Erin Coughlin Hollowell is a writer, editor, teacher, and poet who lives in Alaska. She has been most recently published in Terrain.org, Crab Creek Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Weber Studies, and Blue Earth Review and was commissioned by the University of Alaska to write poems for the play Bed Sheets. She received her MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.
1. Read what you write. Write what you read. Read what you enjoy. It always amuses me to meet poets that don’t read poetry. A quick way to weed out the poseurs is to ask, “Who are you reading lately?” If they can’t come up with a poet’s name, I know that they aren’t really writing poetry.
I’m also amused when I meet someone who is writing “literary” fiction but what they really enjoy reading are thrillers, or horror, or fantasy. Why not write what you enjoy reading? First of all, you’ll have the knowledge base and secondly, won’t it be more fun to write something that you’d actually want to read when you’re done?
Finally, it pains me to talk with people who are forcing themselves to read the entire list of winners of the Booker Prize or the National Book Award because they need to be exposed to “good literature.” I’m all for good literature, but heck, if you’re not enjoying it, life is short. I don’t read a lot of language poetry because I don’t particularly enjoy it. Every genre goes through phases, I don’t have to embrace each of them. This isn’t high school, I can be a good poet and not hang with the cool kids.
2. Don’t be afraid to fail. (The corollary here is “Fall down seven times. Get up eight.”) People tend to stick with what’s comfortable; it’s probably a biological imperative so we’re not the antelope that gets eaten at the new watering hole. However, in writing, your comfort zone is deadly. My best poems are the ones that I’ve shimmied furthest out on the branch to capture. Sure, I might break my neck, but I also might write something that makes part of the world look new to you.
3. Go deeper. Like Deb said, don’t be afraid to get to the place it really hurts. I’ll echo Jim Heyen who suggested, “Go to the deeper side of yourself when you revise, go to your personal relationship with the material.” I think that we all carry a motivating force inside ourselves and it is usually a secret pain. When I write a poem, no matter what the subject, I try to make it a little reliquary for my secret pain, whatever that happens to be at the moment. Li-Young Lee said, “What is the secret that you are keeping even from yourself? That is where the poem originates.” I whole-heartedly agree.
4. Don’t get too attached. Joseph Campbell said, “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” This applies to writing as well. It’s better if you don’t go into a piece knowing where you’ll end up. And that brilliant line that you repeated to yourself as you drove to work so you wouldn’t forget it? Go ahead, write it down, but be prepared to cross it out later when it turns out you were really just priming the pump.
4.9 Show up. I can’t tell you how many people tell me that they are writers, but in reality, they don’t make the time to write. If I only wrote when I was inspired, I’d write about one poem a year. One really bad poem – because I’d be incredibly rusty. So I write dozens of crappy poems for the one good one that I show other people. But if I didn’t make myself sit down and write the crappy ones, I wouldn’t have paved the way for the good one.
Remind yourself to write. Set aside some time for it. Commit to it. Brendan Galvin said, “It’s a chance to give yourself an authentic life instead of an excuse.” And if you are really stubborn, you can commit like I did – get a tattoo that reminds you that you ARE a poet, or a novelist, or writer of any stripe. It sounds cheesy, but all I have to do is look at my arm to remember that I have committed a part of my life to my art.