Tracy Lee Karner

What writing instructors should pass on to their students

For you skimmers, here is the bulleted list right up front– 9 principles I learned from a great writing instructor:

  • Don’t be in a hurry to be published.
  • Love learning; read copiously.
  • Especially love literature.
  • Memorize poems.
  • Don’t take yourself or your writing too seriously.
  • Take the acquisition of wisdom seriously–live decently, courageously, and well.
  • Trust; you will find your voice, you will discover subjects to be passionate about. Before and after that happens, be kind to younger writers.
  • When you review and dissect your life for writing material, do not neglect to forgive those who wounded you,
  • and especially do not neglect to be kind to your younger self.

For readers, here’s  the 900-word essay. Yes, it’s long-ish (by blog standards) but this is valuable wisdom passed to me by a great writing instructor. He deserves 900 words.


In the late 1980’s I wanted to be promoted from international customer service representative to become a world-traveling international account manager at a manufacturing company in southeastern Minnesota. My boss told me it was going to happen–I had been chosen. Therefore I took his advice and enrolled part-time at the University of Minnesota to finish my degree. But one fatal summer, instead of taking a business statistics or marketing course or anything useful at all, I signed up for a course in poetry, taught by Michael Dennis Browne.

Under the heady influence of poetry, I felt like a child discovering the world again, astounded by all its verdant beauty.

Poetry was my one hope to capture and preserve joys, sorrows and glories–all the experiences of living.

I composed my first poems from a desire to share my inexpressible inner life with someone. It never occurred to me that the people around me were not interested in my awakening consciousness, in the same way that it never occurred to certain men that I was not interested in the make-model-year-color of their vehicles nor the horse-power-and-torque of their motors.

Meanwhile at the office break-table, my coworkers were interested in the answer to questions like: which has more calories, an orange or a tablespoon of peanut butter?

One of my coworkers would sneak away from the conversation in our windowless office to hide in the bathroom stall and smoke. I too felt furtive when I spent my lunch hours in the park, scribbling in my journal all the forgettable but momentarily important phrases that insisted they wanted me to write them into a great poem circumscribing the bliss and the worry of being alive.

The apathy of my family and coworkers toward poetry might have killed my desire to write, had not someone listened to my heart and responded to my rather pathetic musings with considered compassion and skillful guidance.

I possessed no knowledge of the craft of writing, yet Michael Dennis Browne praised the few musical phrases I managed to produce, the rare imaginative image I presented. He helped me recognize when my writing was humdrum or cliche by overlooking it, as a patient adult overlooks what is childish in children. By this method he demonstrated that truth can be most effective when it is subtle.

He also taught me to recognize good poetry by introducing me to–good poems. He recommended that if I was serious about learning poetry, I should not just read, but study The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes. At the time, no one but teachers of poetry had heard of her. Now she’s famous for her memoir (and the movie loosely based on her writing) about Tuscany.

For the next decade I swooned over poetry as if poetry was Romeo and I was Juliette. I was certain I had never seen true beauty before I found poetry. In other words, I was a sap. I wrote many dozens of poems that seemed, at the time I was writing them, so lovely. They were, of course, sappy. But I learned the musicality and precision of words from the practice of poetry.

I switched my major to creative-writing/poetry through the U of M’s Program of Individualized Learning, and Michael Dennis Browne agreed to be my area specialist (translated into non-university-speak–that’s mentor).  Now that I’m older and a more experienced judge of what makes a poem, I can see that not a single one of the dozens of poems I turned into him was without serious, even fatal, flaws. And still he managed to make me believe that I could, if I worked diligently and for a long time, become a decent writer.

His best advice to me came in the form of metaphor, naturally. I don’t remember his exact words but I remember the images:

Your mind is a tree. Great ideas–in philosophy, art, science, religion, literature and history–are branches. And the delightfully inventive poems and stories you long to write–they’re birds.

A young tree with a few thin branches will attract a bird or two. A stunted tree will never grow abundant branches. But a mighty tree near the water, one that lives through drought by sending down a network of deep roots, one that develops many sturdy, healthy branches–that tree will call down an enormous flock of migrating birds looking for a welcoming roost.

Play with words, he told me. But put your best, most concerted effort into living well, into learning wisdom, into growing your mind. Then your poems and stories will come. They will find you.


What’s the best advice you’ve received from one of your favorite mentors?  

27 thoughts on “What writing instructors should pass on to their students”

  1. One of my favorite mentors was 95 when our friendship began! My younger son was 39 at the time and finishing his college degree with the goal of going to Medical School and becoming a doctor – seemingly impossible, especially with a family. My friend told me “You just keep on encouraging him”. Today he is in his first year of Residency and credits his wonderful wife and children for much of his motivation and success! And yes, he is now called Doctor! And me – his mom? I am now taking violin lessons!

  2. What a wonderful essay and tribute. He was so wise to emphasize living as much or more than writing, which in a certain sense is a mere symptom. I am struggling to recall an equal mentor, though I have tried myself to be the person I wish I’d had.

    1. Perhaps I would have become a writer, had I not met him at that point in my life, but I wonder…

      And yes, he is wise. But I’ve been surrounded by wise mentors, at the right time. I don’t have any idea why I’ve been so fortunate.

    1. You’re welcome. Sharing has become a great pleasure for me.

      I’ve been blessed to have met so many generous people in my life; it would be very low-class of me not to pass on what they freely gave to me.

      Thank you for stopping by. I’m really enjoying your blog and photos.

  3. Excellent words to make us wise, Tracy. I would add only one thing: To “Don’t take yourself or your writing too seriously, but also, don’t take yourself or your writing for granted. In the beginning, we writers take writing too seriously, but once we start publishing, the pitfall is to take writing for granted.

  4. I have never had a writing teacher 😦 Got what I know out of books.

    I had often heard it said that creative writing is taken much more seriously in the USA and as a result, your use of language is more sophisticated and aware than ours here in the UK. I had to learn about basic composition all over again in my twenties, and I have an A in my A-level English Literature. But my writing was awful before I learned all over again how to do it properly – for example, I’d had no thought for how to construct to make things clear to a reader at all.

      1. How the poem got him to America–after he read it, he felt drawn to go to where poets like that were hanging out, which was the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (at the time, it was quite a revolutionary education. Now it’s the pattern for creative writing courses all across America).

    1. You’re most welcome, Stefano.

      I knew at the time that something good was happening. Now, all these years later, I’m able to see how great an impact his advice had. It was something like a compass, to orient my way.

  5. I think these nine points are very wise. Point #2 definitely is a distraction for me 🙂
    and second last dot-point, is a good point to keep in mind.

    I have found as the writing continues, one has more of a deep appreciation of other genres and art-forms (poetry vs prose etc).

    I LOVE the analogy of the mighty tree having been through drought sending down deep roots and developing sturdy healthy branches which attract the birds. It says more in a few words than some philosophers say in a whole book.
    Thanks for an enlightening post.

    1. That tree-image stayed with me, too, Elizabeth.

      And that. is what the best poets do so well–they circumscribe in an image, what philosophers can hardly say in a whole book.

      And MDB is definitely philosophical, and witty. One of his best jokes was, when someone arrived late for class– as that person entered the classroom he would say, “And that, my friends, is the meaning of life” followed by a deliberate pause while he posed with a particularly Socratic look on his face. And then he would say (in a very sad voice) to the late person, as if he had just noticed her presence, “Oh, Ellen. You missed it.”

  6. What great advice and how lucky were you to have such a mentor? Like I have said before, I don’t know who my writing mentor really is at this point but I carry words from a TA in a creative writing course in college, which is pretty simple – Never sell yourself short. Which has often crossed my mind before I press publish on WordPress!

    1. Good advice from that TA. Confidence has a tremendous amount to do with it, I think. And having a good sense of who that “self” is, is worth something too. Too things you have in spade, I’d say (or, that’s what comes through in your writing, anyway–the confidence to be who you are, and a defined and clear personality).

  7. What a beautiful tribute. Oh my Gosh. This really was beautiful. WOW.

    One of my mentors, who is not all that old, or all that wise, is my friend ManSoo. You know whom I am talking about. He’s just a couple of years older than I am. But he has taught me to never give up. To follow our dream, how ever hard or impossible to achieve it might seem at any time. But most importantly, to me for sure, is his undying loyalty, friendship and love. Once I realized that I “had made it” into his fold, into his family, into his friendship, I also realized there was nothing I could do wrong to fall out of his grace. What a gift.

    1. That kind of loyalty is rare, and truly is a gift.

      Sometimes I get discouraged by all the things that go wrong in the world and in relationships–it’s good for me to remind myself of how many things have gone right. It’s easy to write a tribute to someone who has shared so much generosity and wisdom; and I know that most of his hundreds of students have felt exactly the same way. He has a way of making everyone feel respected, listened to, validated. That’s a rare gift, too.

  8. Hello Tracy. Just wanted to say I found you from Denise over at listenwatchreadshare.
    I really enjoyed reading this article and your list of 9 writing principles. I especially take note of number 1. As a ‘latebloomer’ to full time writing I sometimes feel panicked at the thought that ‘it’s now or never’ and so I feel very pressured to get my book finished. This particular book has been growing inside me for 30 years I might add! It is only now, as an unexpected result of a few of life’s curve balls being thrown at me, that I am in a position to write – funny how that happens!
    So, all that to say, many thanks for sharing this great advice here, I will take it on board, and take a very deep breath… 🙂

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Sherri–I love how the blogging community is like going around to a bunch of open house parties with your friends. I keep meeting the most amazing people! It’s wonderful that life has give you breathing space in which to write. Of course you want to get to the end, but don’t neglect to enjoy the journey (which really is the most important part of writing, the same as in life). I’m going to pop over to your blog now…

      1. Thank you Tracy, and I love your comparison of the blogging community with going to lots of open house parties with your friends! I never thought of it quite like that until now, and you are absolutely right! It’s great isn’t it?
        Also about enjoying the journey. So very important, and thank you for the very timely reminder of that 🙂

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