I recently read Maya Angelou’s powerful collection of poems, I Shall Not Be Moved, and in her poem “Grandmothers” she writes, “When you learn, teach. / When you get, give.” It made me think of all the writing advice that’s been passed down from writer to writer throughout history—and all the poems and stories that have benefited from these tips! So for this post, I will pass down some important writing advice that I learned from my former professor and mentor from the MFA department at Chatham University, Heather McNaugher. Heather was also the director of my thesis project, which won the Stevens Manuscript Poetry Competition and became my first book, Come In, We’re Open, shortly after graduation. The book is about my experience growing up in my family diner in Buffalo, which my parents owned for 32 years. I am forever grateful for all her support, guidance, and huge role in making my dream of becoming a published author come true.
First, Heather McNaugher saw things in my poems before I did. For a writer, it is always a tremendous gift to have someone know your creative work so intimately that in some cases, they know what you are saying before you do. I remember feeling a bit uneasy about my actions in my poem, “Dad’s at the Diner” and she said, “Well, you feel guilty about leaving the diner to go to grad school. There’s a culture war going on in that poem.” Her ability to articulate these big emotions I was feeling helped to give them a container so I could better process what I was feeling. She also encouraged me to not hold back from including these honest emotions and tougher subjects in my collection of diner poems, and that was important advice: to not hold back, to make myself vulnerable in my poems, and to be honest and open. I think people want and need this intimacy.
Heather taught me so much about craft and how to “tighten” my poems without stripping away the heart. She helped me to pay attention to every word in my poems and she often suggested stronger word choices. She had me pay particular attention to verbs and opened my eyes to how strong verbs really drive a poem, give it momentum, and make it move. She got me to understand economy of words: how to say more with fewer words, and “cut the fat.” She always detected the clutter in my poems and crossed out those words or phrases. Now, when I revise, I always try to say something with fewer words, but with a bigger impact. I remember a line from my poem, “Fish Fry Daughter” which you can check out by clicking here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/55391/fish-fry-daughter. In an early draft, I wrote, “He told my boyfriend, who was also a short order cook” and Heather suggested, “He told my boyfriend, one short order cook to another” which is less wordy, uses stronger words, and shows camaraderie.
These writing tips shared from writer to writer are like lanterns that illuminate the writing journey, and it’s a huge delight that I get to offer these lanterns to my own creative writing students. Thank you for reading!
–Sara Ries Dziekonski