I have had the good fortune, in my writing life, of having mentors who chose to share parcels of writing advice that I keep with me as I travel this crazy path I have chosen. I know I will have more wisdom imparted to me as the years pass, that I will seek it out from other writers and editors. I have realized that, although being a writer is such an isolated act, we cannot do it alone or completely without guidance. We all have our own writing process and practice, our individual voices, but we also need each other. I thought I would write some posts and share some of the things that have been passed on to me; spread the proverbial wealth. The things I share may be things that are obvious to most, but maybe there is someone who will read this and benefit, someone like me, who didn’t take the traditional writing education route.
In 2015, I started writing (poetry) seriously, after a very long dry spell, and decided to start sending my work out into the world again. I had been pretty prolific in my early 20’s, writing a lot and sending my work out a lot, even getting a few things published, but then I stopped and 20 years went by. When I began the process of researching magazines and journals, I looked for places that were open to emerging writers and had the good fortune of finding a journal with a poetry editor who would change my writing life. Heather was the first editor to whom I submitted after my long hiatus, and to my absolute joy and surprise, she accepted 3 of my poems for publication. We formed a friendship and she went on to start her own journal and to publish more of my poems, but she didn’t accept everything I sent her.
For her own journal, she would occasionally put out a themed call for submissions, and one of those themes was mental illness. In response, I wrote a poem about depression, which I felt was full of rich description and feeling. She rejected it. I can’t deny I was a bit surprised, but because I was fortunate to have become friends with Heather, she gave me a critique, and along with it a piece of advice that I will never forget. She told me that a mentor of hers had offered up this phrase, “Beware the adjective”.
I was slightly horrified. She wanted me to what? To strip the adjectives from my poem? But, the adjectives were what made the poem come alive…..or so I thought. I went back to my poem, and with much hesitation, took out the adjectives. As I rewrote the piece and figured out how to say what I wanted without relying on adjectives, I saw the poem come to life and take on a sense of motion that the adjectives had actually slowed.
In usual form, I went wild with this new information and proceeded to strip adjectives from all of my poems, rewriting like mad. It was actually fun and exciting to see how my poetry changed, but I had to get my feet back on the ground and realize that Heather wasn’t suggesting I completely strip the adjectives from my poetry, just tread carefully around them. Adjectives can be great when used sparingly in poems, but they can also get in the way of what a poem is really trying to say.
The poem she rejected is called, “Peach Pit Heart” and the revised version, relieved of the burden of (some of) its adjectives, was later published in Literary Juice, and again recently on Morality Park.
I am still working on my relationship with adjectives, but, “Beware the Adjective”, is something I will forever have in my writing arsenal. If it seems too harsh, perhaps, “tread lightly around the adjective” will work better for you.