Our Masterclass series is all about getting under the skin of creative writing from those in the know: successful writers and industry experts who want to help others find insight and inspiration.
Robert McCrum, Former literary editor of The Observer, author of Shakespearean (2020)
Telling stories is a weird business, at once a performance and a matter of life and death in which there are few, if any, rules. Traditionally, storytelling is wrapped in mystery. According to St John the evangelist, “In the beginning was the word.” He might as well have written, “Anything Goes.”
In our own nervous and self-conscious times, varieties of storytelling have become college courses, a writing-group standby and a popular means of bite-sized self-expression – as, for example, in this Bridport Prize. But it’s not just about trophies and crowd-pleasing.
However they weave their magic, stories never lose their power to moderate and console extremes of feeling and experience. Since the millennium, many contemporary writers have turned to short fiction to address their intimations of dread, exploring dystopian visions that help to focus our deeper sensations of anxiety about the way we live now.
Rarely have stories seemed more necessary
This year’s Bridport prize marks a post-millennial milestone, coming after a once-in-a-lifetime moment of global history. Rarely have stories seemed more necessary. Rarely have the narrative lines of memoir, fable, and medical reportage offered more consolation to troubled readers and writers. Every creative mind, young and old, has been to the edge of reason and back, having looked into an abyss. Now, with the probable advent of calmer times, it’s my guess that the mystery of story-telling – under the flag of Anything Goes – is about to enter a new phase of creative originality.
Ezra Pound once instructed the aspiring young modernists of his day to Make It New. The storytellers of 2021 do not need that kind of prod. We are all living, or partly living, in a new society. I believe that short-stories, which transistorise the circuit-board of thoughts and feelings are going to flourish during the 2020s as never before.
I’m not going to dish out handy tips about a creative process in which rule-breaking is as important as rule-following. The great short-story writer Ernest Hemingway was onto this is an early letter to his father:
You see I’m trying in all my stories… not just to depict life—but to actually make it alive. When you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful, you can’t believe in it. Things aren’t that way. It is only by showing both sides, three dimensions, and if possible, four, that you can write the way I want to.
So what more will this judge be looking for among the 2021 entries? Well, it’s a lot, and a little. For many years, during the 1980s, as editor-in-chief at Faber & Faber, this was a question that animated my professional life. Talking about writing is not the same as reading or writing it. My answer always involved authorial authority, and the identity of a distinctive point-of-view, from funny to sad. You can go on about the “narrative arc”, or character, location and jeopardy, but that only gets you so far.
Fundamentally, the short-storyteller’s singular obligation, sitting in that circle round the fire, is to be original, to hold her, or his, audience’s attention line by line, from moment to moment. Some of my best discoveries included Lorrie Moore, Kazuo Ishiguro, Hanif Kureishi, Paul Auster and Marilynne Robinson. Even with the benefit of hindsight, I cannot describe what these writers have in common, but whatever it is I recognised it instinctively. It’s what the creative-writing handbooks call a “Voice”.
Robert has written six novels and was literary editor of the Observer for twelve years. He is our 2021 Short Story and Flash Fiction judge.
Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, Novelist.
Swan Song was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, won the McKitterick Prize and was a Times Book of the Year.
When Truman Capote published In Cold Blood in 1966, he invented what he called the Nonfiction Novel— applying fiction techniques to methodically researched fact. When asked that same year by the New York Times why he chose to write a fictionalised account of an actual murder case, Capote’s answer was that his motive was ‘altogether literary’.
He had long considered the potential of this technique, which would pave the way for both the school of New Journalism and True Crime genres. Many of our great works of literary fiction— groundbreaking in terms of form, voice and vision— utilise fact as a catalyst for bold acts of creativity.
Inspiration comes from all places, but for me, Capote’s grand experiment provided the blueprint for not only my debut novel Swan Song, about Capote’s own seismic betrayal of his inner circle— but for most of the narratives in my stable of ideas.
Freedom in research
The process of investigating factual narrative events, taking research to a near-forensic extreme, can embolden a writer to experiment with fiction techniques. Capote famously travelled to Kansas to research the details of the senseless murder of the Clutter family for over six years in the early 1960s. His diligence bought him the authority to tell his fictionalised narrative from the perspectives of everyone from the killers themselves to the lawman who pursued them. My own process was a matter of diving into archives with equal zeal. Devouring everything from Capote’s oeuvre to publications and films of the period, alongside letters, diaries and photographs, whose smallest details might inspire a scene or chapter.
Gateway to emotional truths
I’m often asked about the pressure of fictionalising characters who existed, imagining what they might have felt or said. For this I used Capote’s own Litmus test. Had I sufficiently researched a character to feel that I understood and could honour what their perspective might have been? Could I feel confident that I’d done the work to convey their viewpoints, passions and ideals, while still telling a compelling story? The line between Fiction and Non can prove a tricky one. An author’s research needs to inform and empower, rather than constrain. I came to rely on factual knowledge as my gateway to emotional truths.
Footing in form
Whenever I stumbled, I found my footing in form. In the manner of storytelling. In shifting perspective. It occurred to me that in approaching his closest friends as subjects, Capote had robbed them of agency. That six women who were considered the ‘influencers’ of their day would be remembered in association with Capote rather than as the powerful figures they were in life provided my initial ‘in’ into their story. Early in the writing process, a vengeful Collective Voice took shape, controlling the narration from a plural perspective, invoking a Greek Chorus of sorts. As it developed, this narration assumed the function of the lethal gossip that threatened the society Capote preyed on. After a decade of research, I felt I’d finally found the voice of the novel.
My Bridport Prize submission
As I prepared my 2015 Bridport submission, however, my Chorus began to rattle its collective cage. I knew that something more was needed to tell the story I was grappling with. It occurred to me that the very narration I’d crafted to fictionalise the response to Capote’s betrayal was stifling my heroines. I found that what was initially my manuscript’s greatest strength had become its biggest challenge. I realised that I myself was guilty of grouping my protagonists together as Capote’s ‘flock’— repeating history. It became vital to restore their individual voices, as Soloists breaking free from the established Chorus. This stumbling block became a liberating source of inspiration. Further research into musical forms tailored to each allowed me to convey their unique narrative perspectives.
Facts as fuel
There is something about knowing the outcome of true events that can unleash unexpected feats of creativity. Capote habitually began with the ending of a tale and worked his way backwards. Knowing the narrative endgame can inspire fidelity, or prompt a choice to go in another direction altogether. Once the skeletal structure of a novel is in place, a writer has all the more freedom to ‘play’ in terms of technique. It can be as simple as choosing which character’s lens to view the story from, or experimenting in terms of style or structure.
The best Nonfiction Novels allow the reader to lose themselves in the narratives of their subjects. In the end it matters little if the novel is about a famous figure, an obscure crime, a work of autofiction, or a sweeping saga. What matters is that facts have inspired a wholly original work of art, that transports the reader. As Capote suggested, the most important thing is to ‘choose a promising subject’ and allow it to sing.
Gemma Reeves, Debut Novelist.
Gemma is a writer and teacher who lives and works in London. She graduated with distinction from the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University and holds an MA in Twentieth Century Literature from Goldsmiths. She has co-written award-winning non-fiction books and was Highly Commended in the 2019 Bridport Prize.
Victoria Park is her first novel.
Jump on your if not now, when? moment
Everyone’s journey to becoming a writer is unique – there’s no one clear pathway and that’s what makes it such an exciting career. Writer’s come from all kinds of backgrounds, do all kinds of jobs, and begin writing at different stages of their lives – they might publish a book at eighteen, or eighty. They might start writing because they have a story they’re burning to tell, or because no one is writing the kind of story they want to read – or can relate to. There is no right or wrong time to put pen to paper, but for me it came after years of ghostwriting and teaching in outreach settings. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was honing my craft. Even though I was writing non-fiction, not stories, it was a way for me to understand how to tell a story – even if that story was about food, or fashion, or a picture-book for kids. I started teaching around the same time, and I realised that both kinds of work involved helping people find their voice. After about eight years, I figured I should take my own advice… and if not now, when?
Read outside your usual taste
One thing I think all writers have in common is reading. Speak to any writer, and you’ll discover a person deeply moved by all different kinds of books. All writers are just people who love a good story, and then, eventually over time, realise that they have stories of their own to tell. I was a voracious reader growing up – consuming anything that was on my parent’s bookshelf which meant I was reading a real mixed bunch – think Russian classics alongside my Dad’s intense sci-fi collection. I didn’t love everything I read, but it taught me how a novel could take many forms, that it was endlessly flexible, adapting both to the times and the imagination of anyone who wanted to try their hand at it.
Don’t get hooked on rules
There’s all kinds of ways to write a novel and all kinds of novels. It might be a monologue, or one really long sentence that lasts 300 pages. It can go back in time, and then race ahead to the future. It can break all the rules of grammar you’ve been trying to learn. Going back to uni to study writing, I quickly realised there are no hard and fast rules. All I could do was try to honour my inner reader. I love to read novels which are told from multiple perspectives, so that you piece together a larger story through differing points of view rather than following one or perhaps two main characters throughout a book. So, I knew I wanted to be a bit more experimental with how I told a story. And then I had to figure out what I wanted to say about the world we live in. For me that was the importance of community. The life I’d spent notwriting, became my writing life –– all the work I’d done in different kinds of London communities, thinking about why people need communities around them, or why they reject it, or seek it out, all fed into the book that would become Victoria Park.
This idea became the foundation of my writing practice – not making myself write everyday, or at the same time each day, or finding the perfect spot, or mapping out my plot, or keeping a notebook on me. These can be brilliant, really helpful things to do, but they are subject to changes outside of your control. Instead, just commit to your wider purpose.
Follow your curiosity
Writers are keen observers – eavesdroppers, really. They’re interested in what’s going around them, they’re always paying attention to their environment. A lot of the writing process isn’t in the actual writing, it’s about following your interests. Googling things, watching YouTube videos, being inspired by movies. It’s listening to your favourite music, paying attention to the lyrics, the rhythm in the language. It’s wandering through a museum, discovering a new photography book. It’s all the things which seem like they have nothing to do with writing! I often get stuck writing dialogue, so I read the scripts to movies that I love, trying to figure out how the writer has captured the essence of their character in their speech. Follow your curiosities and let them feed the work…
Mary-Anne Harrington, Publisher, Tinder Press.
I think we’ve all spent far more time in the past year watching TV than we have previously, and the bar there is now very high in terms of story development and narrative structure. I remember Andrea Levy remarking how useful she found TV drama in terms of pacing character and story development, so if you’re struggling a bit, perhaps take a leaf out of her book. Think about what you’ve written, and then ask yourself, if you were adapting it for TV or film, where would you begin. What would be the next scene, and the next scene. Is there anything you would take out? It might not work for everyone, but it’s an enjoyable exercise and a way to feel you’ve put those armchair hours to good use… And it may just leave you with a leaner and more dynamic manuscript when you come to submit, which is no bad thing.
Let’s talk voice
Whenever I’m asked what I look for in a manuscript, I so often end up talking about voice. When I happen upon something that really stops me in my tracks. I’ll often be able to picture exactly where I was when I first read it (I will never forget reading the prologue and most of In Our Mad and Furious City into the small hours on my phone, and not just because my Kindle wasn’t working). But every bit as important as those amazing opening pages was what came next, the way the author, Guy Gunaratne, plunged me into a story (about four young men on a London housing estate over the course of 48 hours) in which the stakes were high, and that never stopped moving. Once that narrative got its hooks into me, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from that tiny, illuminated screen.
The business of storytelling
As a judge on the Novel Award I’ve been struck by how much our judging conversations centre around this business of storytelling. Do we care enough about this story, does it unfold in a compelling and confident way, how does the sample we have before us make us feel about the prospect of the book in its entirety? Are we learning enough, quickly enough, about the characters and their motivations and relationships, what they stand to gain or to lose?
It’s interesting to me because as judges – author, agent, publisher and editorial consultant – we come from different disciplines, and have our own personal tastes. But as we narrow down from longlist to shortlist stage, and from shortlist to winner and runner up, we tend to be in fairly broad agreement. The books we’ve wanted to celebrate are the ones that set up scenes confidently, that keep us, if not in suspense, then at least intrigued or guessing. They’re the ones where we know we’d carve out the time to read the full MS, even once the competition is done and dusted.
Story is the engine that makes fiction tick
So when you’re preparing to submit, maybe don’t prioritise your prose style, think instead about how you can show us that you’re in control of the story you have to tell. How does the second chapter develop the scenario you’ve set up in your first? Do we learn enough about the relationship between the characters and why they should interest us? Is your structure engaging enough – is there any slack you could afford to take out. Where should your story begin, do we need to start at a), or might it be more engaging to start in the middle of the action, then flash back, and then jump forward? Maggie O’Farrell has said that when she starts to write, she doesn’t always know where the finished book will begin. Her recent novel, Hamnet, which is essentially a portrait of a marriage doesn’t start with the first encounter between the couple on whom it centres. It opens with the moment of crisis, ten years later, that sets the plot ticking, then looks back to tell us how the characters got to this point.
Story is the engine that makes fiction tick, it’s what makes it a wonderful simulacrum of life that we can escape into. It’s what gives it its power to provoke and challenge us and make us think.
Mary-Anne is one of our Bridport Prize partners and helps judge the novel award. Tinder Press is Headline’s literary imprint and their bestselling and award-winning authors include Maggie O’Farrell, Patrick Gale, Deborah Moggach and Guy Gunaratne. They have a a diverse list of fiction and non-fiction, with both commercial clout and prize-winning potential.
Raymond Antrobus, Poet.
Raymond Antrobus FRSL was born in London, Hackney to an English mother and Jamaican father. He is the author of Shapes & Disfigurements (Burning Eye, 2012) To Sweeten Bitter (Out-Spoken Press, 2017), The Perseverance (Penned In The Margins / Tin House, 2018) and All The Names Given (Picador / Tin House, 2021).
In 2019 he became the first ever poet to be awarded the Rathbone Folio Prize for best work of literature in any genre. Raymond is our 2021 Poetry judge.
Being vigilant in our reading as poets may pay off in our writing as poets, so I want to talk briefly about the Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez and how his work helped me make some decisions in my own writing. I’m a non-Spanish speaker, so the English language translators I’ve relied on are Robert Bly, Mary G. Berg and Dennis Maloney.
On January 16th, 1916 Jiménez was in his early thirties, already an accomplished poet, prose writer and children’s author. He was leaving on a train from Madrid to board a boat at the port of Cadiz, sailing on to New York where he was due to marry.
He begins a poem in his diary:
“How close now to my soul,
What still seems so very far
From my hands!”
Jiménez was in love, a young poet in full visceral yearning mode, a poet influenced by the lyric intensity of Rilke and the French Symbolism of Rimbaud. On his sea crossing journey Jiménez would write some of the most revered poems in Spanish literature. Each of the poems would be dated between January 16th – October 3rd, some of the poems read like a fragmented internal dialogue of a mystic drifting off to sleep. In Jiménez’s imagination, any boundary between land, sky and sea melts away and we readers find ourselves in the world where colour itself is a kind of destination,
“…the train doesn’t go toward the sea” ponders the speaker, in a short poem addressed “To Cadiz on the train, January 28th”, the line runs on, “it goes toward the green summer of gold and white.” “Yellow” and “green” dominate so much of Jiménez’s metaphysical imagery that the colours become synonymous with his name.
Some lines for a poem come to me
Just over a hundred years after Jiménez took his trip, married and published the poems that became Diary of a Newly Wed Poet, I find myself in my early thirties, having written a poetry collection and a children’s picture book. I’d just finished a long journey by train to Heathrow where I caught my flight to JFK. I was in a long distance relationship and was engaged and soon to marry in America. From JFK airport I took a cab to Queens, Ridgewood and some lines for a poem come to me, which I drafted in my notebook
Give thanks, the wheel touching tarmac at JFK,
Give thanks, the latches, handles, what we squeeze
into cabins, the wobbling wings, the arrivals,
departures, long line at the gates, the held nerve…
the give / of rain on the windows
Each line is a runway, the alliterated lines “touching tarmac” and “wobbling wings” create the energetic physical quality of taking off, and the enjambed run on lines keep the reader guessing where the poem may land.
Poetic time travelling companion
In the sky, I’m a nervous flyer and on the ground, I usually get stopped, searched and questioned at airports, but on this particular trip I’d gotten past the boarder swiftly (It may have had something to do with the fact that I was wearing a suit and tie like the one that Jiménez bears on the cover of the 1916 first edition of Diary Of A Newly Wed Poet).
I hadn’t yet read Diary of a Newly Wed Poet. I was a year away from finding Robert Bly’s translation of it in a second-hand bookshop, a year away from resonating with the lines “I will leap over the sea / through the sky / I will go far, so very far / that my body won’t remember your body / or mine!”.
The poem I’d drafted after landing in JFK is now the opening (untitled) poem of my next poetry book All The Names Given (out with Picador in the UK this September). I’d thought I’d finished writing All The Names Givenwhen I learned of Jiménez, but inspired by his Diary of A Newly Wed Poet, I rushed back to the manuscript to make tweaks with Jiménez as a literary touchstone or better yet, a kind of poetic time travelling companion.
Explore your own experiences
I am looking forward to reading the Bridport Prize poems this year. I’m interested in the traditions (and anti-traditions) of your work, in discovering where your work joins with other poets and their journeys. Yet, what is probably more important, is to not be afraid to explore your own lived experiences. Embrace the uniqueness of who you are, as a living poet writing in your specific time and place.
David is a former Bridport Prize flash fiction judge and has written many works of flash fiction as well as novels and graphic novels. He has also written pieces for the Guardian, Sunday Times and Financial Times. David is from Cleator Moor in West Cumbria and now lives in Manchester. Watch his Masterclass film below.
Catherine Menon, Debut Novelist.
Catherine Menon is Australian-British, has Malaysian heritage and lives in London. She is a University lecturer in robotics and has both a PhD in pure mathematics and an MA in Creative Writing. Catherine was a Bridport Prize short story winner, 2017.
Hilary Mantel gave Fragile Monsters a rave review.
My six year old self had a point
When I was six years old, I was convinced that the real difficulty in being an author lay in drawing the picture. These days – though I remain unable to draw – I still think that my six-year-old self had a point. The difficulties faced by an author often aren’t about the words at all. They’re about the unwashed dishes in the sink; the pressures of the day job; the first draft that falls so woefully short of our hopes. The writing itself is, I think, perhaps the easiest part.
There’s a prevailing idea that writers should start with short stories and then build to writing novels, which is a little bit like saying a trapeze artist should first start off as a heart surgeon. Short stories – as anyone knows who’s tried to write one – aren’t an easier version of novels, they’re an art form in themselves. One of the reasons I so greatly admire prizes like Bridport is the equal care, attention and rigour with which they assess these different forms of writing.
Learn from writing short stories
That said, in my opinion there are plenty of things which you can learn from writing short stories to help in writing novels. There needs to be the same “hinge” in a novel as a short story, the same moment when a character is challenged and their world view changes. The narrative thread is perhaps a little more important in a novel: there’s more room for characters to grow and change, and hence more chances for them to become internally inconsistent in a way which jars the reader.
Keep a tight hold on your plot
There’s an ongoing debate about how much you “should” plot out in advance (short answer: exactly how much works for you personally). For me, in writing a novel it’s important to have the essence of the piece already identified before I start to write: I need to know what this story is about. Is it a story of friendship, of homecoming, of loss; is it meant to stroke the reader into a warm contentment or jolt them out of it? Once I have that, the actual plot events nearly always sort themselves out. When writing short stories you need to keep a very tight hold on your plot, simply because you don’t have many words to work with. It’s an excellent skill to take to your novel-writing, because being able to streamline your tangled first draft will make the subsequent edits much, much easier to manage.
Courage to embark on a novel
My writing journey began with short stories, including a mention in the 2017 Bridport Prize. This was a huge moment for me, and gave me the confidence to accept when Farhana Shaikh, director of the wonderful Dahlia Publishing, approached me to suggest putting a collection together. Subjunctive Moods came out in 2018 and my overwhelming impression is one of awe at the generosity of the writing community. Writers whom I hugely admire – like Courttia Newland and Bridport’s own Kit de Waal – were kind enough to offer advice and encouragement, and “short story Twitter” turned out to be the most supportive and engaging place I’ve ever set foot in! Without this I would never have had the courage to embark on writing a novel.
Hilary Mantel and Colm Tóibín
It’s now only a few weeks to the launch of Fragile Monsters, and once again I’ve been utterly thrilled at the generosity of people who’ve responded to it – including two of my literary idols, Hilary Mantel and Colm Tóibín. I feel so privileged and lucky to be here, writing about the process of writing. There are still unwashed dishes in the sink, I still can’t draw, but it turns out that being an author really is, simply and solely, about writing the words. I’m so pleased to be able to share those of Fragile Monsters with you.
Fragile Monsters will be published on 8th April from Viking.
Victoria Hislop, Best selling Novelist.
Victoria read English at Oxford, worked in publishing, PR and as a journalist before becoming a novelist. Her first novel, The Island, held the number one spot in the Sunday Times paperback chart for eight consecutive weeks and has sold over two million copies worldwide. Victoria is our 2021 Novel judge.
Are there rules?
I believe that the answer is “no”. There are no rules for writing – but I think every writer has a few that work for them.
One writer’s props and principles may sound like nonsense to another. But I am happy to share some of mine – and maybe one or two will strike a chord!
Be your own primary reader
I always think of myself as the primary “reader”. I imagine I am picking up the book that I am writing and if it doesn’t hold my attention for more than ten minutes, then it definitely won’t entertain a stranger. You have to be ruthless with yourself.
Read your words out loud
I try to read what I have written out loud. It’s amazing how hearing the sound of words/phrases make you instantly aware of all the faults on the page – repetitions for example, or cliches in a sentence, or dialogue that is wooden. Anything unconvincing will leap off the page. Nothing is hidden when you read aloud.
I often play music when I am writing. Apart from blocking out extraneous noise, it can take you somewhere else. For me this is usually Greek music, and always music without words. It helps me travel in time and space, to the historical period and to the country I am describing.
Having photos around me, or even objects that remind me of the period I am writing about can be a huge help. They help create atmosphere.
Tell the story
Whatever you are writing, there has to be a “story”. It can be something that takes place during the course of one day – or it can be a narration that last over a whole lifetime – but in the end it is all a story, a narration that needs to compel the reader to turn to the next page.
Meeting your characters
Character is always important. It doesn’t have to be a hero/heroine in the traditional sense. Very often the character who is most interesting (for both writer and reader) is very flawed, they have faults, they make terrible mistakes and so on. I always imagine them as someone I meet who I find interesting for their faults as much as for their virtues. If I am reading a story in which there is no-one I care about, I will probably give up.
Write ‘just because’
I think it’s counter-productive to write with the aim of being published. Write because you want to write, because you enjoy it and are excited by the moment when you sit down with pencil and paper or open up the laptop. If you are excited to re-join your story from where you left off, it’s more likely that a reader will also be excited when they begin to read.
No right or wrong
There is no correct way to structure a story. Some people don’t write a synopsis – they just see where the story will go and follow it. That can be very thrilling and creative too.
If you are writing fiction, I think it’s safer not to be over-autobiographical. Your own experiences, thoughts, life experiences will naturally come through in your writing. This is almost unavoidable and, for most readers, enough.
Save and save yourself
Finally, if you are using a computer – SAVE, SAVE, SAVE!!!!!!! I don’t know a single author who has not lost a chapter or two by forgetting to do this! Sometimes when you have to re-write from memory, the result can be better than the first thought. But save yourself from that moment of agony, when you realise something you have laboured over has mysteriously vanished from the screen.
Michael Lavers, Professor of English at Brigham Young University, Utah.
Michael won the Bridport Prize poetry award in 2020 with his poem Low Tide.
Watch his Masterclass or read below.
Michael Lavers is the author of After Earth, published by the University of Tampa Press. His poems have appeared inPloughshares, AGNI, The Hudson Review, Best New Poets 2015, TriQuarterly, The Georgia Review, and elsewhere. He has been awarded the Chad Walsh Poetry Prize, the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize, and the Bridport Poetry Prize.
Together with his wife, the writer and artist Claire Åkebrand, and their two children, he lives in Provo, Utah.
In recent years I’ve noticed myself repeating a few select quotations—to myself and to students—more than any others. These quotes are reminders of what poetry should be, how it might get written, and why we should not get discouraged by inevitable failure. They contain wisdom not only about how to write, but how to live.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
His essay “Self-Reliance” contains what I see as two complementary injunctions. First: “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.” An exacting judgment, but an inspiring one as well. It reminds me to set my goals high, and convinces me that poetry, even if we are not believers, is necessary for our survival as a species; that it is no less than a celebration of the beauty of the universe, and a source of necessary wonder and awe. Great poems don’t get written accidentally. All poets who have written lasting poems have had the courage and daring to attempt to write lasting poems, to wrestle with awe.
Of course, with aims this lofty, one must grow accustomed to failure. Hence the need for courage, and for Emerson’s second injunction. In describing a hypothetical young man discouraged by failure, Emerson reminds us that this man “has not one chance, but a hundred chances.” When a poem fails (as most of mine do), and when the few successes get rejected (as most of mine do), I try to remember I have not one, not a hundred, but thousands and thousands of chances. Just keep writing. A large stack of failed poems is the necessary price of the few worth preserving. Here I’ll sneak in a related quote by Wisława Szymborska. When asked why she had published so few poems, she said: “I have a trash can in my home.”
In an 1862 letter to T. W. Higginson, Dickinson explains her request for feedback by saying “The Mind is so near itself – it cannot see, distinctly – and I have none to ask -” If one of the greatest poets in English could not tell which of her verses was alive and which needed more work, we can forgive ourselves for being similarly uncertain. Our minds are too close to our own work to be its best judge, so get outside help. This is why I’m in a writing group, trading poems with people I trust. Inevitably they point out all the ways in which a draft I think is great could still improve. Or the ways in which a draft I think has failed may have some potential I didn’t notice.
So find people to ask, and be humble enough to let them help you make your work better—if Emily Dickinson felt she needed feedback, then we all do. And if no such people are available, put the poem away and wait. Then come back and read it with fresh eyes. My later self always makes improvements my former self wasn’t capable of because he can see the draft more objectively. How long should we wait? I don’t know. As long as it takes us to forget the poem entirely. A few months might do the trick. Longer might be better. Horace suggested that to gain the necessary distance we should put work away for ten years. This seems like a lot to me, but then again, he wrote some of the best poems we have, so he must have been on to something…
Dickinson shows us that mystery and uncertainty are unavoidable. But in a 1939 essay, Frost argues that they are not only unavoidable, but a necessary and desirable part of the process. He writes: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” A great poem “can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.” This means that to write a poem is to never quite know what you’re doing. If we don’t learn to live with this discomfort, we’ll be incapable of the kinds of surprise Frost extolls.
What does this look like in practice? It could mean a hundred different things: starting a poem by asking a question we do not know the answer to; forbidding ourselves to end on an image or idea that feels too easy; pushing a thought farther, and then farther again. For me, it means I strive to write mostly for myself, to give the writing its own value as a means of thinking or discovery. It means embracing what Emerson calls “whim,” the willingness to follow any idea I find interesting. And since I can’t know which thread will culminate in a poem worth preserving, I have no choice but to trace down as many threads as I can, starting many drafts, abandoning some, never quite sure which experiments will work and which will not.
As a poetry teacher, I often wish I could give my students a list of ingredients and procedures, a recipe which if they follow will result in a great poem. But I can’t. No such recipe exists. Nor do I really want it to. The lack of any recipe is what makes poetry valuable. The awe we feel in the presence of a great work of art is similar to love, and cannot be reduced to a formula. This irreducibility is one reason poetry—and love—are beautiful and necessary. The three authors above show us the way. I hope they help you as much as they’ve helped me.