Every once in a while someone will ask me for writing advice, and I’m never sure what to say. For every Broad Prescription (Write every day! Take it easy on the adverbs!), ten counter-examples come to mind. The truth is, to give legitimately useful advice would require knowledge of that person’s writing style and habits. But as a guy who reads for a literary magazine, a small press, and teaches writing intensive classes, I simply can’t take on more assigned reading.
Still, I want to help. I do. I’m a Midwesterner of Scandinavian stock. A door-holder, a yes-ma’amer. It’s just not in me to say, “Sorry, I can’t help you.” So what can I say that would be true and useful? Write often. Read lots. Writers like to toll this generic bell, and its ring is usually met with disappointment. Is it because people have heard it before, or because it contains so much work and so little magic? Is it because people believe the writer’s holding back, hoarding the real secrets for himself?
Of course, for each writer who reports to the desk first thing every morning, I can think of another who binge-writes for nine straight days, then walks away from the page for months. Show me one writer who inhales books, and I’ll show you another who refuses to read anything while working on a manuscript for fear of undue influence.
This is the wonderful, infuriating thing that makes writing so hard to teach and learn, and makes generalized advice damn near useless: there are no strong causal patterns. No input equals a certain output. Every piece of advice should come with the disclaimer that flashes at the bottom of the screen during diet commercials: Results not typical.
But, like I said, I want to be helpful. So I’ll try out three pieces of advice here, with the hope that, though individual results may vary, the contents contain less than fifty percent bullshit.
Remember to consult your doctor before starting a writing regimen.
- 1. Write like yourself, only more so.
Broad Prescriptions, by their very nature, aim to homogenize. Take something like “Go easy on the adverbs,” for example. That move worked for Hemingway, but can you imagine Austen without adverbs? To pare down her prose would be to steal her essential Austenness, and make her more like everyone else. When literature all starts sounding alike, we all lose. It would be like making everything in the grocery store taste like banana cream pie.
I think this is what people mean when they say, “Find your voice.” What makes you you? What’s your style and sensibility? What’s your way of seeing the world and talking about it? Seek it. Hone it. Amplify it.
- 2. Kill your dreams of publishing grandeur.
If you claim to be a steely-eyed realist who does not harbor such dreams, then you, sir or madam, are a steely-eyed liar. Sure, you’ve heard the horror stories about books that are orphaned at a publishing house when the acquiring editor is fired, and readings that are attended by a single homeless guy, but in your secret heart you don’t think these things will happen to you. You believe yourself to be an exception (otherwise, you wouldn’t have had the nerve to write a book and assume that everyone would be interested in reading it).
First admit the dream, then kill it. Here, I’ll help (See? I told you I was considerate.). Imagine the following scenarios:
- You work for fifteen years on a manuscript, send it around to dozens of agents, publishing houses big and small, and no one bites. You self-publish it and sell eight copies.
- You work all that time on a manuscript and send it out. When you get The Call from a publisher, you feel a wave of happiness, which is the high watermark as far as that emotion is concerned for the rest of the publishing process. For the next two years, your book languishes at the press. Editors come and editors go and none of them answer your emails and you wonder whether the publisher forgot about your book, or actively regrets accepting it. The promotional support is so skimpy that it seems passive-aggressive, or perhaps ironic (Look, we’re “promoting” the book. Hey, everybody, “Put it in your cart.”). You line up your own promotional efforts around the publication date, but the book’s release is pushed back a half-dozen times until at last it enters the world with a whimper.
- You write it, you sell it, and the book comes out in a timely way. You get a review in a newspaper—which is like winning the lottery these days—but it’s savage, riddled with factual errors, and the reviewer seems to be using your book as an occasion to advance his own angry agenda. On Goodreads, some reader warns potential readers away from your book, saying that it’s “defiantly not worth you’re time! This book has owls, and I hate owls.”
- The book comes out, and your friends say, “Good for you! I’ll have to check it out,” which is a nice way of saying that they will neither buy it nor read it. These are the same people who will ask you consistently, “How’s the book doing?”, which makes you think that the cliché about judging a book by its cover is totally dated in this age of e-readers, and should now be about judging a book by its prizes and sales metrics. You spend a month trying to set up readings, and can’t even get booked at your hometown library, which should name an endowed chair after you for the amount of money you’ve paid in late fees over the past decade.
One night you find yourself sending your book off to the Pulitzer committee, writing out a check for fifty bucks you can’t spare while imagining the judges plucking your book from obscurity and holding it up like a holy tablet before the mouth-breathing hordes. Your sheepish town throws you an impromptu parade, and as you roll past the library in the back of an El Dorado convertible driven by the mayor, you nod gravely to the head librarian because you’re a magnanimous guy, but inside you think, “Suck it, Lindsay”—and that’s when you stop writing the check. That’s when you realize you have a problem. You’re an addict, and your drug is publishing success.
But none of this is actually the advice. It’s all setup, as is the following question: If you knew this stuff would happen to you, would you want to write anyway?
When things get shitty, try to remember your answer. That’s the advice.
- 3. Wean yourself off advice.
I understand why advice is especially attractive to developing writers. I get why many of us cling to it like wreckage in a choppy sea. It feels like something solid to hang onto. Also, it makes you sound like you know what you’re doing when you repeat it to other writers.
But someone else’s knowledge is never going to fit as well as what you make for yourself. Maybe the problem isn’t so much the advice itself, but the impulse to ask for advice. Here’s a theory: When you let go of that need, you signal your readiness for a higher level of development. Call it a kind of negative capability. Call it comfort with mystery, not-knowing, grappling in darkness. Letting go of received wisdom is the beginning of discovering yourself as a writer.
When someone gives advice—I’m including myself in that dubious group—it’s really a note to the self, saying, Remember this. It worked last time, and might just work again. The problem comes when you give your notes to other people. Or when you cling to your own notes too tightly, even when they’re no longer working. So let me extend this last piece of advice to you (read: me): let go of that wreckage, even though land is nowhere in sight. Swim as long as you can, then sink into the dark sea.
What do you see? What’s down there? Send us your notes.