Writing's Struggles & Joys - Advice From an Old writer

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Writing's Struggles & Joys - Advice From an Old writer

Reading Bukowski's Longer Poems & Mentoring Another New Writer

I’m writing a lot of short, lightning-strike poems — pieces that flash a single emotion or a quick single idea, a slap across the face. But my readings of late are mostly Buk again; including his longer poems, laying out a single complex situation: the moment where a relationship receives its mortal wound, or where his beloved cat has recovered from being run over by a friend entering his driveway. All of these “poems” by Buk are written in his typical voice and are the way I like to write (emulating/imitating his style); Poems that tell a story in broken lines which force the reader to pause and either take a breath or at least blink while moving through the emotions with me.

The other morning Nate, a pal of my son, turning 40 his next birthday, called me and asked if I could help him write his memoirs about a lifetime of debauchery and violence and luck, both good and bad. What with Buk in his grave where he’s been since 1994, I told Nate, “Sure, I can’t think of anyone better than me for that job.” Nate’s life has been filled with moments of grace and its opposite, short flashes of dangerous lightening soft moments of burying a child, and a struggle to figure out what it all means; Short poems that slap your face and long poems that need time to unfold and make sense, just like every other life and different than everyone else’s.

Let’s go Nate; let’s see how it all turns out.

Advice from an old writer to younger writers still searching for your voices

Don’t think...

Don’t think about writing poetry, or not.

Don’t think about writing prose, or not.

Don’t think beyond the thoughts that have grabbed you NOW and won’t let go.

Write those words.

Advice from an old writer to younger writers still searching for your voices

The redhead in the background of these two pics died. She killed herself a few years back. She was 50 years old. She left a note that said, “I love you.”

I knew her and felt known by her through my writing most of all. I loved her. She was a great friend to me and my writing. In the end though, obviously, what I wrote wasn’t enough to save her.

But I still write, every day.

And I rarely think about what I want to write. I don’t think; I write.

Don’t stop writing until you have nothing left to say or feel.

This rule only applies to writers.

If you’re a singer...don’t stop singing.

If you’re a tap dancer, mountain climber, lover, fighter, fool or...well, you know the rest already.

The Ultimate Goal of Your Writing

Should be to create something immortal, and if you’re too chickenshit to try you should take-up painting watercolors by the numbers.

P.S. BTW, John “Ode on a Grecian Urn” Keats died at 24… WTF is yer excuse?

The Septuagenarian Curmudgeon & His Nymphomaniacal Twins

Sometimes, nothing we can do is going to outshine the conception of our title. When enough is enough and any more would be too much.

Content vs. Form

And art/writing for specifically

The catch to writing poems that people can read and understand and care about, is content.

Form, from Whitman to Shakespeare and back and everyone in between and everyone before and after, whether writing in sonnets/villanelles or getting footloose and etc., with simile/metaphor alliteration etc.

Form has always been more about fashion than meaning, more about powdered wigs or mini-skirts than about burying your child or firing your weapon at the head in the crosshairs.

Form is almost always someone wanting to ‘be a writer’, wanting to ‘have written’ something — anything!

But in the end, often/usually writers focused on form, usually don’t have much to say. Ergo we get: “Yep, I got 1500 words down today; tomorrow I’ll get 1500 more.”

“What are you writing about?”

“Well, it’s hard to describe.”

“Why are you writing then?”


“If you can’t explain what you’re writing about; how can you explain why you write it at all? Much less, why you write about shit in ways that no one cares about?”

“Well, I don’t expect you to understand but I’m a writer, you see I write to live, writing is like breathing to me — unless you’re an artiste, like me, you’ll never truly understand.”

Writing for form, writing to show-off your acrobatic language skills and technique — is like a painter painting a still-life of a bowl of fuckin’ fruit; here it is, a couple apples, some grapes, maybe a banana or two, what the fuck let’s kick out all the stops and throw in a pear. The catch is that the artiste must do his/her ‘art’ regardless of the absence of anything interesting or important to say or show because...well…Just because!

Re-reading this I sound so angry, but I’m not. All of us, paint our bowls of fruit. Even Buk wrote some shit that was clearly just showing-off a little. And Dylan Thomas likely meant what he said when he pleaded with his old man to hang on against that “dying of the light — “ But generally, I’m right about all of this.

The catch is, you better have something that must be said for the reader to have any chance to care and to feel it.

Of course I could be wrong...but I’m NOT!

Does Your Writing Save You?

It doesn’t have to, but...

I’m not sure I’ve ever been asked this before, this question about does my writing save my life, but I’m sure I’ve answered it a few times.

At least to and for myself.

My writing saves me at times. And at other times it takes big bites out of me.

Sometimes it’s a drink of water to a man dying of thirst. Other times it’s a bucket of water thrown on top of me when I’m already drowning.

Does my writing save me?

Nothing saves us. But some things help us not care or worry quite as much about not being able to save ourselves.

Editors: Where Greatness Meets Genius

The job of an editor is one thing, the heart, and soul something else altogether...

For Epic Antonia “We had a great run, and not everyone gets one of those.” ~Toni Markiet

My wife Patti and I watched a movie last night, titled GENIUS, not particularly well-received critically or otherwise about the great editor Maxwell Perkins and his relationship with author Thomas Wolfe.

Wolfe, in the Jude Law performance/interpretation of him is presented as pretty much a madman, all in love with life and kissing black hookers in a jazz bar, and lots of other outrageous shit. But generally, not a very pleasant fellow.

Max Perkins, as played by Colin Firth never takes off his fedora. but otherwise he is the voice of reason, sanity and civilization, a bit punctilious yet proper and housebroken, a full-fledged human being.

I love movies about writers and poets even though such movies are almost always pretty sucky and limited in how they show what really happens.

All through this movie I kept thinking about my brilliant editor at HarperCollins, Antonia Markiet: so patient, gentle, kind yet honest in guiding me to writing my best known novel STUCK IN NEUTRAL (And five more novels after that).

I’d have never written as good a book and never had any career at all if it hadn’t been for Toni.

So last evening as the movie ended and Patti asked me, “How’d you like it?”

I thought for a few moments before answering that I mostly just felt tense all the way through, because I kept remembering/realizing how much I loved Toni, a love based on desperate neediness for her approval and acceptance, and desperation generally.

Like I said above, movies about writers are rarely very good. And the movie that will likely never be made about Toni and me: probably wouldn’t be all that great either, but I swear to you the real life events it would miss are, much like Antonia herself, epic.


Even before she ever said this one amazing thing to me, I thought Phoebe was a brilliant Editor.

Not because she was MY editor on my last book for HarperCollins, nor because she led a team of other great editors, younger and older than she at HC kid’s books.

But because she was smart as hell and she always knew what she was doing.

She was politic, kind, polite and, yes, inscrutable.

Which is a tricky descriptor given her Chinese ancestry.

The stereotyping involved in calling someone of Asian ethnicity is loaded with danger, not just the p.c. stuff, but the ever-present shit we apply to others without consciousness of what we are doing.

But I can’t talk about or think about Phoebe without recalling that she always seemed to have a few secret moves up her sleeves. She was always a few, or more than a few, steps ahead of me.

And I wasn’t ever going to know what those steps and ideas were until she decided to let me know, ergo, ‘inscrutable,’ right?

So, again, not because she said this one amazing thing but long before then, I liked and respected her in many ways.

But then one day I was questioning whether or not I had the ability to solve some forgettable writing/word problem I was having.

And casually, as if mentioning her plans for lunch or that she was gonna run some errand later. Phoebe turned to me and off-handedly said, “Well, of course you can do it, you’re a poet.”

Thank you Phoebe, for a lot of things, but most of all for that.

Always a friend. Always brilliant. Always supportive even when that support required her to be tough with me and to take big risks and make great, blind leaps in my work.

Phoebe was one of two truly genius editors with whom I worked on novels for HarperCollins.

I loved and will always love them both.

Teaching Writing Is Bullshit...But

It’s like “teaching” fucking

I used to teach English at a community college.

Basic English, mostly: Eng. 99 (bonehead) and 101 and 201, and once in a while I’d get to do an Intro to Lit. Class.

And few times, I was handed the supposedly plum job of teaching Creative Writing. I thought I’d LOVE teaching Creative Writing.

But then the first poems from 18 and 19 year old’s started coming in:

Sometimes the “i’s” were dotted by little hearts.

Sometimes the works were presented in handwritten printing or swirling cursive in purple or pink or lavender colored ink.

Sometimes there was the tiniest kernel of something original or smart or memorable, but not VERY fuckin’ often.

Rarely were any of the students’ writings even remotely close to as good as their authors’ believed their work to be. Or as their beleaguered high school English teachers and mothers and grandmas must have told them it was.

Twenty-plus years have passed since I taught.

But a few weeks back, one of these Creative Writing students from decades ago reached out to me, via an unexpected email and asked if I would help her expand/develop her poetic voice and work.

A little nervous I agreed to take a look at what she was writing now. In truth, I didn’t remember her. But I’m in my 70’s and still writing and figured I could spare a little time to at least see what she’d become.

We met for coffee and she’s in her 40s: a serious (as in practicing) Jew, a nurse and acupuncturist, a single mom of four kids and a lesbian with a nose ring and lots of other piercings and some prominently displayed and colorful tats. Oh, yeah, and blue hair...so there was that...

Thankfully, much of her poetry, now, is very good; sharply observed, deeply felt, raging with that magic mix of honesty, clarity, passion and an apparent love of language. Some of it is not just good but great or damn close to it.

She’d reached out to me after so many years, when remembering something I’d said or done that reminded her that maybe I could be useful.

It feels great and I bet Rumi and Paul McCartney and Buk, maybe many other writers and poets and artists of all types who have glimpsed this kind of cool thing would agree how nice it is, someone reaching out and asking you for help and you are blessed/lucky enough to feel that you can still provide it.

And that, right there/here, is the best thing I’ve ever experienced as a teacher of writing. At least the best thing that I’m willing to disclose and that won’t threaten my happy marriage.

*For Rebekah

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