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Language Arts & Disciplines Composition & Creative Writing

How to Write

by (author) Derek Beaulieu

Initial publish date
Apr 2010
Composition & Creative Writing
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2010
    List Price

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How to Write is a perverse Coles Notes: a paradigm of prosody where writing as sampling, borrowing, cutting-and-pasting and mash-up meets literature. This collection of conceptual short “ction takes inspiration from Lautréamont’s decree that “plagiarism is necessary. It is implied in the idea of progress. It clasps the author’s sentence tight, uses his expressions, eliminates a false idea, replaces it with the right idea.”
Already early in the twentieth century, the modernist Ezra Pound asserted that poets should “make it new,” and of course by “it” he meant “the tradition”: the materiality of pre-existent writing. The assertion is by no means original, much less post-modern: John Donne, for example, argued centuries ago that “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume.”
How to Write is an instruction manual for the demise of ownership. A multitudinous dialogue of writers and subjects, words and contexts, it unleashes a cacophony of voices where authors don’t own their words, they merely rent them from other authors. Containing ten pieces of conceptual prose ranging from the purely appropriated through the entirely recomposed, and covering a range of texts from the anonymous to the famous, it includes samplings from, among many others: Lawrence Sterne; Agatha Christie; Bob Kane; Roy Lichtenstein; and every piece of text within one block of the author’s home. Its title story is an exhaustive record of every incidence of the words “write” or “writes” in forty different English-language texts picked aesthetically to represent a disparate number of genres.
With How to Write, beaulieu suggests writers and artists would be better served to “make it reframed, make it borrowed, make it re-contextualized.” By recasting the canon with cut-up directions for successful writing, catalogues of events, and lists of vocabulary, he gleefully illustrates Picasso’s dictum that “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”

About the author

derek beaulieu is the author of five books of poetry, three volumes of conceptual fiction, and over 150 chapbooks. His critical edition (co-edited with Gregory Betts) of bill bissett’s RUSH: what fuckan theory will be published in 2012. beaulieu teaches at the University of Calgary, the Alberta College of Art, and Mount Royal University.

Lori Emerson is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She writes about and teaches electronic literature (especially digital poetry), experimental American and Canadian poetry, the history of computing, and media theory. She is co-editor, with Darren Wershler, of The Alphabet Game: a bpNichol Reader (2007).

John Riddell is the author of Criss-Cross (Coach House, 1977) and numerous other volumes of visual poetry and prose. An early editor of grOnk, Ganglia, and Phenomenon Press, his work has been included in magazines like Kontakte, Descant, and Ganglia from the 1960s to the present.

Derek Beaulieu's profile page


  • Short-listed, W.O. Mitchell Literary Prize

Editorial Reviews

How to Write by derek beaulieu Talonbooks, 2010 Read by Karis Shearer A recent issue of Atlantic Monthly featured Richard Bausch’s essay “How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons,” an ironically titled tirade against guides to writing and their impact on students of creative writing, in which Bausch complained that “a good book is not something you can put together like a model airplane. It does not lend itself to that kind of instruction” (30). In other words, a good book should be created through innate talent and attention to craft. According to that premise, derek beaulieu’s new volume is not a good book. Constructed like a model airplane, beaulieu’s equally ironically titled book How toWrite is actually a work of conceptual fiction produced from a very specific set of “instructions,” most of which can be found at the back of the book.[1] Conceptual writing, as Kenneth Goldsmith puts it in “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing,” “means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair” (98); the creativity lies in inventing the concept itself, not in the actual execution of the work. By thematizing the very idea of “instruction” in such pieces as “Cross it over it,” beaulieu’s slim volume challenges received ideas about genius and creativity: “Cross it over it,” is a “series of pornographic instructions pertaining to both tying a tie and composing poetry” (67) that implicitly suggests poetic composition is a masturbatory process. Pillaging directly from other sources, How to Write takes as its subjects both the production and reception of literature. “How to Edit: A,” for example, “is an exhaustive record of every incidence of the word ‘edit’ in the over 1,100 different English-language texts stored at Project Gutenberg ( which are indexed as starting with the letter A.” “I Don’t Read” – the only section of the book for which a description of the method of composition is absent – is presumably a catalogue of what people claim they “don’t read”: “I don’t read printed text in Braille font. I don’t read yellow journals, not even as I wait in the checkout line. [...] 5 Reasons I Don’t Read Your Blog and How to Change That” (26). One of the best pieces in this collection, however, is about the interpretation of literature: “Nothing Odd Can Last” takes thirty-six “alphabetized questions from Coles Notes-style websites on Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” Taken out of their original context and juxtaposed with one another, these questions’ humanist and author-centred assumptions become all the more explicit and even absurd owing to the fact that the pronouns have no clear antecedents: “Could it have been omitted? Does the author guide his pen or does his pen guide him?” (11) and “Is there any importance to this, or is it just the author’s bawdiness? Is there sufficient justification for such passages in the book? Or should the reader say to heck with it?” (13). Absurd as these questions may appear in this new context, they remain legitimate within a particular paradigm of reading – a paradigm perpetuated by Coles Notes and reinforced by online study sources – making them well worth interrogating. According to Goldsmith, “Conceptual writing is good only when the idea is good” (101). In the case of How to Write, then, the idea is “good” in that it has generated poems that thematically provide useful critiques of traditional approaches to reading and writing, while formally raising questions about authorship and contemporary writing technologies. - issue of MATRIX (#88, Winter 2011, p.59-60)

“It is fitting that in How to Write beaulieu makes manifest a very old idea, one that concerns Northrop Frye in his essay “Canada and Its Poetry” (1943): “Originality is largely a matter of returning to origins.” Appearing new, How to Write suggests, is about new ways of discovering, and stealing from, those origins.”
—The Bull Calf

Librarian Reviews

How to Write

This small volume of conceptual poetry is a useful introduction to some of the possible forms and subjects of the genre. By taking content from a range of genres, centred around specific themes, the poet puts various perspectives in jarring juxtapositions that illuminate in unexpected ways. For example the title piece collects language from 40 different texts. It includes every instance of the word ‘write’ from each of the texts. Another piece collects every piece of text within one block of the poet’s home (most includes the writing on cars). In the act of doing this the poet leads the reader to consider all the ways we encounter language in its myriad incarnations in our world. It is similar to how visual artists encourage us to see differently. This encourages us to see, read, think, generate meaning and write with a different kind of awareness.

Source: The Association of Book Publishers of BC. BC Books for BC Schools. 2010-2011.

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