Letter to a Young Writer

A few years ago I was asked to write an advice-to-young-writers piece for Richard Hugo House. I came across it recently, and see in it a certain consistency of message — in other words, I still feel this way, so thought I’d share it with you here.

Dear Writer,

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 because they 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.

—Elizabeth Austen

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