Image: Matthew Loffhagen
There are few serious poets, activists, and biographers who haven’t taken inspiration from the indomitable Maya Angelou. A woman of immense passion and experience, the late Angelou (author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, six other autobiographies, and several books of poetry) could doubtlessly have given advice on anything from journalism to dancing to cable car maintenance, but it’s her writing (and her unique approach to her craft) that carved her literary reputation.
Angelou’s celebrated autobiographies and poems are characterized by innovation, energy, and honesty, and she leaves in her wake a legacy of texts, speeches, and lessons invaluable to writers of nonfiction, poetry, and even fiction alike. Here’s how Angelou can help you become a better writer.
1. Work, and take nothing for granted
‘A self-respecting artist,’ wrote Tchaikovsky, ‘must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.’ Angelou would have likely agreed with the Russian composer; like countless other artists, singers, and writers (including Zadie Smith and Anthony Horowitz), Angelou decried the popular and romantic vision of the artist as someone governed by strange fits of passion – rather, creation is about grit, hard work, and turning up.Creating art is about turning up to write.Click To Tweet
Angelou spirited herself away to a rented hotel room each day, which she treated as a kind of bohemian office – there, she’d lounge on the bed, smoke, think, and write. While this certainly sounds more pleasant than most daily grinds, the time was not squandered or whiled away.
I try to pull the language in to such a sharpness that it jumps off the page. It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy. Of course, there are those critics – New York critics as a rule – who say, Well, Maya Angelou has a new book out and of course it’s good but then she’s a natural writer. Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing. I work at the language.
– Maya Angelou
The idea of ‘working at the language’ is key, particularly for poets. Like David Foster Wallace (who always wrote with a usage dictionary and thesaurus), Angelou was extremely conscious of the sheer breadth and beauty of English, and was not content merely to recycle trite compositions or replay clichéd metaphors. Instead, the perfect words were located for each sentence, line, and phrase. The language should be respected, and for that you need to pay attention; pay attention and work. After all, ‘Nothing will work unless you do.’
2. Be brave
In her nonfiction and poetry as well as in her activism, Angelou expressed remarkable bravery – but then, this was a woman who stood alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin during the Civil Rights movement! In her autobiographies and poems, Angelou wrote openly and honestly about her remarkable life, and she stood up for the ideals she believed in. She was not afraid to innovate and move beyond the limits of her genre (critics have pointed to the fictive elements in her autobiographies as evidence of this), and she tempered her message for no one.
One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.
– Maya Angelou
In terms of writing, this means not being afraid to take risks in form, style, and content. Angelou’s own voice was uncompromising and honest, and she borrowed from styles and traditions outside of the literary canon, shocking contemporary critics and conservatives alike. Not one to fear controversy, she wrote about racism and her own experiences as a sex worker in raw, unashamed detail, helping to tear down old assumptions and power structures. Your own writing doesn’t have to attempt to provoke similarly seismic shifts, but it should be untampered, unapologetic, and bold! Believe in your own vision.
Now, I’d never shoot myself in the foot by suggesting only a self-edit, but I’d certainly agree with Angelou when she espouses the importance of self-editing and redrafting.
But the editing, one’s own editing, before the editor sees it, is the most important.
– Maya Angelou
If you’re not reading your own work back to yourself, you’re setting yourself up for failure – your editor will waste their energy picking through typos, plot-holes, and slip-ups that could easily have been patched prior to submission. You want to make sure all the easy work is done before you submit so that the editor can focus on the deep, difficult issues they’re specially qualified to tackle! Even more importantly, self-editing is necessary to ensure that your book fits your own personal vision.Editing your own work is essential, even if you intend to work with an editor later.Click To Tweet
4. Do it lots
Angelou didn’t do things by halves. A passionate woman, she threw herself into her writing, as well as into her various other jobs, interests, and pursuits: singing, dancing, activism, her faith… she did a lot of things, and she did them all well. The trick, apparently, is persistence.
You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.
– Maya Angelou
This is one of those seemingly obvious platitudes that somehow still takes you by surprise. Writers (particularly those of us writing between shifts or around family/career dedications) often get frustrated or dissatisfied by the quality of the writing they’re able to produce and feel down when they compare themselves to more successful writers (writers like Maya Angelou, for example) – but often the difference between a hobbyist and a professional is the amount of time they’re willing/able to dedicate to their writing and how determined they are to make it work. There’s a reason so many famous writers (Angelou herself, as well as Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver, J.K. Rowling etc.) have thumbed the poverty line – they’ve sacrificed an awful lot to ensure their writing is as good as it can be.Earn new ideas by spending the ones you have.Click To Tweet
Now, I’m not suggesting you quit your job, leave your family, and focus on your novel – that would be irresponsible – but remember that improvement and success are often dependent on how much you do something. The old adage rings true: practice makes perfect.
5. Distract the ‘Little Mind’
Angelou treated the ephemera of the world with an almost spiritual reverence; every detail was saved and filed away, and even seemingly inconsequential moments could rise later on in stretches of beautiful memoir or verse. One such detail was the concept of the ‘Little Mind.’ A phrase coined by Angelou’s grandmother, the Little Mind refers to that stimuli-seeking part of the brain that seeks entertainment and distraction. Every writer has a way of asserting control over the Little Mind – Zadie Smith, for example, locks herself away from anything even remotely distracting and blocks her internet connection – and Angelou is no different.
So when I was young, from the time I was about three until thirteen, I decided that there was a Big Mind and a Little Mind. And the Big Mind would allow you to consider deep thoughts, but the Little Mind would occupy you, so you could not be distracted. It would work crossword puzzles or play Solitaire, while the Big Mind would delve deep into the subjects I wanted to write about.
– Maya Angelou
Now, it’s certainly impressive that Angelou was able to delve deep into the subjects she wanted to write about while playing Solitaire or doing crossword puzzles – I can barely do those things independently of one another – but the core concept of distracting the Little Mind is the important thing here. How do you do it? Listen to music? Podcasts? Have the TV blaring in the background? Or maybe you don’t do it at all? If not, give Angelou a chance – she might just help you out.
Angelou’s legacy is a remarkable thing, and between the commonly cited autobiographies and poems lurk instructions and advice for budding writers, artists, and musicians. Even if you don’t write non-fiction or poetry, Angelou’s exemplary foregrounding of work, courage, self-criticism, persistence, and self-control should prove inspirational (and useful!) to anyone wanting to better express themselves. So go, rise, and work.
What are your favorite Maya Angelou books and poems? How has she influenced your own writing? Let us know in the comments. Or, for more great advice, check out 6 Ways Margaret Atwood Can Help You Improve Your Writing and Why You Need To Write With Authenticity And How To Do It.