Writing Lessons

Start Off Dead

By Dennis McFarland | January 6, 2014


When I went off to graduate school to study creative writing, I was about as committed to being a writer as anyone could be who didn’t know much about it, and who lacked the only true foundation for becoming one: many years of actual writing. I soon discovered that the craft of prose composition was bottomless—you could spend a lifetime improving—and that pleased me. But the words that made me want to become the best writer I could possibly be came from Mark Twain, by way of one of my teachers, the great poet Stephen Dobyns. Stephen told me (in a letter) that Twain had suggested a writer should write as if he were already dead, and then went on to quote Twain’s famous words, “I think we never become really and genuinely our entire and honest selves until we are dead … People ought to start dead, and they would be honest so much earlier.” This wisdom was meant to push back against the reserve a young writer feels once he understands the always referential nature of writing, that he is at all times, whether he wants to or not, revealing himself. To this day, when I sense that I’m holding back in the work for fear of what somebody might think of me, I remind myself that I’m already dead. Oddly, after a few hours, I still get hungry and have to eat.

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