Writing Advice from a Legendary Poet

The secret sauce to literary success from Billy Collins.

Danielle Gibson
Dec 17, 2020 · 3 min read
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Billy Collins at a poetry reading in San Diego, California. (2008) — Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

On March 22, 1941, William and Katherine Collins welcomed a bouncing baby boy into the world in Manhattan, New York. They named their son William James Collins. Little Billy Collins spent his formative years in Queens and White Plains, New York, where his love for words, both written and spoken, grew rapidly.

After high school graduation, Billy headed to Massachusetts to attend the College of the Holy Cross. In 1963, Billy earned a B.A. in English from the institution. Once his bachelor’s degree was secured, Billy headed to the west coast to attend the University of California, Riverside. At UC Riverside, Billy honed in on his craft of poetry, earning both his M.A. and Ph.D. from the institution in Romantic Poetry.

After earning his Ph.D., Collins returned to New York. He began teaching English at Lehman College, joining the faculty in 1968. Collins was a founding member of the college’s Irish-American Studies program. Throughout his career, Collins taught writing and poetry workshops across both the U.S. and Ireland.

In 2001, Collins was named U.S. Poet Laureate. The U.S. Poet Laureate serves as the official poet of the United States. During their term, the Poet Laureate’s goal is to raise consciousness and foster a deeper appreciation for reading and writing poetry throughout the nation. Collins served in this high distinction until 2003.

Advice for Writers

Billy Collins has certainly achieved a great deal of success in the literary world. He has created numerous beautifully written poems and has helped foster a love for writing and poetry in the next generation. In his poem, Advice to Writers, Collin outlines his top tip for fellow writers.

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.

Overall, Billy’s top tip to all aspiring writers is to keep a clean space to write in. While keeping a clean and tidy space to write in might not be your traditional writing advice, it certainly has proven successful for Collins. Collins’s advice isn’t just anecdotal either, as science also supports this advice.

Does Cleanliness and Good Writing Correlate?

A study conducted at Indiana University found a correlation between clean houses and healthier people. Research scientist, NiCole R. Keith, conducted a study with 998 participants. Through her research, she found that participants who kept a clean home were also healthier and more active individuals.

In 2010, another study was published finding a correlation between productivity and cleanliness. The study asked 60 women to describe their homes and living spaces. The women who used words related to “cluttered” had higher levels of depression, fatigue, and the cortisol hormone. Women who used words related to “restful” to describe their homes had lower levels of depression and were overall healthier individuals.

Scientists have found that clutter can actually make it more difficult for individuals to focus on their tasks. The science shows that there is power, both mentally and physically, in keeping an organized and cleanly space. As Billy Collins writes, “Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.” So, take it from science and a world-class poet. If you want to create masterful literary works, make sure you do the dishes and clean your desk before you get started.

Chaos and Art

A Place to Share Poems and Remember Poets of Days Gone By

Danielle Gibson

Written by

Writer | Storyteller | Poet | Historian | Entrepreneur | M.A. History • Modern American and Modern European Studies | Writing about History, Culture, and more.

Chaos and Art

Chaos and Art is the place to share inner ramblings and celebrate the masterful poets of the past.

Danielle Gibson

Written by

Writer | Storyteller | Poet | Historian | Entrepreneur | M.A. History • Modern American and Modern European Studies | Writing about History, Culture, and more.

Chaos and Art

Chaos and Art is the place to share inner ramblings and celebrate the masterful poets of the past.

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