Inspired by Marvin Bell’s List. The thing is, these lists always upset me, because they never speak to anything I think lies at the core of writing, nor do they speak to my process so much as they do to the process as professors of writing believe it should be. This is not useful to me. Professors of writing have by and large been criminally awful to me and discouraging of my work. I do not intend to attend the University of Iowa, nor enter its nepotistic contests. I long ago cottoned on to the fact that I’m a duck of a different color, and even good advice is usually inapplicable to me–just like that guy says in the sunscreen song. So I’m going to put up my own list, not because lists are in and of themselves useful–they’re not. Recycling, nostalgia, more than its worth. Check. But precisely because these lists are shit. Anyone who writes seriously–and it is possible to write seriously while being entirely unpublished–eventually learns to let this king of thing slide off of their back, like, well, I’m into duck metaphors today. What is useful is not the truth of these lists, but the extent to which they are untrue, the extent to which they allow the reader of such a list to rebel against them, to say “hey, that’s crap.” Writers need these lists so that they can throw them away. So eventually almost every writer makes one–I used to have Bukowski’s on my bedroom wall. I’m not sure that’s Mr. Bell’s justification, but then, I doubt Mr. Bell spent his formative creative years being crapped on by professors of writing. Those who end up at the University of Iowa and her sorority of quirky, locality-oriented poetry factories rarely do.
So, for a moment, I’m putting aside my fear of speaking authoritatively on matters of craft, because I don’t believe these lists are edifices of authority. They are tools, like MLA handbooks–and like MLA handbooks, they mainly exist to be willfully defied.
Thirty-Two Statements About Writing
1. Writing is fun. Like learning a dead language, it is a far too time consuming, exhausting, difficult, and humiliating thing with which to occupy yourself if you’re not having fun. People who tell you it’s not fun are, to be frank, joyless husks of once-living flesh, and should be given no more attention than your average lurching zombie.
2. Not every writer is an experimentalist. Some writers wallow in tradition like a bikini-clad stripper in a mud-wrestling ring. There’s no shame in that. There’s a lot of pressure to “break new ground.” Don’t worry about that. Write what you are driven to write, and if it turns out to be a troublemaker who’ll never, ever be any good, prone to tearing things up and chewing through the canon like a meth-addled alligator, that’s what it’ll be. But if it wants to sit in the corner in bifocals and pet its Shakespeare, that’s ok, too. The literary world doesn’t like its subjects to experiment too much. You may find yourself rewarded for bifocals. Don’t be afraid to be a duck of a different color, but some ducks are just mallards–and have you ever seen the green on the head of a mallard? That’s beauty.
3. Learning to write is easy. Alphabet + vocabulary + syntax. People write every day: checks, notes, memos, grocery lists. That’s why everyone thinks they can write a book. By the time they’re 20, the average person has written well over the requisite 70,000 words. Learning to author is hard. Learning to create a book out of nothing is hard. It’s something to proud of if you can manage it, but if you can’t, that’s ok, too.
4. Read more than you write. But writing isn’t math–you don’t have to show your work.
5. When you stop taking pleasure from literature as anything but a lesson-plan, it’s time to quit. Take up painting instead. Or accounting.
6. Every story has already been told. But you haven’t told every story. Originality does not lie in plot, it lies in voice, and yours is the only one of its kind.
7. All writing is confessional.
8. Genre is irrelevant. Write. Let others sort out what section of the bookstore you belong in.
9. Don’t be afraid of the “I” in poetry or prose. The “I” is magical. It allows the reader to experience the work as though she wrote it, as though she lived it. All art begins in the primordial “I.” Don’t turn your back on that wellspring.
10. It’s ok to be lazy. Procrastinate. All things in their time–if the work is alive in you, it’ll demand your attention. Don’t force a birth at five months.
11. On the other hand, write something every day, even if it’s a grocery list. Groceries can be poetry if you allow it. Carrots and ice, lemons and salt.
12. If you don’t write every day, that’s ok, too. Cultivate zen when it comes to output anxiety.
13. Don’t talk to much about writing, or write too much about craft. It’ll keep you from your real work and make you neurotic.
14. Language is more important than you think. It is not a tool, it is, in the end, the sum of literature. Language has a taste, a texture, a smell. If a painter used only beige, white, and grey, the viewer’s eye would slide off the canvas and start examining the wall. Strive for eggplant, oxblood, and burnt sienna.
15. Poetry and fiction are not opposites. They’re more like fraternal twins who have it out on daytime talk shows every other week. And Poetry’s a hair-puller. Don’t feel you can only spend Christmas with one or the other–gas up the Chevelle and eat tofurkey at Poetry’s house and a big greasy side of ham at Fiction’s pad. You’ll start to notice that they have the same nose, the same strut, the same taste in ceramic figurines…
16. The company of other writers is a tricky thing. It always starts out with Chinese firecrackers and leviathans in a local cafe, and before you know it you’re an Iowa Writers’ Conference, and half your members are brawling in an Des Moines alley over book deals and who slept with who.
17. Publication is not the point.
18. Don’t rely too much on revision. There is value in the first flush. The cult of revision has many members. They won’t miss you.
19. Listening to what works for other people only gets you so far. At some point, you will be struck dumb by good advice.
20. Do not listen to people who habitually use words like “my process” and “the craft.”
21. Good writing is not always economical. Sometimes good writing blows all its cash on video slots and all-night steak buffets, and shows up at its best friend’s house at 3 am with two black eyes, asking for beer money.
22. Workshops are circle jerks. Or a circle of jerks. If you feel you need either of those, knock yourself out.
23. Art is a way of life. It is also a career, an obsession, a trade, a magic act, a lie, a simulacrum, a habit, a ritual, and a virtue. Don’t let other writers define your terms for you.
24. Experiment like it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t. You live at a unique time in the history of the written word–everything is permissible. But don’t be surprised when you discover that the world of publishing is essentially conservative, and is made uncomfortable by anything truly radical. Have a Plan B, like automotive repair or appliance sales. A real writer can find poetry in a muffler or a washer-dryer combo, too.
25. You are not entitled to a book deal. Maybe it’ll happen for you, maybe it won’t, but one universal truth is this: no one likes an asshole who thinks he’s owed something.
26. Cultivate perspective. There is only one extant copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight–that’s how close it came to being snuffed out forever. Most manuscripts, no matter how brilliant, are destroyed by the vagaries of time and weather. Paper rot cares nothing for beauty. Write, get it into the world however you can, even in the tiniest press. Then hope rain, mudslides, and drunken librarians pass you by. That’s the best you can do.
27. Don’t write to an audience. The audience isn’t the one you have to answer to, in the end. Let that shit go and write what thrills you.
28. Own your work. No matter how it looks now, remember that when you wrote it, it lit up the page and melted the pen. Self-hate is a waste of time.
29. It’s ok to suffer for your art, but don’t make a fetish of it.
30. You know how to write. Don’t let washed-up hippies mystify it with half-assed quasi-koans or barricade it behind a wall of awards, endowments, and prizes for which you have neither slept with the judge nor studied under the fashionable poets.
31. Shut up and write.
32. Lists are useless. Your mileage may vary.