Self-taught MFA

Have you read these writing tips from famous authors?

I know I post a lot of stuff from Brainpickings, but they do such a fabulous job summarizing and providing vivid detail, I simply can't resist!neil gaiman

This article Neil Gaiman's 8 Rules of Writing by Maria Popova not only provides his eight tips, but also links to several other articles for writing tips from several other famous authors, including Jack Kerouac, Kurt Vonnegut, John Steinbeck, Susan Sontag, David Ogilvy, Henry Miller, Elmore Leonard, and Zadie Smith.

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Here are my favorites from each that ring particularly true to my own writing experience:

  • Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. – Gaiman

In short, trust yourself when considering feedback or advice from others.

  • Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful. – Leonard

In poetry, one of my professors taught that you only get one or two exclamation points ever.

  • Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it. – Smith

Why it may sometimes take me months or years to decide a poem is done. And why I never say definitively that's the case.

  • Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. – Vonnegut

Hence my tagline, "A selfish poet."

  • Write the way you talk. Naturally. – Oglivy

To me, this translates to: don't overuse a thesaurus. Your readers will take notice.

  • When you can't create you can work. – Miller

Sometimes I need to create, sometimes I need to work on submissions, networking, supporting poetry and other arts. It all supports my craft in the long run.

  • Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it. – Miller

Experience is the source of inspiration, and well yeah, DRINK IF YOU FEEL LIKE IT.

  • No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge. – Kerouac

The old adage to 'write what you know' was always daunting to me, until I discovered I know more than I thought--all of life's little experiences can translate into something new and undiscovered, or something close and relatable for those who read your work. Capture those moments with dignity.

  • Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better. – Kerouac

Cut loose--the wildly honest stuff is often the beginning of my best writing.

  • Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material. –  Steinbeck

This is a bad habit of mine, editing as I go along. I think some of my first drafts suffer due to it--it's something I'm still working on.

  • The writer does not have to write. She must imagine that she must. A great book: no one is addressed, it counts as cultural surplus, it comes from the will. – Sontag

This reminds me of Bukowski's poem "so you want to be a writer?" Indeed, "if it doesn’t come bursting out of you / in spite of everything, / don’t do it."

6 replies »

  1. I especially like the caution of using exclamation points. I can’t stand seeing them in poetry. It always seems like forced emotion to me, kind of like when people overuse caps. I also really love Miller’s advice about working when you can’t create. That is a balance I have been working on for years. I discipline myself to send out 100 poems for submission each month. (Avg. 20 manuscripts to different publishers, 5 poems each). It is a tedious, time consuming process. But I find that I lean into that workload when I am feeling less creative to actually write. Nice post, thanks!

    • Leila, thank you so much for your comments. It’s interesting to hear how others juggle submissions and writing. I haven’t set specific goals for myself, but I am only submitting a fraction of what you do… I added them up and the last two months I’ve submitted about 20-25 poems per month. It’s difficult for me to find the time to do that, so what you are accomplishing is excellent! I’m curious, do you have a feel for what your acceptance rate is? I figured mine out a while back, and it’s only about 10-12%. Thanks for following my blog!

      • Trish, I can never get enough of talking about the publishing process–which is why I finally decided to start the blog Poetic License. When you speak of acceptance ratios I am surmising that you also use Duotrope to research your publications and track your submissions? If not, we need to talk. That database is my most important resource as a writer. They tally my acceptance ration every time I update my status. I swing dramatically between 7-14%. I submit as much as I do because my work is so experimental; so avant-garde that I know it takes me longer to get acceptances because I chafe at traditionalists. Thankfully, I now have hundreds of acceptances under my belt–but as I increase my name in the publishing industry, I go back and try to tackle more prestigious journals again. Basically, I know I could maintain 14% acceptance ratio or more if I only leaned on grassroots and mid-established mags. But I have to keep trying to reach higher, so there will always be low swings in my ratio because I am so stubborn and persistent:)

  2. Yes, Duotrope is excellent! I’ve shared a specific post regarding the resources it provides, and also found another no-cost option (not that Duotrope is expensive, the fee is very small) called The Grinder. Both great tools, but I am pretty well established in using Duotrope and it’s listing database is HUGE and well updated. If you haven’t already discovered WTFPoetry, it sounds like they would be a good fit for your work:

    • (smiles) I have had a few of my experimental poems published in PoetryWTF! where I sculpted poems from Anais Nin’s “Little Birds.” You are going to have to tell me more about your writing style, etc. so I can recommend some places to you.

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