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?