Events & news,  Poetry

Advice to Writers

The more you clean, the more brilliant your writing will be.” — Billy Collins

A freelance journalist I knew insisted that she couldn’t write a single word if her office was a mess. She wouldn’t work on her novel — or pitch for new assignments — until everything on her desk was organized. 

With tongue in cheek, poet Billy Collins plays with the idea of writers’ block and procrastination — and the metaphorical act of cleaning to make room for fresh ideas. Each time we begin a new project or assignment, he hints, we must scrub away our fears, self-imposed limits, and creative road blocks.  –CL

By Billy Collins

Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.

Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.

The more you clean, the more brilliant
your writing will be, so do not hesitate to take
to the open fields to scour the undersides
of rocks or swab in the dark forest
upper branches, nests full of eggs.

When you find your way back home
and stow the sponges and brushes under the sink,
you will behold in the light of dawn
the immaculate altar of your desk,
a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.

From a small vase, sparkling blue, lift
a yellow pencil, the sharpest of the bouquet,
and cover pages with tiny sentences
like long rows of devoted ants that followed you in from the woods.

–Reprinted from The Apple That Astonished Paris, by Billy Collins (The University of Arkansas Press); 1988

— Top photo “Blue Glass” (copyrighted) by Cindy La Ferle —

Throughout my career, I've worked as a book production editor, travel magazine editor, features writer, and weekly newspaper columnist. My award-winning lifestyles features and essays have appeared in many national magazines and anthologies, including Newsweek, Reader's Digest, The Christian Science Monitor, Writer's Digest, Victoria, Better Homes & Gardens, Bella Grace, and more. My weekly Sunday "Life Lines" column ran for 14 years in The Daily Tribune (Royal Oak, MI) and won a First Place (Local Columns) award from the Michigan Press Association. My essay collection, Writing Home, includes 93 previously published columns and essays focusing on parenthood and family life.


  • Joanne

    I like the lighthearted way Collins gets right at the truth here, literally and figuratively. Because as much as my mind must be able to clearly focus on the writing, with distractions cleared away, so too must my work area be spotless. Otherwise, something out of place is always drawing my attention.

    P.S. Dishes Update – We were headed to a Pfaltzgraff Outlet Store about 50 miles from here, only to get there and find they’ve closed up shop and can only order the dishes online! So we’re still contemplating dishes.

  • Kathleen Scott

    Sounds like he has a good ritual for preparing to write.

    I’m not sure I could write at a clean desk. All that clutter of papers is an impetus to do something else, escape to my imagination. And a reminder that writing is just the stuff of the day. Not impossible magic, just words and sentences and paragraphs of mind coming to page.

  • Kathy S

    Here I am at work with the midday sun streaming through my window and suddenly have the need to bring in a sparkling blue vase to hold my pens. But then I ponder that a blue mouse pad and yellow mouse would suffice for this modern writer.

    Have I shared with you that I am now a writer by occupation? Encouraged by you dear Cindy, to tackle the “word dance”.

  • deb

    I like Billy Collins as well, I’m loving all of your selections so far.
    And like you said, there are a few ways to take this.
    Which is what I like about poetry.

    And the importance of clearing and decluttering or making a shiny happy place seems to vary . I don’t have routines or preferences. But then I’m only on baby steps of this .

    And thanks for your suggestion of the Thomas Moore book.

  • Angie Muresan

    Cindy, that is a lovely poem indeed. There are thoughts and ideas crowding my mind at the moment which are keeping me from my writing. And it shouldn’t be so. I have a story to tell and it’s begging me to let it out.

    I’d like to thank you for your reading recommendations. That article on friendship the other day was extraordinary. And now I can’t wait to read what you have to say about Beauty and the Soul.

    Finally, thank you for your friendship.

  • Cheryl Wright

    Love this piece Cindy.

    Mr. Collins gave me goose bumps. I fear he was inspired to write this poem after spying on my obsession with cleaning and getting everything just right before I sit down to write.

  • Joanna Jenkins

    “…behold in the light of dawn
    the immaculate altar of your desk….”

    That is perfection!

    What a wonderful poem Cindy. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    I’m surprised at where I do my “best” writing. It’s usually in the school pick-up line when I’m sitting in my “clean” car, my mind clear and nothing to do but wait for the bell to ring. This poem made a lot of sense to me.

    Have a great weekend.

  • Summer

    You’re all missing the point Billy Collins makes with “Advice to Writers.” The poem is about one thing: how writers procrastinate, how writers will do anything they can to put off facing the blank page. That’s it.

    And… he was U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, not 2001-2002. ; )

  • Cindy La Ferle

    Summer — You’re absolutely right about the extra term as Poet Laureate. I had picked up the date — in a rush — from the flap of “Sailing Alone Around the Room,” published before his second term. Writers should never be in a hurry 🙂 I pulled the comment with the incorrect reference, in case readers don’t get this far down in the comment section. It was thoughtful of you to correct it, and I hope you’ll come back to comment again. But I don’t think you’re alone in your interpretation of the poem. Bridgette got that from it too.

  • Only the Half of It

    Great post Cindy. I’m saving this poem. I think he’s talking about clearing the clutter from your head. However, some of that clutter gets worked out AS you write and then hone it down. But I like the idea of thinking, cleaning, focusing before actually putting ink to paper.

  • Sharon

    Beautiful blue glass!

    I like Collins’s light-hearted approach to a common trait that could otherwise weigh us down. I procrastinate before I start any project. Cleaning and clearing out the clutter give me time to prepare myself to start in on something new. Then once I begin I have no excuses to keep me from staying with it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.