Advice for the Writer Just Starting Out and the Writer Who Wants to Keep Going

It's National Poetry Month and that means lots of poetry reading and hopefully, poetry writing. Recently, Elizabeth Corcoran asked me to answer some questions designed to help a beginning writer find her way in the literary world. I hope something I've written here might be useful to you or to a student you know...

Susan Rich explored the world before settling down to poetry. With a degree in International affairs from Harvard, Susan worked with Amnesty International, the Peace Corps, and as a human rights trainer in Gaza and the West Bank. She has written three poetry books, including her recent, The Alchemists Kitchen. With poems published in magazines from the Christian Science Monitor to the Alaska Quarterly, she has been awarded the Times Literary Supplement Award, a residency at Fundacion Valparaiso in Spain, an Artist Trust Fellowship, and a Seattle City Artist Project Award, as well as participation in the Cuirt Literary Festival in Galway, Ireland. 

Like so many writers, your passion for writing was once almost crushed. After a decade of world travel and human rights work, you returned to writing. What advice would you give to a person who once loved to write, but put it aside because they were discouraged?

When I was a college student several of my male professors told me in subtle and not so subtle ways: you don't have what it takes to be a writer. I was young, fairly innocent, and believed too much in their authority as "professors." It took ten years of living in order for me to return to what I loved - creating music out of my imagination, creating a word order, structure, a line break that no one had quite done this way before.

So to answer your question simply - and yet the answer is far from simple - as a writer, don't ever give your power away. Don't let anyone else be the final judge of your work. This is tricky because a young writer, any writer, must open themselves to learning new literary tools - new ways of putting the words on paper.

What saved me as a poet and allowed me to return to the open field of the blank page was to check my ego at the door. I returned to writing poetry, for me and not for anyone else. I gave up my romanticized idea of the poet and wrote because it's (you've heard this before) what I needed to do. Mark Doty says in an interview with Bill Moyers that until he writes about an experience it seems incomplete - that the poem becomes a kind of varnish allowing his life (any life) to shine.

In the end, I have no recourse but to write to please myself.
Do you have suggestions of where a "want to be" writer or poet might begin? For example, you've said you don't get up two hours before breakfast every day.

Of course everyone is different; for me, I required the structure of a writing class - even if it was conducted around a dining room table. I wanted to learn. What led me back to a life of writing was a Tuesday evening poetry class conducted out of my teacher's home.

The teacher, because she herself felt snubbed by the Boston literary life, was emphatic that no one social class or gender owned the life of poetry. Three years flew by as I took weekly classes from various poets in the Boston / Cambridge area. Slowly, I started sending my poems into the world and, to my utter surprise, different journals began to accept them.

But here's the key: before I could send my work out, I needed to really accept that my poetry was my own and not up for final evaluation by others."Writing well is the best revenge," Zelda Fitzgerald explained in her novel. As the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, we can only assume how difficult it was for her to be viewed as a serious writer. I came across that quote when I was a teenager and it has served me well.

To continue reading this interview click here on The Writer's Connection.


  1. Susan, a wonderful interview. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. Thanks, Maureen,
    I really wanted to make the interview useful to others~
    Glad you enjoyed it!


Post a Comment