Whatever you do, don’t eat the rosebush

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Is there a via negativa for writers? Mark Twain: “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” Jamaica Kincaid: “What I don’t write is as important as what I write.” And best of all, Anaís Nin: “The role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.”


A possibly mis-remembered and not altogether memorable incident from a few years back.

“X’s poems certainly are . . . well-crafted,” I said, trying to think of something nice to say about a local academic poet who, I secretly felt, had very little to say.

“Well, we are all in pursuit of excellence!” said Y, semi-facetiously.

I wasn’t sure if she meant all local poets, or just those associated with the MFA program. “Not me,” I lied. “I just want to get laid!”

The woman at the next table – another writing instructor – choked on her coffee.


Sometimes when I’m feeling blue, I like to try saying “dude” in the voices of Great American Poets of the 20th Century, as preserved by the Library of Congress Recording Laboratory. Just imagining Edna St. Vincent Millay saying “dude” brightens my mood considerably.


Writers are always giving each other all kinds of swell advice. To wit: Get it down. Good advice for someone with a large pill to swallow. Of course, nothing says you can’t take it as a suppository.

Get it down. Then beat it senseless.

Show, don’t tell. Look but don’t touch. Put your hands up where I can see them.

Keep a journal. Write every day. Do you realize how much fuel is needed for the complete incineration of a corpse?

Write as if your life depended on it, not as if you’re a pathetic loser who can’t figure out a real way to make a living.

There is no one, right way to write a poem. But there are many, many wrong ways. So let’s talk about them instead.

No ideas but in things. This brick, for example, gives me several ideas, most of them bad.

No ideas but in things. No discovery but in dissection.

Write for yourself. Or, failing that, write for your colleagues across the hall. You know, the ones who are all into critical theory. Don’t you want them to dig you?

Be sure to subscribe to at least some of the magazines you submit to, so they can continue to serve vital communities of ambitious writers, their spouses, and a couple hundred academic libraries.

Public readings of your own poetry are a great way to reach a wider audience, most members of which probably wish you’d shut the fuck up so the bartender can turn the game back on.

Try to cultivate awareness. Pay attention to everything around you. Then discover just how difficult that is for someone with a writer’s ego. Cultivate irony instead.

Learn goddamn grammar, people.

Write what you know: nothing. You know nothing, puny mortal! Turn yourself into a word processor for the gods.

O.K., so write what you don’t know. “If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy” (Nikki Giovanni). And a few writers even do research!

Make it new. Or at least scrape the mold off before you serve it.

Make it new. Old is bad!

Make it new. Blog.

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My friend the Sylph wonders, “At what point does water in a bottle become bottled water?”

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