Poetry Illuminated – Whitman & Neruda

Reading the poetry of Walt Whitman, Song Of Myself Illuminated, by Allen Crawford (Tin House Books):


Neruda’s Love Sonnet #17 on my arm. Feeling poetic today. Inspired.

Whitman: “Electrical, I and this mystery here we stand.”

Neruda: “te amo como se aman ciertas cosas oscuras…”


7 Strong Opinions: If You Want To Be A Great Artist, Don’t Eat Fat Chunks Of Half-Cooked Mediocrity

Mushy food

A few years ago, I finished writing and revising my first publishable literary novel (I say “publishable” because I’d written a lot of garbage-pseudo-literary fiction before my first published novel, and that trash fiction was thankfully never published).

While I went through the whole publishing process with my first novel – revisions, copy-editing, covers, blurbs, publicity, etc. – I almost destroyed my own mind.

How did I do this? By reading a lot of commercial nonfiction.

That might seem dramatic, but it isn’t. Reading a large quantity of commercial nonfiction was a horrible decision. Don’t get me wrong, I thought I was doing the right thing. I had a best friend who loved and recommended nonfiction to me, and I kept reading the material he gave to me. From there, I branched out and tried other informative nonfiction.

But I’m not being dramatic when I say that the regular reading of nonfiction affected me. I struggled to write high-quality literary fiction for two years after, and regularly discovered myself thinking more simply about everyday issues. As an artist, I was becoming mentally simplistic. Vacuous. Vapid.

It’s not that nonfiction is terrible writing, and it’s not that nonfiction is inherently a bad thing. BUT…commercial nonfiction is incredibly mediocre writing. If all writing is bathwater, commercial nonfiction is tepid, luke-warm, not worth getting into, and certainly not worth submerging in for long periods of time.

I know I sound harsh, but if producing great art is your goal, then don’t immerse yourself in mediocre art. Set high standards, and maintain those high standards.

Here are seven strong opinions on the topic:

1. Keep your internet visits short. VERY FUCKING SHORT.

The internet is a festering puss pond of mediocrity. Have you ever sat next to someone while he’s surfing Facebook? That catatonic, slack-mouthed, dead-eyed face he makes while he stares at the screen? That once-every-10-minutes “Whoa, you gotta see this” exclamation?

Or long episodes of hanging out on Twitter?

Scrolling through other people’s Instagram photos?

Looking up sports gossip?

Celebrity news updates?

Set a time limit with the internet and stick to it. Say, “I’ve got ten minutes to answer these two emails, post once, and get offline.” Then stick to your time limit. CLOSE THE LAPTOP.

2. Don’t read mediocre writing.

My mother raised me on the phrase “Readers are leaders,” and I love that phrase because it’s true. If you’re not a reader, you’re not a great artist. It’s as simple as that. Great books and memoirs and poetry develop creativity. They make your mind work. The metaphors and complicated structures and narrative arcs force your mind to find new connections, spark analogous thinking, enhance mental divergence. If you want to be a great artist of any kind, you have to be a great reader.

But although I love the phrase “Readers are leaders,” it’s not completely true, or it’s not completely true in all cases. What you choose to read does matter. Selection matters. For example, if you read only Amish Murder Mysteries (a real genre in publishing that sells quite well) or Paranormal Romance, for example, you’re never going to create great art. That’s a fact.

To create great art, read great art.

3. Don’t watch reality television.

The average person in The United States watches hours of reality television every week, and some of the most popular shows on television are reality shows. So reality shows are – by definition – what the middle watches. The average. The mediocre middle of America.

Most artists know that reality shows won’t help them produce great art, but what about the opposite effect? Can watching bad reality shows negatively affect you as an artist?

Bad Input = Bad Output?

That seems like a logical equation.


Let’s take The Bachelorette on ABC for example since it was listed by TV guide as the most popular show on television last week. This is a show about a young woman looking for love, and two dozen men trying to be the last man standing. It seems like a classic plot, right? But if great art is the goal, then the specifics of the art matter.

In The Bachelorette, no character has any depth, people’s lives are made up of dates, roses, feelings, alcohol, more feelings, more alcohol, talks, swimming, hot-tubbing, and eating while drinking more alcohol and again talking about feelings. Also, everyone on the show speaks in the passive voice:

“Feelings are getting intense.”

“Tough conversations need to be had.”

“Things are being said that I don’t like.”

Wait, who did what?

Why can’t those subjects do any actions?

Even the better reality shows, shows with more powerful conflicts, shows like Naked And Afraid on Discovery, are – unfortunately – formulaic. Since Naked And Afraid is a true survival show meaning the (contestants? stars? participants?) actually suffer physically while trying to survive for 21 days, all of the conflicts are the same show to show. While trying to survive, will the two people find quality drinking water? Will one of the people start a fire? Will either of them find much to eat? Those questions are great for a little while, but not for long. Every show is the same. And the mundane is the unimaginative.

4. Study art.

– Go to the Picasso museum in Barcelona. Watch Picasso’s developmental process unfold room to room. Examine his mental process as he becomes more abstract.

– Read at least five Toni Morrison novels.

– Listen to Wu-Tang. Then listen to Jay-Z’s The Blueprint.

– Go to the Vatican in Rome, and stare at each sculpture for a long, long time. Think about chiseling any of those marble sculptures out of one giant block, start to finish, no mistakes.

– Read Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson over and over.

– Listen to Mad Villain’s beats.

– Read Dorianne Luax’ poetry. For something completely different, read Kay Ryan’s.

– Stare at Jackson Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm” until you can see a rhythm.

– Read contemporary poetry and fiction in the literary journals Tin House and The Missouri Review.

– Listen to Bob Dylan’s Biograph collection, and dwell on the lyricism. Then listen to Adele cover Bob Dylan and sing each song infinitely better.

– Peruse a different painter online each month (Google images is an amazing and free resource for learning a painter’s body of work).

– Watch highlight compilation videos of Barry Sanders playing running back.

5. Attempt to understand other people’s lives (and/or suffering).

Although many, many TV shows are about the richest most best looking people on the entire planet, this is not what great art is about. Great art is about empathy and depth and creativity and wonder and struggle. I don’t mean that you can’t be a great artist if you grew up in The Hamptons, but I am saying that you’ll never be a great artist if you stay in The Hamptons your whole life because great art isn’t about one thing, and it certainly isn’t about a few monochromatic rich people who live in boring, daily unreality.

So try something different:

– Talk to illegal immigrants.

– Feed the hungry.

– Work with the homeless.

– Talk to people who are different from you, to people who work different jobs, to people who’ve made different choices, to people who speak different languages. And while we’re talking about languages, learn another language. Don’t be an American who’s content with only speaking English.

– Ask good questions and really listen to other people’s answers. Don’t try to interject with your own better stories or your really funny comebacks or comments. Listen to other people. Imagine their entire lives, waking to sleeping. Be in their houses. Wear their clothes. Sleep with their lovers. Raise their children.

6. Break rules.

My agent recently told me that she couldn’t sell a piece of fiction because the dialogue was a mess. I said, “What kind of a mess?”

She said, “It’s too perfect. No one uses any contractions.”

Dialogue is a careful mixture of eloquence and atrocious grammar. Correct structure and god-awful colloquialisms. The masters of dialogue break rules in perfect ways, and in the creation of great art, we must break rules often. Judiciously.

Think of Gwendolyn Brooks enjambment to break the simple rhymes of “We Real Cool.”

Or Leonardo da Vinci digging up dead bodies?

Or Jimi Hendrix with his homemade distortion pedals?

Yo Yo Ma warping time with his elongated cello swells?

Sylvia Plath going DARK in her personal narratives.

7. Finally, don’t follow anyone else’s advice.

Not even mine. You can follow some of it, sure. Some of it will work with you. But you have to set your own standards. And the truth is, I don’t always follow my own advice. None of us do. We’re all hypocrites. But I keep pushing. I keep trying. And you can too. Set your own high standards, and try to live up to those standards most of the time.

But be your own person. Do your own thing. Find your own artistic outlet and push, push, push yourself to improve. Don’t become complacent and don’t allow yourself to wallow in your own mediocrity. Work on your weaknesses. You aren’t born with talent. You earn talent through daily and monthly and yearly choices, actions, and discipline.

Finally, don’t congratulate yourself too much if you have a moment of success because what is success anyway? Success is one of those cheap 4th of July sparklers on a short metal stick. It may not light. It may not stay lit. And even if it sparks into something bright green and orange and yellow, you’re likely to burn your own hand before the process is over.

What Makes Good Writing

I went to my friend Ingrid’s desk in the English department the other day. I said, “I need to show my students what adverbs do in a paragraph.”

“What?” she said.

I said, “I need to show how adverbs weaken the verbs.”

I started looking through some of the novels she uses in her American Lit. class. The Great Gatsby. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Then I read the opening to Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, and found what I wanted.  “No adverbs,” I said.

Ingrid said, “Oh, okay.”

“She’s a good writer,” I said.

“Is that all it takes,” Ingrid said, “no adverbs?”

That made me think.  What does it take to be a good writer?  I thought through a few of the writing rules I try to follow:

– Write stark images. No cliches. Ever. Especially when writing similes.

– Write more verbs.

– Don’t use an adverb unless I have to. In the same way, minimize adjectives.

– Try to never write that a character is “thinking,” “considering,” or “wondering” anything.

– Describe without using abstractions like “glory,” “ugly,” “holy,” phenomenal,” “wicked,” or “good.” Use concrete items to show instead.  Show, don’t tell.

– Activate the five senses to evoke. Write to the body, a reader’s emotions, not the head.

– Write dialogue as the character would speak, not how I would speak and certainly not how I wish somebody else would speak.

– Action should be real and necessary to character development or plot arc.

– Structure matters and should enhance the book. No structure gimmicks.

– Plants and animals and locations have to be researched and portrayed accurately.

– Central conflicts should be epic, not mundane (all first-world problems make books silly – don’t write about a missing cell-phone charger, for example, or getting the wrong drink at a Starbucks coffee shop)

Those are just a few of the rules that I think about as I write.

But to be good, to write well, I have to read great books.  I like the image of Andre Dubus III reading poetry for fifteen minutes each day before sitting down to write in a walled in, naked room in his basement. No internet. No distractions. He also drinks black coffee as he reads the poems.

I like coffee and poetry as well. I also refuse to look on the internet as I write.

Reading list this last month:

Home by Toni Morrison

A Mercy (rereading) – Morrison

Multiple poetry collections by Tony Hoagland

Home Burial by Michael McGriff

The Book Of Men by Dorianne Laux

Ordinary Wolves (rereading) by Seth Kantner

The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor

New stories and poems in Tin House.

Failing Writer #12.

One thing that’s cool about me is I can find new and weird ways to fail.

I have this story draft that’s pretty good.  My agent read it and said it might be my best work yet.  So I was excited.  Ready to send it around.  And I thought, Tin House.  Yes.  A great lit journal.  That’ll be perfect.

I wrote a cover letter, revised that twice, stressed, perfected the manuscript, searched for every last adverb.  Then I smelled each image.  Listened to each consonant…

Okay, that might be going too far.  Anyway, it was ready.  Revised.

And I sent it.

Only Tin House wasn’t accepting submissions right then.  They were closed.

So I tried again.  The story wouldn’t upload.

Finally, two weeks ago, I got it sent off successfully.

Then the waiting, thinking, Maybe this time.  Maybe.  Maybe.

So I got their reply today.  Not an acceptance.  Not a rejection.

They wanted an rtf, not a .doc.

Perfect.  In haiku:

Tin House to moron

Your submission was done wrong

Manuscript returned

Failing Writer #11.

Okay. Summer’s finally over. It’s fall now, and I’m back to teaching and writing rather than just writing. Most of my spring writing rejections are in, so this is like a quarterly report for a business.

Real writing submissions report, prose, Spring 2010:

Total submissions: 49

Total rejections: 40

Total unanswered or lost submissions: 5

Total acceptances: 4 (less than 10% or almost 10% depending on perspective)

A partial list of rejecting publishing houses, lit journals, and magazines (I like to think of this as a list of people who don’t like me):

Random House, Penguin, Graywolf, Holt, Grove/Atlantic, Simon and Schuster, Little, Brown, Bloomsbury, Witness, Mud Luscious Press, Boston Review, Guernica, FSG, Glimmertrain, Fringe, Black Warrior, The New Yorker, Tin House, and Virginia Quarterly Review.

I’d write the entire rejection list in haiku, but somehow I don’t think that would work out. There might be more than 17 syllables at work (17 is a prime number over ten – by the way – and therefore perfect).