Witty and candid: Wislawa Szymborska’s book How to start writing (and when to stop)

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I came to the book by Wislawa Szymborska How to start writing (and when to stop). Advice to authors awaits writing advice. It was a mistake.

Infinitely witty – and often wicked – the collection includes brief anonymous comments the Nobel Prize-winning poet gave to novices who submitted their work to the Krakow-based journal. Literary life magazine, where she worked between 1953 and 1981. Szymborska and her colleague, Włodzimierz Maciąg, took turns responding to letters sent to the magazine’s advice column, Literary Mailbox. As I read the book, I sometimes wondered if Szymborska wrote to entertain her colleagues rather than to help the recipient.

Indeed, some of Szymborska’s responses must have been overwhelming to the receiver – albeit fun for everyone. Szymborska herself probably had a lot of fun making criticisms like, “Let’s take our wings off and try to write on foot, okay? – something she said to a writer called Grażyna from Starachowice, who, according to Szymborska, regarded “poetry as pure sublimity, eternity, sighs and moans”. In the same vein, writer Astra from Katowice was told: “We don’t write that way anymore. You have arrived a century too late. J. St., from Wrocław, was not spared either, he was told: “[Your] ‘Caterpillar’ story works to create an atmosphere of mysterious terror. We remain impassive. You borrowed your terror from Kafka, and like so many borrowed items, it was misused. Thank goodness the lender doesn’t want to get it back.

Yet here and there Szymborska has peppered his responses with genuinely constructive advice. “Keep it short,” one piece of advice said, “only talk about what you know and think is important. Mostly talk about your heart and your head, not notes. Elsewhere, she told Puszka de Radom: “Even boredom should be described with passion… You should start journaling. You will soon see how much is happening even on days when nothing seems to be happening. Stepping out of the formal realm of literature and impromptu life coaching, Szymborska echoed the same idea in his comments to Bolesław LK. from Warsaw: “You should see your life as a remarkable adventure happening to you. This is our only advice at the moment.

published by New directions, in Clare Cavanagh’s translation, the collection of letters ends with a joke: “It is a pity that you did not familiarize yourself with the social structures of feudal Denmark before you sit down to write your tragedy,” writes Szymbosrska to WS, London, (no one else than a certain William Shakespeare). “The feel outweighs the plausibility in the play. […] We recommend reading more broadly, writing less and more local observation, and only raising questions that have answers.

In his defense, Szymborska declares to Teresa Walas in an interview which closes the book: “These executions were not fatal. The victims were free to continue writing and to send their texts elsewhere. Or even to try to write a little better. Our correspondents were mostly young, when anything is possible. You might even become a real writer. She even admits, “My early poems and stories were bad too.

Get your own copy of the book here.


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