Richard’s Writing Tips

1. Always have a notebook and pen with you.

During a radio interview, a Jewish tailor in London said, “If you meet someone who calls himself a tailor, ask him if he has a thimble in his pocket. If he hasn’t, then he’s not a real tailor.”

2. Have your antennae out and keep attuned to the world.

Anything in the world around you can trigger a poem, a story: a billboard, an object lying on the ground, a snatch of conversation.  (Wife to husband in a supermarket) “Don’t go down that aisle―we never go down that aisle.”(To which I can’t help but add) “That’s the aisle of the dead.”

3. Make connections — between your inner world and the outer world. It’s a principle of haiku and also of imaginative writing, making connections between disparate things. Lautrémont’s phrase, “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.”

4. Pay attention to niggles

Once a work is finished there will be parts that you’re not sure of . . . could they be better? A word or a phrase may niggle you. At this point in time you’ve done your best but . . . Put the work aside for a few days or a week, and then revisit it. Often you’ll see how the writing that niggled you can be improved and your rewriting will make the work stronger.

5. Surprise yourself (you’ll surprise the reader).

Let your writing take you into unknown territory. Abandon any roadmap and see where you go. This is what I did with the prose poems in We Xerox Your Zebras. Writing is often a stepping into the unknown. Sometimes you’ll ask yourself, “Where did that come from?”

6. Go beyond in your writing/push the limits (you can always cut back). Like in music, when you hit a good riff, go with it. If you come up with a startling image, stick with the image, mine its possibilities; the same with a strong emotion. Oscar Wilde: “Nothing succeeds like excess”.

7. Generate writing by taking up a traditional form (sonnet, sestina, haiku, tanka) or by imposing a constraint on yourself. For example, write a story using only one vowel, say “e”. Georges Perec wrote a 300 page novel, La Disparition, without the letter “e”. For my work-in-progress, Slender Volumes, each of the 300 prose poems is comprised of seven lines.

8. Words as eggs/seeds — research into words, their etymology
An etymological dictionary is a great resource.  One example: ‘The word erase is from a Latin word eradere which means “to scrape out” or “to scrape off”. The radere element comes from the Indo-European root (red-), meaning “scrape”, “scratch”, “gnaw”. From this same root were born our English words rodent, erode, corrode, and rash.’  —Words as Eggs by Russell A. Lochart.

9. Words wish to speak, “veut dire quelque chose”*. Let the words tell the story. Emerson said “Every word was once a poem.” Find a way to free the poetic potential at the core of every word. Dylan Thomas, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”

10. Fall in love with words, their sounds, their associations, their reverberations, the way they appear on the page. If you’re a writer, you have to love words. Take an unfinished poem or story to bed with you. Place it on your bedside table or under your pillow, and then dream with the words. In the morning you may find that you can complete the work. If you love words then you will use living words — words that engage your readers or your listeners, words that bring your subject alive.

11. Write yourself into a corner and then write yourself out again.

12. Find out your operating principles. These may change from work to work. What is the string around which the words crystallize?

*Jean Lescure (a member of the French writing group, Oulipo) wrote: “What interests me is that language itself, of itself, for itself, means something.” For “means something” he used the common French expression veut dire quelque chose. Literally (and importantly) this translates as language “wants to speak, to say something.”