Guest blogger, Nicole Cooley
After the poetry reading last week, at a college in New Jersey, a student approached me, holding a notebook, and asked for a sentence. “Just one sentence,” he said. “One that is important to you. Advice to young writers.”
He was asking each of us, three women poets, who had read that night at the college. Confronted with the question, I felt the way I do when I am asked who my favorite poets are or what books I like—I went blank. But then I began to think about the sentences that mean the most to me as a writer, a teacher, a person who lives in the world.
And so, unable to choose one sentence, I narrowed the search to three sentences, the three sentences I have copied and recopied in journals, on index cards above my desks, sentences I have carried with me from job to job, house to house.
If you have writer’s block, lower your standards. This is my favorite. It was told to me by poet Marvin Bell at the Iowa Writers Workshop when I was a student. In that strange MFA world I lived in, where everyone—though most of us were 22 years old—truly believed we were writing the most important work of the century, I was not ready to hear this. I wasn’t ready to understand what I know now, that if I wanted to keep writing and have a life as a writer I would have to trick myself, to find ways to keep the engine running. To stop feeling every time I sat down to write I had to produce a poem like a perfect jeweled object. Now, this sentence, written on a yellow post-it and pinned above my desk where I have kept if for fifteen years, guides my writing. Now, even if I can’t write well I can always write something badly, which then frees me to write something better.
You should always be trying to write the book you think you are incapable of writing. I read this sentence while working toward my PhD, in a text by French feminist Helene Cixous. It might seem in opposition to my first sentence above, but I believe that it’s actually the necessary corollary of Marvin Bell’s quote. Only by freeing yourself to write badly, lowering your “standards,” can you try to write the book you think you can’t write. Which is what you should be writing, to challenge yourself. Each time I finish writing a book, I tell myself this, as I think about my next project.
What three things can never be done? Forget. Keep silent. Stand alone. Okay, I’m cheating here, as these are actually two sentences, from the 1938 long poem “The Book of the Dead “ by my poetic hero Muriel Rukeyser. These words by Rukeyser make me remember the importance of a writer being connected to the world, a writer who is constantly trying to make a difference in it through her words. Rukeyser’s sentences remind me, too, of the importance of community in my life as a writer, which can seem so solitary.
I couldn’t decide, so I told the student at the poetry reading all of my sentences. And he wrote them down, and I came home and recopied them again myself, on new index cards and in my notebook.
Nicole Cooley grew up in New Orleans. In 2010, she published two books of poetry, Breach, with LSU Press in April 2010, which focuses on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and Milk Dress, co-winner of the Kinereth Gensler Award, with Alice James Books in November. She has published two other books of poems and a novel. She has been awarded the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, a “Discovery”/Nation Award, and the Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Society of America. She directs the new MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College-City University of New York where she is a professor of English.
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