Former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith; photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Three writing tips from Tracy K. Smith, former U.S. Poet Laureate

Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate from 2017 to 2019 and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, offers three fruitful tips to help jump-start your writing, and the first one might surprise you.

Imagine if you could learn about literary form, research, and revision from masters of the craft. The chance to study with acclaimed writers and poets is one of the greatest benefits of an MFA in Creative Writing. From intimate writing workshops to incredible readings, their experiences and perspectives can help you fine-tune your craft as you work toward publication.

Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate from 2017 to 2019 and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, recently read from her forthcoming collection, Wade in the Water, and held a craft talk for our CCA MFA in Writing students and local community of writers and artists. She offered three fruitful tips to help jump-start your fall writing, and the first one might surprise you.

Insights from the CCA writer's series

1. You don't need a ritual to write well

Novelist Haruki Murakami rises at 4 am and writes for four to six hours straight. Maya Angelou rented a hotel room in every town she ever lived in, arriving at 6:30 am each morning to begin work. Kurt Vonnegut did sit-ups whenever he needed a break from a story.

When asked if she had a writing ritual, Tracy K. Smith said, “You don’t need one. Your mind will give you something to work with.” Students taking creative writing courses know painfully well that you just have to write, whether you feel like it or not. Your start time, duration, and idiosyncrasies pale in comparison to the power of deep listening.

2. Practice a different kind of listening

Deadlines are an unavoidable blessing and curse of any graduate writing program. How do you find inspiration with the clock ticking? When asked, “What do you hear that you feel summoned by, that provokes a rise in you?” in a 2016 Iowa Review interview, Smith said, “The mark of a poet or writer … Maybe it’s because I believe that to be a poet means we’ve chosen a different kind of listening. A different kind of empathy guides us.”

Smith gave CCA MFA in Writing students similar advice during her Q + A. From taking a “mythic stance in relation to the familiar” to tuning out the insidious language of the market and building “from other DNA,” the goal is to choose your own breath.

3. Find inspiration in existing text (erasure)

Many of our favorite moments from the CCA Fridays in the writer's series are about form, syntax, and the progression of narrative. For poets, these tools can be wildly experimental, drawing upon rich source material for inspiration. Tracy K. Smith suggests mining existing texts, like news articles and historical letters.

Smith’s poem “Declaration” borrows sections from actual letters written to President Lincoln after the Civil War by black soldiers and their families. While she read, it became clear that words and phrases were intentionally omitted through erasure, the act of selectively removing words to bring forth new meaning from the original text. These omissions amplified the sorrow and oppression of her poem’s speakers.

Get the full story

Exclusive writing tips from a former U.S. Poet Laureate aren’t so easy to come by, nor should they be taken lightly. Here’s your chance to get in on the complete experience of Tracy K. Smith sharing her wisdom, by watching the full session.

You’ll not only be taking advantage of this unique opportunity to learn from a master, but you’ll also have access to the insightful dialogue that comes from her Q + A with an audience of your creative writing peers.

Also included are sneak peeks of Smith’s forthcoming collection, Wade in the Water, which you can absorb at your own pace and in your personal viewing comfort zone. Hear her full reading of her labor of love, in her own voice and in exactly the context she intended.

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