For years, aspiring Polish playwrights, novelists, and poets sent their scribblings to the anonymous editor of a literary advice column. Their correspondent was generous with the attention she paid to their work but often critical. She couldn’t help herself. She had a practiced eye and could see snatches of brilliance (or failures of imagination) where a budding writer could not. She was the future Nobel Prize-winning poet Wisława Szymborska.
An editor and translator by profession (she considered writing “the least professional of all artistic callings”), Szymborska did not spare her readers’ feelings. She had some deliciously cruel remarks for would-be versifiers (“perhaps you could learn to love in prose”). Her writing advice, now collected in the book How to Start Writing (and When to Stop), was always terse. “All imperfection is easier to tolerate if served up in small doses,” she said in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1996. But with wit, precision, and good humor, she often prescribed the perfect remedy to writers’ weaknesses. Her readers may take consolation from the fact that she was equally hard on herself. When asked toward the end of her life why she had published so little, Szymborska said, “I have a trash can in my home.”
There are two questions implicit in any book on writing: Can writing be taught? And how does one discover and develop one’s talent? Szymborska’s answer to the first is a firm no. The second, she says, can be answered only by the writer, after he has spent considerable time under duress. Writing can be a harsh fate. One does not choose one’s talents. “A few comments on a flawed metaphor may keep one novice poet from making the same mistake twice,” Szymborska observes. “A whole day’s conversation won’t help another.” Nor is there—despite efforts in the United States to the contrary—writing school: “A literature major prepares you chiefly for a teaching career, it will not show you how to write good poems.”
Szymborska favors simplicity to start: The blank page, the pencil, and the wastebasket are the best tools for the developing writer. They are the only reliable way to tempt inspiration. “With youth’s carefree ease, you scribble on any subject that comes to mind,” she gently mocks one of her correspondents. “Try chewing your pencil and staring out the window in despair every so often.” The writer must mature internally, not through changes of cast or scenery in his political or social life. There is no secret grace to be found at writers' retreats. “Poetry isn’t recreation, a respite from life,” she reminds her readers. “It is life.” And it is a life of restless questioning. Thus a sense of doubt about one’s ability when starting out is a sign of ambition. “We welcome the timid,” she writes. “They generally seem to set themselves higher standards.”
Not that there is no place for continuing education in the writer’s life. But the curriculum varies. There are practical reasons for this. “Even longhaired youths should read past poets, if only to save unnecessary labor,” Szymborska chides. “You might accidentally write ‘Prometheus Unbound,’ and then be crushed that someone else got there first.” There may also be remedial effects from further reading. “For artistic rehab we suggest Pliny the Younger’s understated portrait of a volcanic eruption,” she advises one writer who was avoiding plain speech. To another suffering from grandiosity, she recommends: “Read only the great humorists.” And though she is aware of that first great pitfall of the amateur—sentimentality—she is also decidedly against its alternative: “We’re not convinced the one true act is drinking vodka, as enacted in the one authentic spot, a bar.” Above all, careful observation is the writer’s task, and revision is ever the writer’s friend. “Even poets with many volumes to their credit never ‘get used’ to writing poems.” A writer is always beginning again.
Szymborska’s assessments are refreshing to anyone who has gone through a writer’s “education” at American colleges and universities. Higher education in the U.S. encourages young writers to major in English or “creative writing,” head to an all-expenses-paid MFA program as soon as they graduate, and then settle comfortably into a tenure-track position at a similar institution. Of course, the reality is usually less rosy. But even the assumption—based on the idea that writing can be taught and learned—is debatable. As Szymborska jokes, “No, we don’t have any guides for writing novels. We hear such things appear in the United States.”
Szymborska was severe with her correspondents, but her severity demonstrated the value of writerly restraint. She knew the price of publication. (In fact, she had been denied it by government censors because her first book of poems did not match the Soviet Union’s mandated socialist-realist style.) To seek publication is to seek to be judged. It is to learn, finally, what kind of writer one is (or is not) meant to be.
Josh Christenson is an assistant editor at the Washington Free Beacon.
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