writing habits

3 posts

10 Good Writing Habits from Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis has a new book out called Essays One, and in those pages is an essay called “Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits.” I don’t have the book yet, but I do have the wisdom to keep Literary Hub on my Bookmarks list.

There you will find a lengthy excerpt from the book that covers only TEN of Davis’s recommendations. The thing is, she provides examples for most of the ten, so a serious writer might do well to wade through them.

Me? I especially like #3 quoted below. Why? Because I’m already doing it, meaning I can chalk one up without the least bit of effort. (Don’t you just love it when you “fall in” like that?) Here it is in Lydia Davis’s own words:

“#3: Be mostly self-taught.

There is a great deal to be learned from programs, courses, and teachers. But I suggest working equally hard, throughout your life, at learning new things on your own, from whatever sources seem most useful to you. I have found that pursuing my own interests in various directions and to various sources of information can take me on fantastic adventures: I have stayed up till the early hours of the morning poring over old phone books; or following genealogical lines back hundreds of years; or reading a book about what lies under a certain French city; or comparing early maps of Manhattan as I search for a particular farmhouse. These adventures become as gripping as a good novel.”

Of interest to poets especially will be #6. And before we part, I might suggest you find a physical notebook (if  you don’t have one already) to carry about for notes because you’ll be hard pressed to adopt much of her advice without one. It comes as no surprise that most all serious writers have one and use it religiously.

Plus, the idea of shopping for the right notebook and the right pen or pencil parallel parks itself right next to a curb called nirvana. What is it about “writerly objects” that so mesmerizes writers? Ours is not to ask so much as to buy and use.

You heard me: to use. Buying and shelving or otherwise neglecting is akin to one of those non-writers who goes to all the hip writer hangouts and talks a good game while writing a sum total of nothing.

Cue “The Pretender.”

What Groundhog Day Means to Poets

phil connors

When the movie Groundhog Day was released in 1993, it received mixed reviews. Since then, however, the film has been embraced by many as a dark-horse (woodchuck?) comedy with serious undertones.

It’s even been embraced by Buddhists, who see TV weatherman Phil Connors’s repeating day as a metaphor for reincarnation and striving to try, try, try again until you reach enlightenment.

But I come not to praise born again (and again, and again) weathermen, I come to show how Phil’s inability to escape February 2nd echoes the life of a poet.

How shall I compare thee to a winter’s day, then, one that starts with Sonny & Cher on a clock radio singing, “I’ve Got You, Babe” at 6 a.m.? Like so:

  • a poet writes every day
  • a poet wakes to see the same poems every day, and the more he tries to change them, the more stubborn they become against transformation
  • a poet calls on pick-a-Muse-any-Muse and gets Sonny & Cher (the 10th and 11th Muses) instead
  • a poet knows the drill because he’s been there before (note the hard hat)
  • a poet sends “finished” poems into the world
  • the world sends “unfinished” poems back to the poet
  • a poet recognizes each day as yet another “No Reply At All Day” from markets
  • a poet reads good poetry
  • a poet says of good poetry, “Looks easy. I can do that!”
  • a poet writes good “finished” poetry, sends it into the world, waits through months of “No Reply At All Days,” and receives “unfinished” poetry back from the world
  • without comment
  • a poet writes a line he considers brilliant only to stumble upon the same idea in a poem he’s never read before
  • until he reads it
  • and thinks, “Great minds think alike, you lousy thief!”
  • a poet builds “I Got You, Babe” habits:
  • like black coffee
  • like riffs upon riffs of background Bach
  • like byzantine marketing systems
  • a poet, realizing reader-fee markets won’t go away unless you boycott them, only sends work to non-fee markets (if he can still find them)
  • a poet, realizing poetry markets will dry up without resources, ponies up reading fees until he realizes he is a poetry market, too, drying up slowly
  • a poet rationalizes
  • every day
  • again
  • and again
  • and again
  • else he’s no poet
  • finally, and most importantly, a poet believes, with persistence, that his day will come
  • it’s called February 3rd
  • and when it comes, he will seize the day
  • as his own.


Writing While Reading: A Healthy Habit

When I read poetry books, I often keep an open notebook beside me so I can copy down a few words or lines that teach me the craft of good poetry. It’s better than highlighting a book, because the act of handwriting gives the brain a better work-out than mere coloring.

Yes, the words are out of context, but this is a supplementary-type exercise. Make no mistake—I reread poems that speak to me many times over. But I also like the warm-up activity of just rereading a few wondrous words working wonderfully together.

What does that look like? As I just finished Jenny George’s The Dream of Reason, I’ll wrap up with my third and final post devoted to this book by sharing examples from her book—a few Jenny George gems. Even out of context they shine!


a small lie has flowered between them

Each day the same
scandal–this body.
These teeth and hands.

Briefly the trees hold the light in their arms.

then winter came
enclosed the lake in glass, and sealed
the dark cavern of our questions

The earth’s low vapors burning into light–
air shimmering with insects.

like the moon’s unlit side,
the side without grammar

the dark is full of purring moths

the bat…a leather change purse
moving across the floor boards

Another morning: raw sun on the snow
…the sun burning a white hole in the sky

I stuffed their ears with the wooly sound of sleep.

The fields are wrung dry
and laid out like a flag.

At night the stars fall from their Bethlehems…

Their hides growling and prehistoric,
fed on the rich darkness

The small stones of their hooves in the stony field

These tiny people, thoughts thrumming like mice.

A quick net of starlings
drops to the furrows.

My tooth was loose, a snag in the clam of my mouth

A jay made a hole in the air with its cry

In the sky a cloud goes on naming and unnaming itself.


Often it’s as simple as an unusual word pairing that works—the stuff good poetry is made of. Reading a journal of notes like this before writing your own poetry limbers the creative cranium nicely. You need to think of everyday things in unusual ways, after all. Or so it says in the job description of a poet.

Maybe the habit’s a foolish thing, a “hobgoblin” (forgive me, Mr. Emerson) of this little mind. But I like it. So there it is.

Happy Hump Day, friends!