My Non-Advice for Aspiring Writers
May 21, 2018
I’ll be among the panelists at an upcoming writers’ workshop, so I’m brushing up on my advice for fledgling novelists.
I’ll trot out the tried-and-true adages: show, don’t tell; read your dialogue aloud to road-test its authenticity; edit yourself mercilessly (don’t count every word, but make every word count); be smart and strategic in submitting your work for publication . . . stuff like that.
But I always feel a bit like a fraud when giving advice. I mean, what do I know? Yes, I’ve had a modicum of success in the publishing business, but maybe I’d have had way more had I played my cards differently. I certainly didn’t follow a specific path; I just kinda bumbled my way along, learning by trial and error. The fact is that creative writing is an intensely personal endeavor. One-size-fits-all just doesn’t apply, particularly considering fiction’s inherent subjectivity.
So maybe I’ll try a different tack. Maybe rather than advising aspiring writers what to do, I’ll advise them what not to do. Maybe my anti-advice will sound something like this:
* Don’t have an agenda. If your goal at the outset is to write a bestseller and earn millions, you’re almost certainly going to be disappointed. At the risk of sounding annoyingly zen, writing really is about living in the moment and creating art for its own sake. If what you’re doing is nourishing your soul and setting your synapses afire, you’re on the right track . . . not because you’re necessarily writing the Great American Novel, but because you’re immersing yourself in one of the most sublime pursuits known to man. Picasso notes that art washes “the dust of daily life off our souls.” That’s not a means to an end. That’s a covenant with your best and truest self.
* Don’t sequester yourself from the world. Beautiful writing doesn’t take place in a vacuum. It is fueled by everyday activities and routine encounters. Good writers don’t necessarily go about their days trolling for material, but they keep their eyes, ears and hearts open. They’re ready and willing to be inspired, intrigued and informed by the most seemingly mundane aspects of our lives. Notes Joseph Conrad, “A writer without interest or sympathy for the foibles of his fellow man is not conceivable as a writer.” Good writing is simultaneously both grounded and transcendent. Don’t forget to ground yourself.
* Don’t try to write like somebody else. Of course aspiring writers should read, read, read (then read some more when they’re done), but they shouldn’t consume themselves with others’ style or subject matter. Trends are on their way out by the time you catch their scent, so write what you feel passionate about. If that happens to be vampires, great. But if it doesn’t stir your soul, it won’t stir others’ either. Be true to yourself when you write. Give voice to your characters; give life to your stories. Respect your art and trust it to reveal itself as uniquely your own.
* Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. Don’t paralyze yourself by insisting on great art at every sitting. Don’t beat yourself up if you reread your writing a week from now and think it’s dreck. Always cast a critical eye on your work, but with the goal of improving, not immobilizing yourself. Be proud of what you’ve written even if you end up scrapping it. What you write today is worthy in its own right, and it improves what you write tomorrow. Will Rogers notes that “even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” Don’t just sit there.
* Don’t be discouraged. If you follow my first piece of non-advice — writing without an agenda — you’re already well-positioned to avoid disappointment. But the naysayers out there may prevent you from dusting off your keyboard in the first place. Don’t let that happen. If you long to express your art, don’t concern yourself with statistics. Yes, writing a novel is hard. Yes, the publishing business is fraught with uncertainty. Yes, the phrase “starving artist” has earned its ubiquity in our collective mindset. But if you yearn to write, write anyway. Then reread what you wrote and try to write it better. But write. To do otherwise is like forgoing exercise unless a Olympian gold medal looms in your future. Creativity is not a zero-sum game. Don’t deny yourself this singular source of joy, whatever the future may hold.
I’ll get around to my list of do’s as soon as I figure out this writing business. For now, I’ll just revel in the process.
I hope you do the same.