How to Start Writing (and When to Stop): Advice for Writers by Wisława Szymborska (Edited and translated from Polish by Clare Cavanagh) - review by Joanna Kavenna

Joanna Kavenna

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How to Start Writing (and When to Stop): Advice for Writers

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Inverting the old cliché, Christopher Hitchens said, ‘Everyone has a book in them and that, in most cases, is where it should stay.’ The journalist and satirist Karl Kraus agreed: journalists, especially, should never write novels. This was self-satire, partly. Yet there are writers who can barely go to the shops without publishing a voluminous account immediately afterwards. At the other end of this unscientific spectrum are writers who destroy their work, either because they think it’s rubbish (Joyce, Stevenson, etc) or because they’ve become recently convinced it was written by the Devil (Gogol). Some people doubt themselves far too much, others not remotely enough.

With some or none of this in mind, the Polish author Wisława Szymborska, who died in 2012, destroyed 90 per cent of her writing. Despite that (or maybe because of it), she won the Nobel Prize in 1996 for ‘poetry that … allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality’. I have no idea what that means either. Her poetry is indeed mostly about human reality, though occasionally it is about reality as experienced by cats. It is philosophical, absurdist and opposed to chilly absolutes. She was a communist until the 1960s, when she renounced the party in protest at its treatment of ostensibly dissident authors. In one of her most famous poems, ‘Utopia’, Szymborska depicts a charming but uninhabited island where

faint footprints scattered on its beaches
turn without exception to the sea

As if all you can do here is leave
and plunge, never to return, into the depths.

Into unfathomable life.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, Szymborska wrote an anonymous column for a Polish literary journal called Zycie Literackie (‘Literary Life’). The column was entitled Literary Mailbox and the idea was that aspiring writers would send in their work and receive helpful advice. Mainly, Szymborska advised them to stop writing, at once, and destroy all their work. Her witty, merciless columns were collected in Polish in 2000 and have now been translated into English by Clare Cavanagh.

They are often funny and also quite sad. The aspiring writers imagine that being an author will bring them happiness, fame and fortune. Szymborska tells them to get a grip. Writing is a ridiculous profession, she argues, persuasively. Failure is inevitable. Success is highly conditional and mostly feels like failure as well. To Olgierd from Olsztyn, she explains:

You may be twenty-three, but you strike us as quite adolescent. For you a poetic debut equals topping the charts with your first single. A smash hit, a frenzied public, hordes begging for autographs, interviews, your picture in the papers: poets rarely make such conquests.

As for Olgierd’s poems, ‘two are more or less intelligible. The rest is monotonous chaos.’ B K from Goleniów also receives a discouraging reply: ‘We find it hard to believe that you are already eighteen, we’d have guessed more like twelve.’ P Z D from Chorzów desires, perhaps unwisely, ‘some hope of publication, or at least … some consolation’. Szymborska responds, ‘We must, after reading, choose the latter.’ Poor P Z D! Still, it’s not all bad. W W M from Katowice is told to ‘send a little more next time so we may better assess your future, or your Future’. A K from Zagłębie is even invited to visit the office if they’re ever in Kraków. But mostly, everyone is marmalised.

Perhaps they deserved it. We’ll never know, as we have only the columns and not the work that inspired them. Szymborska is such an ironic writer that I began to wonder if there ever were any actual submissions, if the columns were an extended literary joke. Perhaps I have been living in postmodernism for too long. Perhaps it doesn’t matter so much. The real interest lies in Szymborska’s writing on writing. Each column is a concise treatise. In one, she argues that language is ossified poetry and everything is metaphorical. In another, she proposes that literary realism as a set of conventions has nothing to do with reality at all. Society is in chaos, she adds:

Generations no longer talk to each other. It’s a misfortune of our times … We can’t explain the causes or predict the results. One thing is certain: literature will be the poorer. Curiosity is the key to its existence … Your stories are cramped, stuffy, and simplistic. There is no window on the world, hence no chance it might be opened. This is bad. A snappy style won’t save you.

Elsewhere, she writes: ‘What divides us from each other? An invisible wall. To what should modern cities be compared? Beehives or jungles. What is the void? The void is sterile. What drives editors to despair? See above.’

Most of Szymborska’s advice is like this: parodic and serious at the same time. The situation is tragicomic. Life is unfathomable, writing is a part of life, so how can we judge anything at all? Yet it’s hard to write a novel without some sort of basic belief in the novel. It’s like trying to make an omelette while disbelieving in the reality of eggs. In the end, Szymborska is so tough on her aspiring authors not because they care too much about writing but because she thinks they care too little. Her advice is monumentally sensible. Don’t be a narcissist. Work (much) harder. The best ‘writing utensil’ is a wastepaper basket. Life is short, yet ‘each detail takes time’. Don’t be a utopian. Keep away from the void for as long as you can. Who can argue with that?

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