Advice from JoAnn Balingit, Poet Laureate


So far, so good: Giving yourself a break. JoAnn Balingit, November 17, 2015

20) So far, so good. The brilliant days and nights are
breathless in their hurry. We follow, you and I.

—from “Curriculum Vitae,” in Lisel Mueller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Alive Together


Rather than offer how-tos, I am going to propose that you already know very well how to do your job as a writer. Therefore, I simply want to lavish praise upon you for being a writer. There, I hope that’s good.

To be honest, during this super-busy month of Thanksgiving, darkness in early afternoon, and the impending black threat of NaNoWriMo guilt, I feared that another list of writer-things-to-do would crush you, as I confess I have felt crushed beneath the weight of my expectations of myself and my work.

Stepping back, however, I see my work is so far, so good. Or as Stuart Smalley (not a licensed therapist) says: “I’m good enough, I’m thmart enough, and doggone it people like me.”

Once your self-congratulatory mood passes, as mine has, you may want some distraction. I offer the following Soft Advice in the spirit of language play and devotion to the good old times at the desk that writing always used to be, right?

1) I’ve been told “Why?” isn’t a fair question. Nevertheless, I ask myself why I have a rich vocabulary for my problems, obstacles, and flaws, yet a dearth of descriptors for great deeds and shining moments. Yes sorrow, danger, and set-back can be riveting reads, but some alternate language on accomplishments will be necessary as I attempt to make myself into the character Phillip Lopate explains I need to create in order for my memoir stories and narrative poems to succeed. There are some cultural reasons for a reluctance to enumerate our strengths in glowing terms. All the more reason to explore this hidden tract and secure those geodes of self-knowledge.

Soft Advice for writing yourself, your third-person avatar, or your fictional character:

Write a list of ten words (can be phrases or events, as you wish) that you think characterize your/their story. Ponder the list. Perhaps it’s dominated by so-called negative traits such as “procrastinator,” “gullible ass,” or “driven by fear.” Notice any dominant themes! Then make a list of ten words (phrases or events) that characterize an entirely different story about you, your avatar, or your fictional character. Use many close-up details. The hairdo of the person you stood up to. The color of the leaves the morning you left on the excursion alone.

2) You’ll know what this is about. On Gratitude: Soft Advice for self-reflection.

Answer the following questions as if you were ten years old:

Where are you living?

Who do you live with?

What is your primary occupation?

What do you do for fun?

Who do you hang out with?

What do you want more than anything in the world?

Then for each decade—at ages 20, 30, 40, up to your present age, answer the questions again. Finally, answer them for today. Examine the answers, particularly the final question, for patterns or themes. How much do you, your avatar, or your fictional character still want those things you most craved at age 10, 20, etc.?

3) Finally, Soft Advice for reading: If you don’t feel like writing, thinking, or making lists today, no need to beat yourself up. But do read Lisel Mueller’s great poem “Curriculum Vitae,” a 20-part lyric reflection on her life: You can reread and riff off it tomorrow; tomorrow’s another day. Have fun and Happy Thanksgiving! Love, JoAnn (not a licensed therapist)


Notes: “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character,” Chapter 2 in Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction (Free Press, 2013). Thanks to Ramona DeFelice Long for describing Joan’s writing workshop On Gratitude to me.

JoAnn Balingit
JoAnn Balingit

JoAnn Balingit was appointed Delaware’s poet laureate in May 2008 by Governor Ruth Ann Minner. She works with the Delaware Division of the Arts to bring poets and poetry to Delawareans. She has written two award-winning chapbooks and a collection of poems celebrating “the house of our longings, our memory, and our hopes” (Fleda Brown), Words for House Story. Recent honors include a 2014 Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Foundation Fellowship in fiction and the 2015 Westmoreland Poetry Award. Please visit and “like” her Facebook page for updates on events and works: You can sample her poems at: