Sally Wen Mao Wants You to Write Into the Void

The poet answers our questions about teaching writing

In our series “Can Writing Be Taught?” we partner with Catapult to ask their course instructors all our burning questions about the process of teaching writing. This time, we’re talking to Sally Wen Mao, an award-winning poet and author of Oculus. Mao’s upcoming class on speculative poetry—enriching poetry through the use of myth, folklore, and fabulism—is currently full, but you can sign up to be notified when it returns, or peruse Catapult’s other upcoming (online and social-distancing-compliant!) course offerings.


What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?

It’s mostly a feeling: like I’ve got this, that my project doesn’t scare me, that in fact, it excites me—the best thing is feeling the many possibilities of the poem or the story. The most successful workshops and classes are those that make you excited to work on your project—they validate you enough to know what you write is worth pursuing, but challenge you enough that you see possibilities in your writing you never thought of before. 

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?

The worst thing writing class I’ve taken was a screenwriting class—the professor just showed us different movies and declared her taste was the only one that was correct, and she was harsh on all the students—most of her feedback was not constructive and not helpful if your vision didn’t align with hers. 

Know your influences, so you know yourself. Then riff.

What is the lesson or piece of writing advice you return to most as an instructor?

The writing advice would be to figure out your “lineage” as a poet. Know your influences, so you know yourself. Then riff/experiment, do not get bogged down by comparing yourself to others. Form your identity as a writer. 

Does everyone “have a novel in them”?

No. 

Would you ever encourage a student to give up writing? Under what circumstances?

I’ve never done this. The only circumstances where this would be possible was if the student had no interest in writing, no desire in the first place. Then they’re already inclined to give up. 

What’s more valuable in a workshop, praise or criticism?

It needs to be praise combined with criticism so that the student sees their strengths in addition to what they could work on. I think of it as “what’s working” and “what you can challenge yourself with,” how you can push yourself further in your work. 

Writing itself is sacred—as a writer you have to be okay with releasing your words into the void.

Should students write with publication in mind? Why or why not?

No, I think that publication should be separate from the process of writing itself (only after a piece is complete, but in classes, most pieces are works in progress). Writing itself is sacred—as a writer you have to be okay with releasing your words into the void.

In one or two sentences, what’s your opinion of these writing maxims?

  • Kill your darlings: Take care of your darlings. If they don’t belong in a story or a poem, house your darlings somewhere safe. 
  • Show don’t tell: Yes—in most cases this is true, but occasional telling doesn’t hurt.
  • Write what you know: This one is ridiculous because writers are supposed to harness both their experience and their imagination. 
  • Character is plot: Sure.

What’s the best hobby for writers?

I think for me, the best hobby for writers is consuming other forms of art, such as visual art, films, photography, etc. I love seeing other people’s process and it informs my own. That and traveling… writers should find ways to travel.  

What’s the best workshop snack?

Oh, anything from an Asian grocery store. Pocky, or Hello Panda, or those Koala bears, or those muscat /strawberry gummys. 

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