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?
One other suggestion about sustaining your work as
a writer: don’t try to do too many things. I’m sure most of you have other talents
besides writing. I know many writers who are very skilled at music or the
visual arts. It’s possible to
combine one or more of those arts with your writing and expand your range as an
artist and the audience for your writing at the same time. For instance, you
might make a film that showcases your poetry, or you might write songs as well
as poems or short stories or nonfiction. But it’s a very rare person who can
successfully pursue two arts seriously in one lifetime. I can only think of a
handful of writers in the entire history of literature who have also excelled
at other arts, at the level where their work in a second art is valued for its
own sake, rather than as an interesting sidelight to their writing.
That doesn’t mean you should give up the other
arts you practice and enjoy, but writing is not a discipline that you can learn to do well if you pursue it casually, like throwing a Frisbee. It’s a lifelong quest if you do it right, because a writer is
constantly gathering information about life and craft. You have to continually make
adjustments in how your write, based on life experiences and on the latest
information you’ve gleaned from reading and writing. You’re always assimilating
new experiences, social conditions, and influences. You don’t want to be a
The word “dilettante,” means a person who dabbles,
rather than pursues something seriously. It comes from the Latin dilettare, to delight in. You should
delight in your writing, but you also have to work hard at it, and to do that,
you have to be a specialist. You wouldn’t want to be operated on by an amateur
surgeon, so why would you want to read the work of an amateur writer? Writing
is your profession.
It’s great to be a sensitive person who loves art.
But that’s not enough, if you want to be a writer. You have to be prepared to
fail at your writing. Why fail? Because that’s how artists learn. A dilettante never
fails. A dilettante just flits from one art or one project to another, without
really improving his or her craft. As an artist, you need to fail in order to derive
lessons from each misstep, until you discover how to create work that is worthy
of an audience.
One way you can maintain your
career as a writer is to try to do at least one thing each day that advances
your writing. Here are a few suggestions:
a completely new piece of writing
writing a piece you’ve already started
a piece of writing you’ve already begun
notes for a writing project you’d like to begin
research for a piece of writing you plan to start or add to
the work of a writer you’ve heard about but haven’t read
a favorite work
a lottery ticket (just kidding!)
10)attend a workshop or a writer’s
11)read a literary magazine you’ve never read
12)submit your work to a magazine
13)research contests you might want
14)send your work to a literary
15)have a conversation with another
writer about your work or their work or the work of a writer you’ve been
reading or they’ve been reading.
16)read a work of literary criticism or biography
about a writer you want to know more about
17)apply for a grant
18)buy a gun and hold up a bank
(just checking to see if you’re still with me)
19)apply for a writer’s residency or retreat
20)research reading series
21)contact a reading series to set up a reading
22)research possible book publishers
23)send a query to a possible book publisher
24)follow up on emails or letters sent to you
from magazines or publishers or reading series
25)research jobs teaching writing and/or
26)apply for jobs teaching writing and/or
27)teach a class or workshop on writing or
28)write a book review
29)write an article on a writer whose work
30)write an anonymous hate letter to a writer
whose work you don’t like (just kidding again!)
31)collaborate with other artists such as
musicians, actors, visual artists, filmmakers, etc.
32)negotiate a contract for a book or a reading
33)write a blog on your art or on art in general
34)start or add to a Facebook page that includes
news about your writing
As you can see, very few of
these suggestions actually involve creativity, with the exception of figuring
out how to rob a bank. While it’s desirable to be creative as often as
possible, few of us have the spark to do that every hour of every single day.
But your creative downtime can be your active time for getting your work to
your audience, or for finding the time or resources to continue writing. The
business of writing is also an important part of being a creative artist. The
students I’ve taught who’ve continued as writers are mostly the ones who also
pay attention to the other work, getting their writing to readers and obtaining
resources to keep going.
Another consideration for writers who want to
sustain a career, is not to put all your eggs in one basket, to coin a phrase.
If you focus your entire creative effort on one book, and invest years of your
life in that book, it better be an incredibly good idea that you are the right person
to carry out—and a book you can finish. But even if it’s the greatest idea on planet
Earth, and you are the one person in the universe to write it, and you finish
it, it may still not be the book that gets you published for the first time.
Even if it is published, it may not be the work that finds the audience you’re
So I would advise you to work on multiple
projects. Don’t count on that first book being the one that gets you in the
publisher’s door. Write a second book, and after that, a third book, even if
you haven’t gotten the first manuscript published yet. Especially if you haven’t gotten the first manuscript published
The nineteenth century French writer George Sand wrote
more than 100 books or plays. Here’s a portrait of George Sand by the great French painter Eugène Delacroix:
Sand was famous for staying up all night to write,
burning many candles. Then every morning she slept in, and entertained her
children and friends all afternoon and evening. There is a story that she once
finished a novel halfway through the night, and instead of going to bed, she
started writing another book. We could all emulate that drive. Of course, there are writers who write just one
great book. The classic example is Harper Lee:
Born in 1926, she has written
just one book in her lifetime. That book happens to be To Kill a Mockingbird. In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize
and selling more than 30 million copies, the book has changed the lives of countless
people who’ve read it. If you’re Harper Lee, fine, just write that one book. No
complaints. But most of us are not that sort of writer. We’ve got to keep
trying, throwing out more than we keep of our writing, getting better at
certain aspects of this crazy job as we go along.
I’m going to make up a person who is a composite
of several different creative writing students I’ve encountered. This student
is terrifically talented. Not only does she write, but she’s also an
accomplished professional. In short, a person with lots of skills, including excellent
She’s been done with her MFA now for about seven
years, and she hasn’t published a book yet.
Why? She’s invested years in finishing the book she
started as her MFA thesis. The book is a novel with a very challenging
structure. It’s a work of fiction, but based solely on nonfiction stories from
her own family history. That’s a tall order to fill, since in a case like that
you feel you can’t change the story, even when it doesn’t work for the reader,
because it’s based on fact. The manuscript also has several main characters who live in different centuries.
It could be a fascinating structure for a novel,
but maybe too challenging to pull off for a first book. It’s the kind of
project that might be better to work on later in life, when the mechanics of
writing a good plot and having a polished style are almost second nature. So I would suggest that you don’t put all your
chips on one number, and play that number over and over. The odds are, you will
run out of chips before that number comes up. Keep working on different
projects, and increase your odds of finding the readers you seek.
The best way to avoid becoming a literary dropout is
to keep writing. As all of us know, that’s easier said than done. There are
many elements to keeping the writing flowing. I’ll try to cover several in this
series of blogs.
To begin with, I’ll start with factors that relate
just to the writing itself, and not to circumstances peripherally connected to,
or outside of the writing.
The first suggestion I’d make is to choose
projects that you can complete successfully. I had a terrific student several
years ago, a guy who had a remarkable facility for spontaneous writing. Our
class was studying the surrealist movement at the time. I asked the students to
attempt automatic writing as a learning exercise. Automatic writing is a type
of writing devised by the surrealist group in Paris in the early 1920s as a way
of liberating the subconscious. In automatic writing you don’t edit or look
back at what you’ve already written but compose spontaneously, as if dreaming
onto the page. It’s a great exercise if you’re suffering from writer’s block or
just want to warm up. The student I’m referring to was one of the few I’ve ever
encountered who could create a finished piece of work using automatic writing.
The whole class was amazed at what he created during that in-class exercise,
without editing. If he had lived in Paris in the 1920s, he’d be a legend.
Surrealist group in Paris practices automatic writing
Now, you would think that a person who can compose
literature so fluently would have absolutely no trouble finishing a longer
work. Poof! You sit down, you write, it’s done. But that wasn’t the case. For
his MFA thesis, he attempted to write a sort of modern-day Dante’s Inferno. A worthy project. The task was
almost impossible, though, since the way he set it up, not one of the
characters interacted with anyone but the narrator. Not only that, but we knew
that each story ended with the death of the person recounting it, since all the
characters besides the narrator were ghosts. And there was a talking-head
aspect to the format that killed almost all of the drama.
You should be extremely ambitious in the projects you
pick for yourself as a writer, but don’t choose a project that you can never
finish, or that won’t interest many people even if you do finish it. Stretch
yourself, be daring in your aesthetic choices, do things that no one has
attempted before, but don’t try to climb Mount Denali on rollerskates.
Many know about haiku, that ultra-short form of poetry from
Japan that captures a flash of consciousness in only three lines. But a
thousand years before haiku was created, Japanese poets developed and perfected the tanka form.
Tanka is slightly longer—five lines—but it’s significantly different from haiku
in the type of moment that sparks it.
Like haiku, which crystallizes one specific moment in time
or consciousness, tanka is about a particular observation of the poet. But unlike haiku, tanka can reach both
backwards and forwards in time to include a broader observation, or even a
story. How can just five short lines of poetry tell a narrative? It’s not easy, but
with the conciseness of tanka, a poet finds the fulcrum of a story, the moment of
truth in that encounter. Here’s one of my favorite tanka poems, by the great Japanese
woman poet Yosano Akiko, who
lived from 1878 to 1942, and wrote over 50,000 poems:
early evening moon
rising over a field of flowers
somehow I knew
he was waiting for me
and I went to him
(translated by Leith Morton and Zack Rogow)
Here the poet describes the moment when she made her choice to
embark on a difficult relationship. The image of the evening moon suggests the
expectant lover, wishing for her. The field of flowers makes me think of the
fullness of her love.
I haven’t said anything yet about the rigorous form of the tanka. In Japanese, each of the five lines
must have a specific number of syllables. The number of syllables per line is: 5-7-5-7-7. I haven’t
mentioned this because this form works beautifully in Japanese, but when
English-language translators or poets attempt to duplicate the form exactly, it
often takes away from the freshness and the gentle punch of the tanka.
Personally, I prefer poems that follow the spirit of the tanka and don’t count syllables like pennies. On the other hand, if you’re up to twelve syllables per line, you’re losing the concentrated flavor of the language in tanka.
Another fascinating side of the tanka is that the poet often
sharply splits the five lines between two seemingly unrelated images. The writer
does not directly link these two worlds, but leaves it entirely up to the
reader to make the connection. Yosano Akiko does this in the poem just cited about the moon over the evening field and the lover’s impulse. Here’s another
example, a thousand-year-old tanka by the 10th century poet Fujiwara
The poet never says that the waves are like him, the lover.
He never directly mentions that the shore is a metaphor for his beloved. It’s
all just understood. That’s what I love about it! And the fact that the waves
are not simply approaching the shore,
they are crowding it. It is a little
invasive to tell your beloved that you can visit her at night, even when she’s
dreaming. The poem acknowledges that, in the midst of a wonderfully romantic
moment. That’s an amazing amount of emotional complexity to pack into five lines.
Another classic tanka that I love is one by Ariwara no Narihira, who lived from 825 to 880 C.E.:
I always knew
that I would take this road
I didn’t know
it would be today
(adapted from the translation of Kenneth Rexroth)
There are so many amazing things about this poem—the ease and simplicity of the metaphor of the road, the way the poem can be applied to a myriad of situations, the way it doesn't hit you till the last line. Beautiful!
you’d like to read more tanka, here are some collections of the form:
Kenneth Rexroth, One
Hundred Poems from the Japanese
First of all, how is it pronounced? The ghazal exists as a
poetic form in many languages, and depending on the language, it’s pronounced
differently. I just pronounce it “huzzle,” to rhyme with “puzzle,” for the sake
Agha Shahid Ali, who played a major role in bringing the ghazal form into English. Photo by Margaretta K. Mitchell
The ghazal can be traced as far back as about 600 C.E., in
the period of Arabic literature before the advent of Islam. The form was
originally a lament sung by nomadic troubadours, part of a longer poetic form called the qasidah. The quality of
lamentation is still an important part of the ghazal. For more background on the origins of
the ghazal, see David Jalajel’s “A Short History of the Ghazal.”
Like many North American
fans of poetry, I first came across the ghazal through translations of the work of Federico García Lorca. That
great New Directions volume of his Selected
Poems first published in 1961, has several magnificent poems that Lorca calls gacelas, Spanish for ghazals. These were
part of Lorca’s last book of poems, Divan
of the Tamarit, a book he never got to finish or publish in his lifetime
because he was murdered in 1936 during the fascist coup in Spain. This book
consisted of poems that Lorca called casidas
and gacelas, but in reality the poems were only partially related to those forms in Arabic, which Lorca may not have
known well. Lorca did stay true to the spirit of lamentation
in his gacelas, and he used couplets, also a feature of the ghazal. Lorca’s embrace of Spain’s Moorish history seems
prophetic to me even today, when we see our politicians and the media so often
demonize the Muslim world. This is one of the reasons I find the ghazal so
fascinating—it spotlights a wonderful feature of the literature of a part of
the world that our country seems to have very little use for now except to make
war on. For a couple of decades, the translations of Lorca’s poems stood as the
only well-known model for a ghazal in English, a model that led many astray,
since Lorca didn't use most of the form in his poems. (For more on Lorca, please see my essay, "Lorca's Local Modernism.")
That lack of information in the English-speaking world about the actual ghazal form changed as the result of one person: Agha Shahid Ali. Shahid was an enormously entertaining and brilliant poet who grew up
speaking the Urdu language in his native Kashmir. He chose to write in English, and he became the first poet to write
excellent ghazals in English. Through Shahid’s publications, readings, and
workshops, something closer to the real ghazal form finally became known and practiced in English.
The ghazal consists of a group of
couplets or two-line stanzas, often on unrelated or loosely linked themes, like
a series of two-line haikus. Part of what ties the stanzas together is the
rhyme scheme. It’s not a “moon, June, tune” rhyme scheme, but one that involves
a rhyme (termed the “qafiyah” in Arabic), directly followed by a repeated sound or series of sounds at the end of a stanza (called the “radif” in Arabic).
Remember “q” comes before “r.” In the first couplet of a ghazal, this rhyme
scheme occurs in both lines. In subsequent stanzas, only in the last line.
other feature I like about the ghazal is that the poet has to mention his or
her name or pen name (called a “takhallus”) in the second to last line of the
poem, one of several features of the form that seems surprisingly contemporary.
In South Asian languages, where the ghazal has flourished, there are also very
specific meters for the form.
When I began exploring the ghazal in my own writing, I had
enormous difficulty trying to use a qafiyah and radif in English. That
intricate rhyme pattern seemed impossible to me, and contrary to the lyrical traditions of Anglo-Saxon poetry. I just couldn’t get my mind around this rhyme scheme,
until I started to hear it in something very unlikely and very
American—Broadway show tunes. I started to realize that a rhyme before a
repeated sound or word is actually a very common form, not in U.S. poetry so much as
in popular music. Here’s part of Lorenz Hart’s great lyric to the song
“Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”:
A simpering, whimpering child again
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I
I could sleep where I shouldn’t sleep
bothered and bewildered am I
Do you see the qafiyah—“wild,” “beguiled,” “child”’—right
before the radif, “again”? And then in the next verse, the qafiyah is
“Couldn’t,” “wouldn’t,” “shouldn’t,” right before the radif, “sleep.” If that
isn’t similar to the ghazal rhyme scheme, I don’t know what is. So many of the
Broadway show tunes were penned by Jewish writers that I
suspect that there is some place in history where Jewish popular song meets the
ghazal. Possibly both were influenced by Hebrew prayer, maybe in Medieval Spain or Persia.
I also started to realize that the connection between the
ghazal and popular music is not just in English. In the poetry of South Asian
languages, this link is very much alive. I started attending mushairas,
something like the Indian or Pakistani equivalent of a poetry slam, that were held in
the San Francisco Bay Area where I live. When I heard these ghazals performed, I
realized that poetry lovers from the Indian subcontinent don’t usually recite ghazals, they sing
them. And when they recite or sing
poems, they don’t read them the way English poems are read, where the audience quietly sits on its hands listens
to each line in order: line one, line two, line three, etc. The
audience participates in a mushaira, calling out during the reading, singing or
reciting favorite lines along with the reader, demanding that a performer
repeat a particularly good couplet over and over till they get their fill of
it, repeating the radif along with the poet. And the performer does not
necessarily recite a line just once. A performer will repeat lines, parts of
lines, or whole couplets, sometimes out of order, often spontaneously. A good
performer of poetry will make up his or her own melody for a ghazal that he or
she likes. It’s a very creative and active process for the poetry lovers as
well. I think English-language writers and readers have a lot to learn from it.
the ghazal accessible to an English-speaking audience, it’s going to take a
fusion of the ghazals that have been written in English so far, and the musical
ghazals that are popular in Urdu. Something like a mix of the great Indian
singer Ghulam Ali and Bob Dylan. There’s a potential there that hasn’t
been tapped. I think we need to go back to the musical roots of the ghazal and
the connection of the ghazal rhyme to American show tunes, to make the ghazal
all it can be in English. For an example of my own very personal take on this, please see this YouTube video. The ghazal starts at 6:05.
If you’re interested in the ghazal form, you might enjoy reading a series of ten ghazals that I included in my book Talking with the Radio, available from Kattywompus Press.