Ferlinghetti: Great writing is anything that gives you a view of reality that you never had before. That's what great writers do

a title='By HammondCast [CC-BY-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons'
And now—digital drumroll—it’s time for the No. 1 entry in the Top 20 Tips From WD in 2010 series, the quips that branded themselves in my mind when we were creating these magazines throughout the year. Our parting words come from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the legendary poet and City Lights founder I interviewed last year for our special 90th anniversary issue. A regular prompt follows. Stick around in the coming weeks, too, as we’ve got some great ways to end up in Writer’s Digest on deck, as well as some contest announcements.

Here’s to you and the pen, and another year. (And if you’re going to the Writer’s Digest Conference this weekend, be sure to stop by and say Hello to Jessica and me.)

No. 1: Being a Writer
If you’re going to be a writer you should sit down and write in the morning, and keep it up all day, every day. Charles Bukowski, no matter how drunk he got the night before or no matter how hungover he was, the next morning he was at his typewriter. Every morning. Holidays, too. He’d have a bottle of whiskey with him to wake up with, and that’s what he believed. That’s the way you became a writer: by writing. When you weren’t writing, you weren’t a writer.

What do you think makes great writing?

The word great is really overused these days because the English language seems to have a paucity of adjectives. I mean, great writing is anything that gives you a view of reality that you never had before. For instance, when I first read Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, I said, ‘Gosh, I’ve never seen the world like this before.’ And that’s what great writers do.”

I didn’t know that painters and writers retired. They’re like soldiers—they 
just fade away.”

—Lawrence Ferlinghetti, The WD Interview, January 2010
(click here to read the full interview, and click here to check out the rest of our 90th anniversary issue, which also features an entire package on novel writing, and our 90-year retrospective)


Feel free to take the following stolen dialogue prompt home or post a
response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below.
By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our
occasional around-the-office swag drawings.
you’re having trouble with the
captcha code sticking, e-mail your piece and the prompt to me at
writersdigest@fwmedia.com, with “Promptly” in the subject line, and I’ll
make sure it gets up.

“When did your hair turn white?”
“A long time ago. When I was young.”

Photo by HammondCast [CC-BY-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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7 thoughts on “Ferlinghetti: Great writing is anything that gives you a view of reality that you never had before. That's what great writers do

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  3. Fran Turney

    "When did your hair turn white?"
    "A long time ago. When I was young."

    "Curiosity I think."
    "I don’t get it."
    "I wondered what it would be like to be an albino. What other senses could be effected."
    "Well. Like emotions fed by color and vice versa. You know. Red for passion. Passion making you see red. Pin for calm like the way they paint these jail walls. Green. What do you feel, seeing green?"
    "Things growing I suppose. Yeah. Plants and stuff. So, you did that to yourself?"
    "Sometimes I’m an obsessive thinker."
    "You turned your own hair white?"
    "Guess so. It’s a slow process though. I’d like to stop it."
    "I miss the incoming. What life used to be like. Fading away works in both directions. I fade. Perception fades."
    "Is that bad?"
    "Why the hell do you want to know? Its depressing."
    "Oh. Not much excitement in that."
    "Excitement? Not a word I recognize."

  4. Dare Gaither

    The silent stares destroy my soul.
    What do they see?
    Each judge condemns according to his law, ignorant of truth.
    Sometimes I stare back and see damnation or surprise.
    Usually I look away, hearing unspoken sentence passed.
    It doesn’t matter now, there is nothing left to lose.
    I left this world long ago.

    I wait in line to present my box of cereal with the dollar-off coupon.
    Eyes from across the aisle burn holes in my anonymity.
    Do they ever wonder what I see?


    A small round face looks up at me.


    I try to sound upbeat, smiling at the child’s open curiosity.

    “Your hair shines like maw-maw’s hair.”

    I laugh, grateful for an honest conversation.
    “Yes, my hair is completely white now!”

    “When did it turn white?”

    The child’s mother turns, observing the interaction as
    she chatters into her cellphone. A mispriced sale item
    quickly draws her attention back to argue with the cashier.

    “A long time ago. When I was young.”
    Time swirls past into present as I remember Before.


    A tug on the small, red hand pulls my new friend away.


    “Bye.” I wave back, savoring the shared moment.

    As I swipe my credit card, the question lingers.

    The plan was perfect.
    The doctors all agreed.
    I shouldn’t have lived.
    So much for perfection.

    Perfection was all the mattered to Him.
    His love was all that mattered to me.
    Could I be perfect?
    Would He love me then?
    Life spoke the answer through experience.
    Hope died in the fire of truth.

    And so, I came up with the perfect plan.
    My body betrayed me with survival.
    I came close, though.
    Very close.
    Close enough to glimpse the outline of perfection.
    It was not what I thought.
    It was not what He sought.

    My body survived, earning this badge of white.
    Sentencing me to silent stares.
    They do not see me. I am not here.
    White hair crowns a ghost.

    A child offers hope in loving imperfection.


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