My late maternal grandmother was one of those seriously formidable northern women who smoked like a chimney, swore like a stevedore and always called a spade a spade. She also loved to dole out sayings, proverbs and advice like doses of medicine, as so many grandmothers do. I was recently writing a poem about her, and about her propensity for advice-giving, and realised that a lot of her ‘life advice’ also makes pretty good writing advice. See what you think.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
This is a saying all grans use, I think — and plenty of other people besides. But it was the saying that got me thinking about writing this post. Ever since I started taking control of my own future and deciding what to do with my life, this saying has been floating around in the back of my mind, and it’s something all poets need to consider. Basically, don’t think you can rely on poetry to pay your bills — you can’t put all your eggs into poetry’s basket because it just doesn’t have the space! If you’re serious about writing poetry and sticking at it, you need to realise that some of your eggs need to go elsewhere — you’ll probably need to spend some of your time doing something other than writing in order to keep a roof over your head. Sad but true. (More on this here, by the way.)
Fine words will butter no parsnips.
This was a saying my gran was fond of, and one I always found rather weird and confusing as a child! Now I understand how adamant my grandmother was about honesty, plain speaking, and not ‘putting on airs’ — a good attitude to have towards your writing. The voice you use should be your own… all too often I see young poets attempting to emulate their literary heroes and use voices that clearly don’t really belong to them. Don’t use fine words if they’re not yours. Speaking as someone else will do your work no favours.
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Another popular saying and an obvious one for young writers. The need to progress, get better, get published and get on with it is really strong in less experienced writers — getting a book out into the world as soon as you can seems utterly imperative (I know, I’ve been there myself). But it’s better to take your time and make sure your work is as good as it can be before you start pushing onwards to the next stage. Don’t feel rushed into submitting to magazines if you’ve only written one or two poems you’re properly pleased with; don’t scrape a pamphlet together without making sure you’re totally cool with a) what’s going into it and b) the fact that heaps of people are going to see it. Don’t try and build your poetic Rome in a day. Take it easy.
You’ve been brought up in the bottle and seen nothing but the cork.
My grandmother — like most of the women in my family — was a determined and ambitious woman who didn’t believe in waiting in for opportunity to walk up to the front door and knock. To her, waiting for life to happen to you was not an option. She was all about getting out there into the world and attacking it head-on! For me, this saying suggests that you need to get off your butt and go have some life experiences, particularly if you want to be a half-decent writer. After all, how can you write about life, the universe and everything if you haven’t seen any of it? For me, this also applies to books. If you’ve only ever read one poet’s work or one type of novel, you’ve been brought up in a literary bottle. Get out of there! Get thee to a library!
One man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure.
In other words, not everyone is going to like your poetry. There will always be someone who comes along and tries to pick holes in your stuff. Don’t take it personally — take it professionally. Appreciate and accept the criticism. For every reader who comes along and thinks your stuff is rubbish, I guarantee there’ll be another one out there somewhere willing to argue that it’s treasure. If you never stop reading, writing and working to improve your stuff, rubbish ratio should dwindle and shrink in time.
The devil makes work for idle hands.
My gran was always doing something with her hands — a trait I in particular have inherited from her. She was an expert seamstress and made everything from full three-piece suits to wedding dresses; and when she wasn’t rattling up garments on the sewing machine she was knitting, doing embroidery, cooking, assaulting a crossword puzzle, etc. Procrastination just didn’t figure in her universe and I think if you’d explained the concept to her, she’d have given you a lecture on how it was some new-fangled invention that should be done away with. She’s right of course — we’ve all built, bought and acquired so many procrastination devices for ourselves that it’s a wonder we ever get anything done. So next time you’re playing computer games or vegging in front of the TV, think — idle hands. Pick up a pen and paper. Write instead.
I’d be interested to hear your handy sayings and proverbs, particularly if you relate them to writing… but I’d also be interested in hearing about your grandmothers! I think grandmothers are the coolest — they should run the world!