Compiled and refined in 2010 from a lecture he gave at the Rainer Writing Workshop, David Biespiel’s Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces is a guidebook for generating poetic material and living a creative life. The book made a significant splash in 2010, landing on the Poets & Writers list of Best Books for Writers, and Kelson Books releases a tenth-anniversary edition late this month. As in the first edition, Biespiel draws on the methods of other art forms, specifically the discipline of portraiture, and applies them to writing poetry. The new edition retains the best of this guidebook to creativity that was heralded in 2010, and refines Biespiel’s ever-important message for a new generation of writers: “[T]he way to stick with it over the long haul is to fail and fail again.”
There are a number of informative books out there for people who want to learn to read and write poetry, such as Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, or The Making of a Poem, edited by Eavan Boland and Mark Strand. There a number of other books that explore poetry’s function, both to the writer and to society at large. I’m thinking here of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness. Biespiel’s book is unique among these, however, because of his distinctive focus on what happens prior to the creation of a poem. Rather than focusing on how to write a poem, Biespiel focuses on how a writer can generate material, which I found to be both unique and inspiring.
For Biespiel, the consistent generation of interesting poetic material comes from trading the typical “draft-and-revise method” for a prolonged and playful prewriting process that delays the creation of a first draft for as long as possible. In Biespiel’s view, writing a draft prematurely limits the possibilities of a poem before its true subject has even been discovered. As he puts it, “you may not see what your options are at the beginning, but your options coalesce and harden even in your first few sentences” once the drafting process has begun.
Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces encourages writers to forgo this hardening for as long as possible, engaging instead in the playful creation of what Biespiel calls “word-palettes”—collections of words chosen for their sound, their associative connection to other words, or no reason at all. The goal of word-palette-ing for Biespiel is to “provide an avenue to the psyche by allowing your imagination to make lateral, associative, expressionistic connections.”
Whereas a typical drafting process hews to linear coalescence and sense-making, Biespiel argues that playing with simple lists of words encourages writers to make associative leaps according to sound, memory, or whatever else is in their subconscious minds, and, in doing so, front-loads the piece with the potential for imaginative surprise. To give the reader a concrete sense of how this disparate collection of words begins to suggest subject matter, Biespiel includes one of his own word-palettes and describes how he worked from that list of words to a poem. As Biespiel writes of his own pre-draft process, “my only ambition at this point was to entertain myself and see what came of it.”
Throughout the book, Biespiel argues the effectiveness of his word-palette method, citing corollaries from other artistic disciplines, and drawing from his own writing experience. He likens experimenting with word-palettes to a ballet dancer practicing their barre work, for example, but Biespiel’s most resonant corollary is the discipline of drawing, in which the artist makes multiple, from-scratch attempts to capture their subject matter and accepts failure as part of the process.
In this vein, the new edition of Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces retains the original edition’s focus on Biespiel’s working relationship with visual artist Phil Sylvester by detailing the pair’s collaboration, during which Biespiel sat for weekly portrait sessions. Biespiel extends the importance of portraiture in the reissue, describing his own attempts to paint portraits of Walt Whitman from a famous photograph, and how those attempts influenced his writing process. He argues that the artist’s task is not to simply describe their subject matter, but to transform it in some way. The goal in both his painting and his writing, he says, is “[n]ot to duplicate the experience, but to animate it. To make a metaphor.” Eventually, this mentality informs the book’s emphasis on versions instead of drafts, as well as its generative stance toward failure.
In making these connections across disciplines, Biespiel encourages writers to engage in the joy of playing with material that is an integral part of the creation process in art forms other than writing. Every child given a paint set or a drum, for example, will delight raucously in playing with the materials of those art forms but words—perhaps because they have meaning and are used to communicate important information—we learn to treat more seriously. Another byproduct of Biespiel’s interdisciplinary approach is that it illuminates how artists of other disciplines engage in all kinds of activities not geared toward an end product. A musician playing scales on their instrument, for example, is not thinking of playing or composing a song; they are simply making notes. Ultimately, this is what’s behind Biespiel’s advice to “put off the first draft as long as possible”: he wants writers to think of a draft as something emerges from playing with material, not as something begun with an end in mind. More than teaching people to write good poetry, Biespiel seems compelled to teach people a creative way of being in the world, which is, as he describes it, “to enter a consciousness that is separate from the everyday.”
Probably my favorite thing about Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces is the way Biespiel’s process and implicitly unravels the mythology of the writer as a chosen vessel through whom the muses occasionally speak. Craft books sometimes present writing as a magical, lightning-in-a-bottle type of experience. Like worshippers averting their eyes from God, some writers demur from even describing their writing process, for fear of either jinxing it or making their work seem easy or imitable. At their worst, books about writing simply modernize the old-time notion that writers are a chosen people and that those not called will never understand. In certain circles, purchasing or reading essays or books about writing itself can be seen as an act of weakness—something a “real” writer would never need to do.
The fact remains, however, that more people than ever want to learn the art of creative writing. The number of MFA and PhD programs in creative writing continues to increase, with the number of MFA programs increasing by fifty-six percent and the number PhD programs increasing thirty-five percent between 2008 and 2016. Alongside these accredited programs are a plethora of less formal workshops, retreats, and festivals attended in droves by aspiring writers. Some might argue that these droves consist of—to maintain the Romantic ideal—the unchosen many, grasping for something beyond their reach. I’m of the mindset, however, that literature benefits from such grasping. To be certain, there is talent—and in some cases, even genius—involved in writing. The mythology of the writer as a chosen being, though, is one we should be deeply skeptical of. It is no coincidence that those who have historically heard the muse most clearly are those who could afford both training and leisure time. This mythology of the writer is ideologically harmful, silencing traditionally marginalized voices when, in fact, our experience of the world is enriched by the number of perspectives voiced. Or, as Biespiel puts it, “when our conflicts are laid bare and our future is uncertain somebody needs to write something that says, here is what one vision of our shared world sounds like.”
In contrast to the usual mythology of the writer, then, Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces democratizes creativity by demystifying and demythologizing the writing process. Biespiel’s willingness to talk in detail about his own method gives uncertain writers a concrete place to start, and his insistence on “versions” instead of “drafts” makes failure a benign and necessary part of writing. What’s more, Biespiel’s depiction of the writer as one trying and failing to discover and describe their subject is much more universal and realistic than the old-fashioned “listener of muses” myth, and readers will feel empowered by this ideological shift. His method of connecting with one’s imagination is not the only viable one, nor does he claim any such monopoly on creativity. Instead, Biespiel offers a number of best practices—not just for writing poems, but for living a creative life.
Writing is, to some of us, serious stuff, but if genuine pleasure is not part of the writing process, it’s probably not something we’ll stick with. And sticking with it is what Biespiel wants most for his readers. Many reviewers of the first edition of this book described it as a way to “jump-start” your writing process, but more than offering some kind of quick fix or introducing new prompts or writing exercises, Biespiel is interested in cultivating a joy for writing that is profound and lifelong.
And this is something he takes very seriously. More than once, Biespiel likens the creative life to the hero’s journey—one in which we start out on an adventure that ultimately changes us—and he warns us in the first chapter that has written his book “as if it might save your life.” Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces, like most books, might come just short of saving lives, but for anyone who “has been writing for some time or used to write but hasn’t for a bit, or who dearly wants to write, has been promising yourself for years and years that they would write,” Biespiel’s book offers a way to inject the writing process with joy and surprise for the long haul. For aspiring writers, the book clears a way to the creative life, and more practiced writers will appreciate the encouragement to forget drafting and editing and get back to playing and experimenting with the materials of our art form: the elements and properties of language.