As the new blogging intern, I worried about what sort of project I could work on for the blog that might actually be interesting. I don't possess the sage wisdom that seasoned writers and past blogging interns are so capable of giving. I couldn't talk about the process of my novel, because there is no novel — I'm still in the thick of schoolwork, trying to find time to write my magnum opus but utterly failing. The fact is, at age 20, it's hard to feel like you know anything about writing at all.
And that's when I thought of it — though I couldn't give advice, I was certainly more than capable of receiving it. In fact, I needed advice about writing more than anything. I needed something like Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet" — advice that could take me on a walk through the forest, pat me on the back, and tell me that good writing is difficult but possible.
So, here I have it for you: Though "Letters to Young Writers" has the word "young" in the title, it's really for everyone: those who are just beginning, those who have doubted their own capacity for writing, those who've stopped writing because they thought they weren't good enough. In the letters, local writers will share their writing advice — often based off worries they themselves had when they were just beginning. It's my own selfish project that I hope will help others, as well.
This week's letter is by poet Elizabeth Austen. She is the author of the book "Every Dress a Decision" and two chapbooks, "The Girl Who Goes Alone" and "Where Currents Meet." Her letter addresses the idea of "writing what you know" and the insufficiency felt throughout a writing career (among other things). It came at a perfect time in my writing — a time when I truly needed to hear advice about being self-consciously "silenced by the ordinariness of my life," as Elizabeth says.
She also receives the unofficial prize for being the first to get her letter to me (thank you!).
Read the typewritten version of the letter by clicking here:
September 5, 2011
Years ago I heard Stanley Kunitz say, “The first job of the poet is to become the person who could write the poems."
For a long time I thought this meant I had to become a better person than I am. I thought I had to become virtuous and perfect, so that the Muse would give me wise and beautiful poems.
But what I know now is that all (all!) I needed to do is to become myself, not someone else’s idea of me.
Visual artists David Bayles and Ted Orland, in their indispensable book Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, write that “…becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive.”
Or, as W.S. Merwin put it, “No one can teach you to listen for what only you can hear.”
I’ve never written a poem out of perfection. Poems come from the awareness of insufficiency, of confusion. Poems come out of wanting to see more clearly than I can right now. My flaws are openings, points of connection with the suffering and vulnerability of others.
At times I have felt silenced by the ordinariness of my life. But I realized recently that some stories need to be told precisely becausethey are ordinary—to hold the mirror up. My experiences—real and imagined—do not have to be extreme to be fuel for poems. But I do have to practice marrying craft with courage so that what I make out of my experiences, and my idiosyncratic way of perceiving the world, can be art.
Through years of reading and writing poems, I know that there is value in transforming our emotional lives through art and thereby signaling to each other that we are not alone in our experience.
I think it was Kim Addonizio who said, “The artist works to suffer change, the narcissist works for self-display.”
Begin where you are, in the insufficiency you feel. It’s one of the things that makes you human.
Write about what you care about. Don’t be afraid to take on what feels too big.
I found this note to myself in a journal: “What makes me think I can’t speak about the wars, about the larger world? Did I internalize some ‘rule’ about only writing what I know first-hand? Is it guilt about the abundance of my life? Is it simply fear that I don’t have the chops, that what I write will be bad? So what? Write the bad poems. It’s better than being complicit through silence.”
Write the poem that’s in your way. See what comes afterward.
Talent matters much, much less than practice.
And, finally, as Stephen Dobyns says, “Writing a poem is one of the ways to love the world.”
Write. Someone needs to hear what only you can say.