I came to Wislawa Szymborska’s book How to Start Writing (and When to Stop). Advice for Authors expecting writing tips. That was a mistake.
Endlessly witty — and often mean — the collection is comprised of brief, anonymous feedback that 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 answering the letters sent to the magazine’s advice column, Literary Mailbox. Reading the book, I sometimes wondered whether Szymborska was writing to entertain her colleagues, rather than to help the addressee.
Indeed, some of Szymborska’s responses must have been soul-crushing to the receiver — although amusing to everyone else. Szymborska herself probably had a lot of fun coming up with critiques such as: “Let’s take the wings off and try writing on foot, shall we?” — something she told a writer called Grażyna from Starachowice, who Szymborska decreed saw “poetry as pure sublimity, eternity, sighs and moans”. In a similar vein, writer Astra from Katowice was told: “We no longer write this way. You’ve come a century too late.” J. St., from Wrocław, wasn’t spared either, being told: “[Your] story ‘Caterpillar’ works to create a mood of mysterious terror. We remain unmoved. You borrowed your terror from Kafka, and like so many borrowed things, it was ill-used. Thank heavens the lender does not want it back.”
Still, here and there, Szymborska peppered her responses with genuinely constructive advice. “Be brief,” one tip said, “speak only about what you know and consider important. Above all speak from your heart and head, not from notes.” Elsewhere, she told Puszka from Radom: “Even boredom should be described with passion ... You should start keeping a diary. You’ll soon see how many things happen even on days when nothing seems to be happening.” Stepping out of the formal realm of literature and impromptu lifecoaching, Szymborska echoed the same idea in her feedback to Bolesław L-K. of Warsaw: “You should think of your life as a remarkable adventure that’s happening to you. That is our only advice at present.”
Published by New Directions, in Clare Cavanagh’s translation, the collection of letters culminates with a joke: “It’s a shame you didn’t acquaint yourself with feudal Denmark’s social structures before sitting down to write your tragedy,” Szymbosrska writes to W. S., from London, (none other than a certain William Shakespeare). “Sensation outweighs plausibility in the play. [...] We recommend wider reading, less writing and more local observation, and raising only questions that have answers.”
In her defence, Szymborska tells Teresa Walas in an interview that closes the book: “These executions weren’t fatal. The victims were free to keep writing and send their texts elsewhere. Or even to try writing a little better. Our correspondents were mainly young, when anything is possible. You might even become a real writer.” She even admits: “My first poems and stories were bad too.”
Get your own copy of the book here.