John Tranter: Advice to a New Writer
I wrote and published poetry for over half a century. Now and then I receive enquiries from people starting out to be a writer, asking me to read their manuscripts (for nothing) and tell them what they should do to become a famous published poet, or at least a published poet. I don’t have the time or the inclination to read poetry manuscripts or to write lots of personal letters, and since what I say is always the same, here it is.
Find another career.
Please. Take up etching, or photography. Work the midnight to dawn shift in a fast food takeaway joint, be a mail delivery person, become a university student, drop out, hitch-hike around the world, work in the pay office of a military repatriation unit, drive an old limousine for a living, operate a process camera and develop printing plates in a print workshop, sweep the floors at an art gallery, edit English translations of television subtitles in a dozen foreign languages, direct radio plays. I have done all those things. You will meet a better class of people, have more fun and lead a more valuable life. But if you insist on being a poet, read on.
Here’s what you need to do. In brief:
— Read widely.
— If you can manage it, travel.
— Write a lot, and then rewrite a lot.
— Publish persistently in a wide range of poetry magazines.
— Pay attention to the feedback you receive.
— Give up the idea that you will ever be famous or even well-known. You won’t.
— Obtain a job that you like and submerge yourself in the human race. These people are the reason you write poems.
— Stay away from charlatans, sycophants and famous writers.
What to Do in detail:
Read widely. Unless you read other contemporary poets’ work, you will have no idea what is going on out there, and you are likely to write stuff that is immature and out of date. Also read the great dead: they were bright young things just like you when they wrote their best work. Do a good English degree — not Creative Writing: English Literature, where you have to actually read lots of others people’s books. Apart from half a dozen plays of Shakespeare, it would help to know the best work of most of the main poets of Ancient Greece and Rome, the English Renaissance, the Romantics, the French Symbolists, and fifty poets in English from 1920 to 1970. Seek to understand why Coleridge was such a brilliant success. Seek to understand why Coleridge was such a tragic failure. Seek to understand why Wordsworth was such an inspired and radical young poet (did Communard politics have anything to do with it?). Seek to understand why Wordsworth was such a terrible old bore (did ambition, success and old age have something to do with it?). Find a neglected writer whose work you like and read the work enthusiastically.
Travel as much as you can afford to. Travel is said to broaden the mind, though I’ve seen it do the opposite. Keep your mind open!
Write a lot, and — more important — rewrite a lot. When you’ve written a good poem, put it away for a week or two and then rewrite it. A good poem usually goes through eight or ten drafts.
Publish persistently in a wide range of poetry magazines for at least ten years. Seek feedback from others and pay attention to it. It takes more than ten years to turn out a good concert pianist, and fifteen to twenty to turn out a good composer. How long do you think it takes to turn out a good poet?
Now and then I receive inquires from people who say “I have this manuscript of poems, how do I find a publisher who will publish it?” I usually ask “Have you appeared in many poetry magazines?”. Sometimes they say “Oh no, I don’t want to go through all that magazine angst, I just want to bring a book out.” This is a fatal misunderstanding of the publishing and book-buying process.
No publisher can afford to bring out a book by a writer who is unknown. Publishers know that it’s hard enough to persuade a bookshop to stock a poetry title by a well-known writer; at least the bookshop owner knows that a few of her customers may have heard of the well-known writer and may buy a few copies of the book. For the unknown writer, there’s no point even asking the bookshop to stock the book.
By the time I published my first book of poetry I’d written about three hundred poems. That’s after a decade of writing. Most of them were rubbish, as it happens, but I had about 70 of them published in twenty or so different magazines by that time. That’s what you have to try to do.
And you learn a lot from publishing in magazines. On the one hand it helps you to find a readership, but it’s also interesting to find out how much you can learn from a poem when you see it in print in a magazine. Before it’s published it belongs to you, you know what it’s doing and how it works. But when you see it in print, in a different context, suddenly you see all the things that are wrong with it. Then you can think about what to do better next time.
It’s also vital to look for feedback and to pay attention to it. Often writers aren’t aware of what other people see when they read their poems. This is an important point: you might think you know exactly what your poems are doing, but you will be amazed to find out how little of that actually reaches a reader. It’s useful to join a poetry discussion group, or to take some classes in writing poetry. Your local Writers Centre will have a list of these. Look them up on the Internet and join one and go to some poetry classes. And listen!
For the sake of your own peace of mind, give up the idea that you will ever be famous or even well-known. Medical researchers are more important to humanity than poets, and medical researchers don’t lie awake at night wishing they were famous.
Do the training that will enable you to find a good job, one that will ensure you mix with other people (don’t be a loner!) and which gives you a reasonable income without eating up all your energy. Nursing, teaching, editing, whatever. Fit your writing around that. Pay attention to other people and try to be a good human being: there’s no better way to make sure you never have any friends than to act like a conceited, whining pain in the neck.
A note on Psychopaths
As a final note, I have learned through long and sad experience that the world of poetry is – like the world of high-profit capitalist corporations, oddly – a place where a few career charlatans and narcissistic psychopaths can prosper, people who have some verbal talent but who are not much good at anything else apart from manipulating people and climbing to the top of the pole. They don’t realise they’re horrible. They think they’re nice people!
You can’t change these people, so don’t ruin your life trying. Dr Robert Hare is the current (2012) expert on the condition (http://www.hare.org/links/saturday.html). A lifetime of careful research has taught him that people like this have no levers you can press – they simply don’t have empathy of any kind, and so lack any conscience or any guilt, or any grasp of what the suffering of others might mean. If they have managed to climb to the top, they are cleverer than you are, and more ruthless. Learn to recognise them and stay out of their way. They will die, soon enough.
If you must be a poet, focus on enjoying your own poetry and that of others, and keep yourself nice.
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