet, another fusion of opposites. I’ve tried in this new
version of Rilke’s most frequently translated poem to bring out the poem’s oddly
indirect directness (almost every statement except the last is a negative).
I’ve also tried to include the poem’s sensuality, often censored in
translation. To emphasize the impact of the poem’s last phrase, I’ve brought it
into contemporary English. Here’s my translation:
Archaic Torso of
by Rainer Maria
We’ll never know
the incredible head
where his eyes
ripen like apples. No,
but that torso is
a lamp, and in its glow
his gaze does
appear, turned down instead,
glistening. Otherwise the arc of his breast
you, and in the slight
twist of his
loins a smile wouldn’t alight
in the center,
where the virile parts nest.
stone would be stunted, marred
shoulders that plunge hard,
like a wild animal’s coat;
from its edges, knife
like a star:
there’s nowhere on him so remote
it doesn’t see
you: you’ve got to change your life.
Torso of Apollo” derives its force from a particular electricity generated when
the directness of life collides with the distance of art. The one object Rilke
describes in this poem, an ancient Greek statue of a male torso that he saw in the Louvre Museum in Paris, combines the vitality of the body and ripe fruit
(the apple eyes) with the world of ancient art.
me it seems that Rilke is deliberately emphasizing the sensuality of this
statue, drawing our attention to its breast and crotch, comparing its glow to
the pelt of a predatory beast.
torso in Rilke’s poem may be buff, but it’s beheaded and de-sexed. It has
neither the power of thought, nor the virility of its genitals, nor lips to
kiss, nor arms to hold or legs to clench.
why does this broken block of stone mean that we must change our lives—demand that we change our lives? Rilke
begins by telling us we can’t see the statue’s eyes, but then reverses
direction by saying the torso can see
us, with its nipples like eyes and its pelvis curving upward in a knowing
smile. The poem continually picks up momentum as it displays the miracle of a
headless body that looks at us, smiles at us, even pierces us with its
invisible glance. The poem tells us that art strips us bare, throws light on
the deepest caverns of our souls, and only when we accept that are we ready to
change our lives and begin the trek of our destiny. But that knowledge also
produces a smile, even in the most unlikely place: a headless torso.