Tuesday, February 2, 2010

How to be a Better Writer

If you don't understand yourself you don't understand anybody else. ~ Nikki Giovanni

Years ago, I audited a creative writing class at Virginia Tech, taught by renowned poet Nikki Giovanni. I remember my excitement when I learned the word “audit” and what it meant, apart from its IRS context: that you could sit in on a university class for free if you had permission from the class professor. I learned that you don't get credits when you audit a class, but as a mostly self-taught learner, and single parent raising two sons on an income that fell below the poverty line, getting credits was the last thing on my mind.

I remember the poems I was working on back then, reading them out loud in class, and getting feedback from the other students and Nikki. But mostly, I remember two specific things Nikki said that have had a lasting impact on me.

“You don’t need punctuation. Let the line break tell the reader where to pause,” she told us. Even though, in my current Writer’s Workshop we continue to wrangle about the use of punctuation in poetry (I’m the only one that doesn’t use it), Nikki’s advice didn’t so much inform me as it validated what I was already doing.
The other thing she said that was well worth the hour commute to her Blacksburg class was (and I’m paraphrasing), “If you want to be a good writer, live a full life.” In other words, you have to live life in order to have something to write about.

Whenever I feel creatively deficient, I eventually remember Nikki’s words and push myself away from my computer or notebook the way I would from a dinner table if I was overfull.

As a writer, I can often over-ride writing inertia by writing, but often the results tend to feel lifeless. When my writing doesn’t flow for more than a few days, I know I need a change of scenery. I know I need to put it aside, resist my reclusive tendencies and go out into the world and mingle.

Photo: I call the above photo "Time-out." It was taken by my son Josh and is a self-portrait of his journal. He has them made for him so that they will stretch to accommodate his art form. For a few peeks inside one go HERE.

~ Originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on April 15, 2006.

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