The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser 📚

A joyful read that’s full of insight for new poets—and readers of poetry

Ted Kooser was Poet Laureate of The United States from 2004-2006. He is a professor of English at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, although for years he worked as an executive in the insurance industry (because even the best poets must have day jobs). He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winner and has published many collections of poetry. And with The Poetry Home Repair Manual he wrote one of the most approachable, practical, and joyful books on writing poetry that I’ve yet run across.

A friend of mine recommended this book to me a while back when I started writing poetry, and I was intrigued by the title right away. Who writes a book for beginning poets and styles the name as a home repair manual? Well, only a few pages in, I got it. The book is a repair manual. In it, Kooser will not teach you the basics of verse, rhyme, or rhythm. He does not lecture about forms. Of course, this is all ground that he covers, and he covers it well. But it’s not academic or theoretical. Instead he approaches poetry as he would a broken lawnmower or dishwasher. He helps the reader see what’s wrong, and then instructs you how to fix it by demonstrating how the thing is supposed to work. This unusual title is actually perfect for this book.

The book is a casual read, but more than that it’s a joyful read. Kooser is not only a good teacher, he is a great curator. He uses wonderful poems (more from other poets than his own, by my estimation) to illustrate his points. And some of the gems I discovered in this slim little book made this book worth it on their own. One great example is this poem by Frank Steele:

If you are interested in writing poetry—or just understanding it—this is a great place to start. As I am writing this review it’s hard for me to think of anything I didn’t like. The chapters are a good length, the whole book is not too long—which has encouraged me to re-read it—and the tone is perfect. If I was pressed to find something that another reader may not like, I would mention that Kooser’s advice lends itself well to his own particular style and voice. If you want to write poetry that is not about everyday life, earthy, and utterly human, maybe (maybe?) you wouldn’t find it useful. But honestly, I’d only make that observation if pressed. The truth is this book is a great place for a poet to start. It will help you find your voice, understand who you are, and write poems that are yours. And really, what more can you want from a book with the subtitle, “Practical Advice for Beginning Poets”?

I highly recommend this book. Honestly, if you are serious about your writing in any form or genre, I’d suggest that you pick it up. This book can help any writer connect with their readers and write with more power and feeling. And that’s a great thing for writers of all stripes.


Why Do Writers Long to Publish?

The power of subcreation in image-bearing artists

I can still remember how felt the first time something I wrote was published.

I was a freshman at Oklahoma State University, and I was in my second semester of journalism school. There was a pro-choice group who had lawfully erected a large political display on campus, and it had been vandalized one night. This was the first story I was assigned. I remember going to the organization’s meeting and being “that reporter from the O’Colly.” I remember being proud of giving fair coverage to an organization I did not agree with, and defending their freedom of speech.

But most of all, I remember exactly what it felt like to pick up the copy of the newspaper with my story in it.

I remember opening up the paper and finding the story. I remember reading my words in print. I remember getting up early in the morning to be there when the paper was delivered to my fraternity house. I remember the compliments from my friends, and my teacher mentioning it in class. It felt like such an accomplishment. As cheesy as it might sound, it was magical.

Why is that? Why is seeing your words—your name!—in print such a powerful experience for a writer?

Writing is an act of creation. While it can be easy to lose sight of sometimes, something magical happens when a writer sees their finished work on the page, or screen. When an article, a book, or even a blog post like this becomes reality, the writer has brought something new into the world. This is a powerful moment that never gets old for the writer.

This should not be surprising, because this is an aspect of our role as the imago Dei—the image of God. Genesis 1:26-27 tells us,

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

One of God’s purposes in creating humans was to represent him—to image him—in the world. He created us to share and demonstrate many aspects of his character, even though we do so imperfectly. One of the ways that we are like God is our capacity to create. Our ability to take many raw, disparate ingredients and combine and recombine them in interesting ways to make something new is a part of being made in the image of God. When we create, there is a shadow—or maybe better put, a spark—of the divine in that act. When we create, we are representing God.

But our acts of creation are not the same as God’s either, for He is God, and we are not. God creates out of nothing—ex nihilo—where we do not. Everything that we create uses God’s original creation as raw materials. Our creative acts are actually act of subordinate creation, acts which imitate Him and build upon His creation.

J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term “subcreation” in reference to the fictional worlds an author builds1. But his term is much more powerful than that application alone. All creative work done by human hands and minds is subcreation, because all of our materials—words, ideas, experiences, relationships, etc.—came from the sovereign God and Creator of the universe. There is nothing that we can dream up that did not exist in the mind of God first.

When we write, when we create, we are echoing God’s own creative acts. When our ideas come to life, and readers from around the world can pick them up, read them, and engage with our ideas, we are imaging God’s creative power to the world. And when we write with these truths in mind, when we create in the ways God intends, we glorify Him not only in our final work, but in our acts of creation.

God designed us to represent His creativity to the world. So, any time we write, build, or create something, that sub creative act is powerful. It’s magical. And it glorifies the true Creator, thereby fulfilling our purpose as artists and humans.

  1. Tolkien, John Ronald Ruel. “On Fairy-Stories.” 1939. 


Throwing Away Your First Draft Is a Great Idea

On the occasion of throwing out the first 14,000 words of a manuscript

Last month I shared the 8,000 of 14,000 words of a new project with my writing group. It was the first two chapters of a novel, just the beginning of the story really. With these two chapters I’d taken a risk. I tried something interesting and—at least to my mind—unique. I was excited about it, and I had high hopes for it. I really wanted it to work. But of course, it didn’t.

Aside from the usual first draft issues, the writing was pretty good and everyone was interested in both the story and the world. But it didn’t work because no writer is good enough to ignore (not break artfully like the greats, but ignore) the structure of good stories. Which is exactly what I had done in my “experiment.” But that’s another post for another day. What matters for today is that I chucked it in the bin.

Almost all 14,000 of those words will never see the light of day. They will just sit there in my boneyard folder until bit rot or a crashing hard drive claims them. Any writer knows the feeling. It can be gut-wrenching.

That’s a lot of work to throw away. And don’t kid yourself, when it leaves your manuscript, you’re throwing it away. You might think, “Oh, there’s good stuff in there. I might find a use for it one day.” And you might. It’s completely possible. But for most of those words, this is the end of the line.

But the experienced writer knows the truth: Not one bit of progress was lost in that moment. Nope, not a single word was wasted. I had to write the first 14,000 words. Because it’s the only way to get to 14,001.

That is the way to measure progress. A writer who really understands their craft knows that there are hundreds of thousands of more words behind the 150,000 words in a novel. There are hundreds of words behind the scant 16 lines of a poem. For every word a reader reads on the printed page, likely a hundred or more were written.

So no, it didn’t feel good to toss out three full chapters of a book. And yes, I might be able to find some use for a few scraps. But every single one of those words that I tossed out had to be written. In a real way they are just as much a part of the book as the ones readers will actually read.

Never be afraid to throw away a draft that doesn’t work. It’s just one step closer to something that does.


Revisiting Hogwarts

It’s unfortunate that the writers of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child didn’t heed the very lesson they tried to teach their protagonists.

You can never go home again.

I kept thinking about this idea as I read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. When I read the script last weekend, I wanted to go back to Hogwarts again. It turns out that’s hard to do, even for the creator.

For a work that is to my mind clearly not the “eighth Harry Potter Book,” this might be a harsh way to judge it. So let’s consider this post a reaction, rather than a review. I’ll have more to say later, but these are my first thoughts, unaffected by the opinions of other Potter fans.

My first thought is that honestly, this is a work doesn’t need to exist. Don’t get me wrong, I had fun reading it. It was nice to see old friends grown up and in new situations. But it was also like a strange high school reunion. It’s a disorienting experience to be reunited with people who you’ve known since your childhood and who you walked the most formative experiences of your life with. Everyone is the same, but different—and not always for the better.

At first reading, this story seemed to do the one thing I hoped it would not. It changes the way I see the canonical series ending. And I don’t think the change honors the original series.

To be honest, I’m, disappointed in the play, even though there are plenty of great moments. Ms. Rowling did not write the script, but she does receive the lead credit on the story team. It’s unfortunate that she used her literary Time Turner to go back and revisit something so magnificent. Though I wish it was not true, this addition did not improve what was already perfected. If only the writer’s of this play would have heeded the lesson their protagonists learn about revising history.


‘Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully’ by John Piper 📚

Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully: The Power of Poetic Effort in the Work of George Herbert, George Whitfield, and C.S. Lewis by John Piper is a short, powerful and inspiring shot to the heart for any lover of words and Jesus. It’s one of the most fulfilling books I’ve read in a while, and one that left me wanting more.

Piper sews a common thread through the works of three great Christian Englishmen, namely that proclaiming the gospel of Christ beautifully helps us see him more beautifully. It’s a powerful assertion that he backs up clearly, and one that invites the reader to join these three giants.

George Herbert was a 16th century country pastor and poet, seen by scholars as an immensely pivotal figure in the history of English poetry. His works, published posthumously and published continually since, are entirely focused on his faith and devotion to Christ.

George Whitefield was an 18th century English preacher and key figure in the Great Awakening in both Britain and the American colonies. He preached an enormous number of sermons, an impossible number actually. Piper estimates that for many weeks of his life, actually preached for sixty hours a week. As Piper points out, for most of his career, Whitefield spoke more than he slept.

The most well known of these three men to readers today is of course, C.S. Lewis. Lewis was the foremost spokesman for British Christianity in the mid-20th century. He was an awe-inspiring public intellectual, taking three First Class Honors at Oxford, the top expert of Medieval English literature in the world, and a best-selling novelist.

Piper starts the book with an extended discussion of eloquence, particularly what kinds of eloquence either honor Christ or elevate the speaker and dishonor the cross. In turn, he then takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of each these three mens’ autobiographies, theologies, and professional lives, then settles into a different aspect of their work, each on this common thread of proclaiming the beauties of Christ.

This book is a must read in my mind for any Christian who is a writer, speaker, pastor, poet or avid reader. Even if you do not see yourself in any of these categories, I would commend this book to you. The illustrations draw from each of these men’s work will stretch your understanding of beauty in words, and your imagination of the glories of Christ. It’s an inspiring read that prompted me to pick up the pen and expend more poetic effort myself.