The Apostrophe Blog
In study after study,
researchers have established something they call
the Ten Thousand Hours Rule, which says that’s
how long it takes to get really good at something—
cello playing, archery poetry, safecracking, chess,
you name it—and therefore you should expect to put in
about twenty hours a week over a period of ten years
before you’re an expert…
—from David Kirby’s poem, “Ten Thousand Hours with You”—
It’s easy to find clarity and insight, to conjure up the best advice for oneself when looking back in time, isn’t it? What was once a mass of confusion, a morass of to-do lists and frenzied scribblings that seemed to be going nowhere, a total and utter blur—well, that all somehow becomes a body of knowledge that turns out to be both wise and make sense.
A few years ago, I was interviewed by the folks at Anchor and Plume Press in Baton Rouge, Louisiana after they published my long poem, Great Hunger. One of the (inevitable?) questions I got was the perennial, “What advice would you offer to an aspiring poet?”
I thought about this a good bit, and then boiled my list down to a personal Top Ten. Advice that, in hindsight, I wish I could have given my young writer/poet self, not necessarily in order of importance.
Read—a lot, deeply and widely—and not just poetry.
Love language. Use it to experiment, play, invent, surprise, and teach you what you want to be writing about.
Develop your own poetry/writing aesthetic as a guide to what you like, what you are drawn to when you put come to the page. This will help you both select and then concentrate on what and how you read and write.
Make writing a priority. Privilege your engagement with words and writing over other activities. It has to be at the top of your to-do list.
Focus on the doing of the work itself (the verb) rather than settling on the noun—the persona, the role, the identity evoked when christening oneself “writer.”
Practice patience with the slow slog that is the process of draft and revision—the continuous “lather, rinse, repeat.” Work hard to learn how to step outside your work and self-edit but don’t forget to listen to your own wise inner voice, too.
Seek out (re)apprenticeships. Classes, teachers, mentors, workshops. Humility and being willing to learn even if you already have degrees and publications are also useful qualities.
Find reliable, honest readers for your work. Being in a monthly poetry critique group for the past fourteen years has done wonders for my poetry art and craft.
Lower your sights and expectations in terms of success, recognition, publication, and money. Think local and regional as opposed to national, for starters.
Finally, define “success” on your own terms. Here is some sound advice in W.S. Merwin’s poem, “Berryman”—
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write