In addition to her poetry, Wislawa Szymborska wrote for Zycie literackie (Literary Life), a weekly literary magazine in Poland, from 1953 to 1981. She published book reviews that weren’t reviews—instead, brief meditations on writing and life inspired by bestsellers like self-help guides and biographies, even a wall calendar—and she maintained the anonymous “Literary Mailbox” column in which she responded to beginning writers seeking judgment on their poems and stories. Clare Cavanagh translated Szymborska’s poetry and a selection of the book reviews (Nonrequired Reading); now, she published a selection of the columns in How to Start Writing (and when to Stop): Advice for Authors.
As Szymborska explains, readers would send their novice writing to the Literary Mailbox for “evaluation in one official-sounding sentence.” The “threatening letters … read more or less as follows: please let me know if my work is worth anything, if not, I’ll pack it in, bid adieu to my dreams of greatness, descend into despair, fall prey to self-doubt, break down, take to drink, cease to believe in the meaning of my own life, etcetera. The editor does not then know how to respond. Anything he says will be taken amiss.”
In our VSCO times, the Literary Mailbox seems odd, even antiquated: trying to publish for Glory and Prestige. People wrote to the Mailbox as if they were appealing to an oracle. Where are those “would-be writers” today? Most publish instantly and don’t care for appraisal. My generation has disavowed older generations, so-called experts, and voices of authority. Yet Szymborska’s columns are fun to read—clever, well-written, succinct, and—I will use the buzzword—relevant.
How should one write? How can one write well? Szymborska does not bother with these questions, and reading her responses is like reading a dialogue from Hemingway: two people speaking past one another, desiring different things. The beginners ask for keys to success, instant confirmations or repudiations of their greatness. Szymborska writes about smaller things instead: handwriting, correspondence, professionalism, hope, humor, and the necessity of the banal. Just like how her book reviews aren’t reviews, her Advice for Authors isn’t advice. She confirms this in a brief interview reprinted at the end of the book: “Its didactic value is minimal, it’s mainly entertainment.”
The entertainment comes in her tasty-cruel dismissals. Szymborska borrows the editorial “we” for anonymity and blunts correspondents with it, savaging in her critiques. She starts one column directly: “We’ll begin with something shocking: you are too artless and pure to write well.” In another, she writes, “we take no pleasure in repeating: clichéd, immature, shapeless… You treat free verse as a free-for-all. This worries us.” Another ends, “so Eva, have you considered chemistry?” And one of my favorites opens: “‘Please give me some hope for publication, or at least provide some consolation.’ We must, after reading, choose the latter.” (Most columns tell readers when to stop.) Szymborska continues: “So attention, please, we’re giving comfort. A splendid fate awaits you, the fate of a reader, and a reader of the highest caliber, that is to say, disinterested—the fate of a lover of literature, who will always be its steadiest companion, the conquest, not the conqueror. … There is also this not inconsiderable benefit: people speak of incompetent writers, but never of incompetent readers.”
(Let us pause for a passage of rare praise: “The untitled poem is the best; it has moments of true artistic maturity. … Please send more.”)
At first I thought I would never want Szymborska as an editor ruling over my words. But the writers submit to the Mailbox for assessment, after all, and each column’s length—no more than a few sentences—demands a concise response. Since the magazine did not have space to reprint the writers’ letters or work, Szymborska needed to imply their narratives, and she successfully characterizes their authors’ demeanors and situations in phrases and brief sentences (one reads, “We are not asking you to drop your current friends, we simply doubt that they suffice”). In the interview at the end of the book, to a question about her supposed harshness, Szymborska responds, “Heartless? My first poems and stories were bad too. I know firsthand the curative powers of cold water over one’s head.”
Through her rejections Szymborska articulates her theories of good writing. Writers require “absolute independence” in choosing their reading lists, and they do not need to major in literature (“no course, however scrupulously attended, creates talent”). They must practice “persistence, industry, wide reading, powers of observation, self-irony, sensitivity, critical judgment, a sense of humor, and an abiding conviction that the world still deserves to exist, and with better luck than it has enjoyed thusfar.” Poetry must also “make new lyric discoveries … in poetry, the description itself must happen.” These descriptions concentrate on ordinary people, actions, and things, for “the writer develops … through an innate (we repeat, innate) propensity for thought, acute sensitivity to minor matters, astonishment at what others see as ordinary.”
This is an argument not for being a Writer but for writing—daily, quiet, solitary, humble writing. Szymborska writes against the beginner’s desires for admiration, for names printed on newspapers and books, which have since been replaced by other vanity-feeds: Instagram photos, TikToks, Twitter threads, comments, double-taps, hearts, likes. In one column she writes, “you see yourself surrounded by admirers, reciting poems—what poems? You have to write them first, agonizing, revising, filling wastebaskets, starting over… The would-be writer must see himself in humbler settings. An empty room with a piece of paper. A solitary walk. Reading someone else’s books since one’s own aren’t the only things worth reading.” In another she muses that “it’s a shame that every more or less gracefully formulated sentence must pay off instantly. What if the payoff comes only ten or twenty years later? And what if this well-wrought phrase never reaps dividends in any public sense, but supports the writer in dark hours and enriches his life? Does that count for nothing?”
A writer listens, describes, works hard, attends to the everyday—I agree. But do these platitudes really help a beginner facing the blank page? Szymborska’s commentaries remind us that no writing guides or tips can be useful. We write about writing merely to confirm what we already know, and we pass that to others not out of utility but out of self-identification or pride. Our writing quotations, in slightly different ways, all say the same thing: attend to the world.
Szymborska knows this. She knows that offering technical or theoretical opinions will not inspire great novels or poems. She knows that chairiting compliments, mandating reading, or proffering degrees will not make a writer. A writer makes herself—despite the teachers, institutions, and societal expectations that work to reduce her to a boring, clichéd, dead-in-the-imagination existence that the rest of society accepts. Because writing, before anything else, springs from personal vision, a self-sought taste, an inner voice, bravery in choosing solitude, and hours alone with the keyboard and pen. And this is just another grand statement about the art. It will mean nothing for the young writer until she lives it herself, alone, and looks back on what she has made.
People send me bad writing all the time. Friends, friends-of-friends, acquaintances, strangers—they send me their verses and personal essays, often to see how they can be published, rather than to discuss style, detail, rhythm, perspective, or how to represent the banal with splendor. I find these efforts endearing—not the will to be in the New Yorker, but the shards of life, real life, the broken pieces of human voices that glimmer in their work. Szymborska replies to one person who says, “I want to be a poet…”: “Another false start. We favor those who simply ‘want to write.’ That’s what counts.” Her columns remind us that writing is a boring, challenging, pedestrian task—and beautiful, beautiful and fun, necessary even, as our little tools, our private imaginations and our syllables and our words on gestures and things, suffice for a life of joy—and can build the wings, the great aircrafts, on which we take quiet, astonishing flights.
How to Start Writing (and When to Stop): Advice for Authors
By Wisława Szymborska (trans. by Clare Cavanagh)
Published October 5, 2021
Marek Makowski is a writer living in Chicago. His work recently appeared in venues such as Hyperallergic, Ploughshares, World Literature Today, The Point, and The Yale Review. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. You can find more of his work on his website, marekwriting.com.