Letter to a Young Poet
I am writing to you from that place where everything has already been written. You know the one. It is the place where all life comes from. And it speaks to you in a voice that moves through you like a river. It is the voice we put our trust in for each day of living.
You must trust that voice in order to believe that your work is worth writing. Worth making.
Any feeling you want to inspire in your reader, you must first learn to bring about in yourself. So you must be brave and go into those feelings you are avoiding. Once you begin, you will find that you can no longer afford to not feel. And that the reward of feeling is greater than your fear.
And somewhere, there is another poet who needs you to articulate that feeling. It is how we find each other.
Be generous in your life. Generosity is the writer’s greatest teacher, for it involves both risking and giving of oneself.
I recommend freewriting for at least three pages (or fifteen to twenty minutes) each day. It’s best to do this in the morning. Make it a ritual. Self-discipline is how you prove yourself to your self. You must show yourself before anyone else that you are serious about your craft. Writing in the morning allows for another advantage—solutions for your life’s and writing’s challenges will begin to appear to you throughout the day.
Own your ‘mistakes’ — make them into art. You’ll find they aren’t mistakes at all, but rather, the marks that make your work unique.
Confront your privilege. This is the intelligence the world needs. Transform your confrontations with yourself to make beauty and peace in the world.
Do not rush your work or the urge for publication. Better to publish higher quality with greater rarity than mediocrity often.
And the internet is filled with mediocrity. Watch what you consume. Set your own standards for excellence. And if you must compete, compete with yourself. Do better each time you step to the page.
Preserve your privacy. Preserve your solitude. Maintain your integrity. The better you do these three things, the better you can hear the voice.
If you need me, you’ll find me in the river with you.
Marwa Helal is a poet and journalist. Her work appears in Apogee, Hyperallergic, The Offing, Poets & Writers, The Recluse, Winter Tangerine and elsewhere. She is the author of I AM MADE TO LEAVE I AM MADE TO RETURN (No, Dear/Small Anchor Press, 2017) and Invasive species (Nightboat Books, 2019). Helal is the winner of BOMB Magazine’s Biennial 2016 Poetry Contest and has been awarded fellowships from Poets House, Brooklyn Poets, and Cave Canem. She has presented her work at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Studio Museum in Harlem and Brooklyn Museum.
Her work is published or forthcoming in the following anthologies: Bettering American Poetry 2016, Best American Experimental Writing 2018, Brooklyn Poets Anthology, Halal If You Hear Me, and BreakBeat Poets: Black Girl Magic. She is the editor of the Poetry Project’s newsletter.
Born in Al Mansurah, Egypt, Helal currently lives and teaches in Brooklyn, New York. She received her MFA in creative nonfiction from The New School and her BA in journalism and international studies from Ohio Wesleyan University.