Writing Advice From Someone Loathe To Offer Writing Advice
or, my life as the nether regions of a donkey
A few years ago, while helping to facilitate a writing workshop at my alma mater, I was asked to write and share one or two paragraphs welcoming the freshman MFA class. The idea, to impart a few nuggets of advice. Pearls of writing wisdom. Well, I’m not at all sure I accomplished that, though I am confident I did give them something to think about:
Congratulations. By virtue of your acceptance, you have shown great potential to some unrelenting observers and critics. Though, please realize, a masters of fine arts is not a mandatory benchmark for narrative breadth. Nor does popular writing, by nature, equal literary skill. And, literary skill alone, does not equal a lucrative pay stub. And lucrative pay stubs, no matter how high the figure, will at some point fail to feed your need to author your One Great Literary Treasure.
Put another way, this writing thing is complicated and messy. No two people will experience the heartaches, challenges, and splendid euphoria in exactly the same way. Thus, my only advice to a writer, ironically, is to not give a whole lot of weight to advice. Mine included. Because in this highly personal and individually specific endeavor, you will come to know what works for you. Through plain old trial and error. Trust that.
However, since I’ve been asked, the following are some ideas that have, over time, become true for me.
If Nothing Else, Read
By necessity, I spend a lot of time on the Internet. Frequently, too much time, since walking away from a session often leaves me feeling not dissimilar to a bloated sponge with ADHD. TV leaves me less impaired, yet never completely fulfilled. Except, perhaps, the last season of Six Feet Under. And that was nine years ago.
But then there’s reading. There is nothing in the world that fuels me like reading, and by reading, I mean books. Those things you hold in your hand that smell great will always leave me content, often enriched, and occasionally with just enough strength and stamina to return to my own flawed, imperfect story. Reading has proven to be my most effective tool for writing. All of this is a rather verbose way of saying, do more of whatever nourishes your soul and less of everything else.
A similar sentiment from my impatient, occasionally cynical Generation X side would say: Waiting for others to praise your writing when you can’t be bothered to read other people’s work is tacky. And supremely arrogant. Lest you remain under the assumption that everything you write is brilliant and will garner film offers with Meryl Streep in the lead role.
Inspiration Is Wonderful — And Highly Overrated
Putting off writing to wait for that elusive inspiration will ensure one thing only. A blank page or an empty screen. Some of my best work was a result of forcing myself to sit and write, despite not wanting to, or being scared, or not having the requisite inspiration. Sometimes you need to face the bleak reality of having tons to say and no clue where to start. Sorry, often the way to it, really is through it.
Do The Work
Be your toughest critic while also being generous of spirit. Which is to say, thoughtfulness, insight, and showing up to get the job done are free, and often translate to a sense of personal strength, endurance over time, and active empathy. Edit until it hurts. Then edit some more. If you can’t sign your name proudly at the end of a piece, rip it up and start again. Remember, “pretty and most current”, never won the Pulitzer. As I suggest in the subtitle, I envision myself as an ass, as in the stubborn donkey variety.
A Word On The Experts
Realize the things teachers have told you in class were not the only approach. Much of that material was sage, some of it not. Where does that leave you? How to decide if both are wrong, both are true, or if the answer lies somewhere in the middle?
Welcome to writing.
Where the questions are never ending, and most answers are gray, or varying shades thereof, and everything lives on a spectrum of context, situation, and the capacity of the individual to relate. Your best teachers will be the ones who love what they do, softly command attention, and treat their classrooms like an egalitarian, radically progressive experiment in discovering a student’s personal best. The worst ones will be the ones who are under the detrimental assumption they have nothing more to learn, or that knowledge sharing is one directional. These people treat their classrooms like classrooms as we’ve come to know and expect them.
Style And Other Intangibles
Realize that subtext, vibe, and emotional tone are, when utilized appropriately, an art form unto themselves. Know their nuances. Know their limitations. Perhaps, let Audrey Hepburn be your guide. Yes, you heard me. Why? Because she gave us the concept of less is more. Simple = better. Simple black vs neon green. Put another way, the reason your mother got dressed up, put the pearls on, then took the broach off. Less is more. Woefully underrated these days in so many more ways than fashion. Translation to the literary world is easy; excess anything does nothing more than cheaply diminish your writing. It’s like The Paris Review vs. Us magazine. Enough said?
A note about complimentary artistic pursuits: Learn what design is and is not. Remember that graphic design has just as much to do with words as it does with pictures. Though just because you can write well does not a graphic designer make. Trust those who reside on the other side of making your words look great. But a few basics can never hurt: When considering text, Times New Roman is a great typeface for fiction, any underused sans serif makes a nice headline, white as a background is always best. Helvetica is nice too, though similar to the popular high school cheerleader, her best years have passed. New Courier, however, can solidify your ability to impart random, universal observations into clean, eloquent and oh so nuanced prose. But then again, I could be biased.
Ditch The Comfort Zone
That thing that you think is the embodiment of all evil ever since time began? Maybe it’s just not your thing. That is to say, branch out! Own a pet. And love it with abandon. Read Joan Didion, David Sedaris, Carolyn Forchette, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Voltaire, and one of those novels you had to read for an assignment. (1984, The Handmaids Tale, East Of Eden.)
Find your own unique voice. Though contrary to popular opinion, that usually does not sound like a Tarantino wannabe who sneers dismissively at anything other than a shallow conception of what constitutes edgy. Let’s be clear, that is nothing more than a first year film student hiding what they lack in talent behind a black turtleneck and an unending irony-of-pop-culture missives.
And if we are talking memoir, you must be bold and brave. Don’t waste your effort playing the court jester of arcane nuance. Instead, step away from the herd that publish long winded, moderately well written rants of those that have done them wrong, past and present. Suck it up, and instead write the things you never thought you would. Write about the things that keep you up at night, about the lies built, and the absolution denied. Take a chance and be the one to reveal the human constant that is our collective gut rot of fear and shame. Trust me when I say that one authentically searing glance at the truth of where you live, is better than 1000 words that lack any meaningful introspection.
All that is simply a dramatic way of saying, if you are going to accept the challenge of writing authentically, whether fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction, it will be assumed you have done the work. The gritty, scary, heavy lifting work that is borne out of a mindful and practiced self awareness.
If you are fortunate enough to meet a person who cares about the same obscure things you do, hold on to them and don’t let them go. You may have found the elusive “one”. Romantic love happens at least once for all of us, I think. Relish it when it does, but understand you can do just as well with a few, “in it for the long haul”, close friends who truly know you and love you in spite of that fact. With them, you are tethered.
Perspective Is Your Friend
Remember, a writer’s only job is to observe and communicate truth. Easier said than done, and yeah, sometimes boundaries get complicated.
I once read an interview with the writer Kiara Brinkman, author of the bestselling first novel Up High In The Trees, where she discussed the attachment that developed to characters as she spent increasing time crafting and writing them into a novel length project.
“…Inhabiting this character for a couple of years did affect me personally. It was very intense. In the middle of a project I carry it around with me, even trying to experience the world as the character might. Writing this character turned up the volume on my own emotions. The world became brighter, more vivid, but could also be overwhelming. When I got stuck, I would take a break for a couple of weeks. My own brain needed a change. I got very attached to Sebby and had to write him into a place where I felt he would be safe, so it was important to end the book on a hopeful note….”
I know for myself, I learned that the hard way. Shortly after my MFA thesis was complete (a novel length work of fiction and alternate form short stories), I went through a brief phase of what could only be described as a mild depression, as my almost year long “relationship” with several complex characters I had created came to an abrupt end. It was a slow, grumbling acceptance to finally understand the experience as a loss, and a grieving for the characters who no longer occupied my imagination.
So, I guess my point is that you need to be careful. Nietzsche was on to something when he said “beware staring too long into the abyss, as it may eventually stare back into you.”
The Magical Den
I once read an interview with a well-known Canadian writer who leaves her house every morning, strolls to a little English cottage on the far corner of her wooded property, and spends her writing time undisturbed, creating while sipping hot cider, listening to nothing but the wind.
Damn, I want that cottage.
But alas, I have no cottage. While I’ve had some success with a few publishing ventures, I’ve been working on “the book” forever. One year, I rented space in what amounted to a private office. That lasted a total of a few days. But I also wrote at home, at my desk, on the balcony and on a couch. My couch, on my friend’s couch, on an antique chair passed down from I don’t know who, and in the food court of the Toronto Eaton Center. I wrote at the Biffs Bistro, Jet Fuel, Cafe 7ten, and a dozen Starbucks. I wrote on transatlantic flights, and I wrote at every job I’ve ever had. You may have a fantasy cottage/den/desk, too, but what are you going to do until that day?
Your Pocket Size Chest Of Treasures
Carry your little notebook (personally I have more than a mild obsession with Moleskine), or your iPhone, or something, anything, that you will use as a place to jot down, in the moment, the words, ideas, and sentences that you’ll otherwise forget. And yes, you will forget them.
Swallow Your Pride
I was a bit of a coward when I finished my undergrad, afraid to commit myself to literature, so instead I chose paramedic certification and the wildly impractical major of community health theory. But, despite a great job and a graduate degree in my field, I spent the next ten years feeling mildly insecure about my creative education, and it wasn’t until the MFA program that I began to realize just how little I knew. Workshops and peer feedback can be valuable (more on that below), but having to critically dissect a book a week for two years, page by page, often phrase by phrase, and figure out how each author planned, built, and executed the finished product, their story, was the second best thing I’ve done for myself as a writer. The first (if you’ve been paying attention), we have already covered. And no, you don’t need to commit yourself to the MFA. Take an extension class. Download a lecture from USC or Goddard. There’s no shame or admission of weakness in needing to be taught.
Keeping those skills? That’s another story entirely. Like anything, practice and consistency are your friends. So is constructive critique. Trust me, I was not a fan of critique either. It had the potential to be vomit inducing. Literally. But after spending two years in a program built on the workshop model, I came to appreciate and respect the benefit derived from meaningful critique. So share your work. Find others, get together, exchange work, gossip, share opportunities, gossip, tell your literary agent and/or editor horror stories, gossip some more, and who knows, maybe even share the occasional, though never frequent enough awesome news of a book deal. Again, you don’t need an MFA program for this. Find one or two friends who write, then make a commitment to the betterment of each other. Otherwise, find writers through workshops, local lit organizations, or even the net.
You Aren’t So Special
You will be rejected. Often. Get over it early, because it never really goes away. Though realize you are not alone. In the course of my MFA, while researching for an assignment, I stumbled upon an article about author rejections. The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Fiddlehead, and every other high end lit rag has rejected every single famous writer out there countless times. It doesn’t matter who you are. Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Walker, all know the sting of rejection. The best selling and wildly talented Wally Lamb, author of I Know This Much Is True, had his first novel, She’s Come Undone, rejected by Hyperion Books. Why? Because he submitted the manuscript typed in 13 point sans serif font instead of a 12 point serif. I wonder who’s laughing now?
Remember To Steep
I have a friend, a well-respected author with several successful novels and high profile articles under his belt, who hates revision. He works by slowly moving forward, perfecting each sentence as he goes along.
I can’t work that way, I would go insane. My first drafts are usually incomprehensible. I have a difficult time getting to the heart of what I’m feeling until I start writing about it, and even then it takes time, sometimes a few weeks, or months, or even years, till I get at my truest insight possible. I have to let each chapter sit, steeping like fine tea.
There Is More Than One Way Around The Block
What do I do when the infamous writer’s block hits? Easy. I put the pen down and walk away. I do the laundry, walk the dog, go out with friends, have a hot and nasty Skype session with someone I’ll never meet, anything that gets my mind and body away from the temptation to sit down and try again. Otherwise, my literary output would make “See Spot Run” a challenge. The motivation usually hits a day, maybe two days, occasionally a week later, and then I return.
At daCunha, each of our editors has their own unique way of breaking through a block.
Veronica Montes looks at pretty pictures:
I motivate myself by scrolling through the IG or Tumblr for Last Night’s Reading. The combination of words, color, and illustration inspire me to get back to work.
Lisa Renee turns domestic:
Any activity saves me from myself. As others said, taking a walk, cleaning, cooking — anything but writing usually helps get things flowing again. Reading sometimes helps, though sometimes just sends me deeper into my hole — I’ll never write anything half this good!
Hana Leshner gets organized:
I often find when I’m struggling with motivation or creative output it’s because I don’t really know what my story is about. What helps the most is organizing my thoughts by creating an outline and really walking myself mentally through the story. So whether it’s going back to the interview transcripts for a documentary piece, going back through source material for non-fiction, or working through all the plot beats for fiction, once I have a detailed outline down, the story then writes itself.
Factual Accuracy vs A Greater Truth
Since we are talking about insight, I find the ongoing debate over the dividing line between fiction and creative nonfiction to be both reductive and agenda dependent. It is also, at its core, intellectually dishonest. The idea that to be moved by experience requires a factually accurate narrative is insulting to our human capacity to know ourselves.
The semantic micro concerns of what constitutes fact, truth, and honesty will be debated until the end of time by those who find it dangerous to experience gut level awareness through the gestalt of theme and sub text. However, reading with a willing heart and an open mind is to experience the transformative resonance inherent in the collective truth of a great work. Predicating worth, meaning, and quality on factual accuracy is both tedious, and misses the entire fucking point.
You CAN Write What You Don’t Know
But if you do, you need to get it right. Whether creative nonfiction or fiction, if you are going to write about experiences or cultures that are not your own, you have an ethical responsibility to:
- get it right the first time
- not play to the easy, reductive stereotype
- do no harm
Yes, that’s a tall order. But the implications, especially when writing about marginalized people or groups, often have potential to do real damage to real lives. You can help to guard against that by doing your research. Exhaustive, immersive research. You can ask questions. If you know someone who has experience with what you are writing about, have them take a good, close read. Have them give you their honest and critical feedback. And when they do, acknowledge them and their ideas. With intention, in your written work. If you don’t, there’s a word for that. Appropriation. What if you don’t know anyone with the experience you are writing about? Then that is a strong and reliable indication it’s not the topic for you.
I realize some may view this as creative inhibition akin to a kind of PC-like censorship. I prefer to view it as simply being mindful of the reality that our words have tremendous power. A power that mandates responsibility.
I freely admit, I routinely forget to follow my own suggestions. Life gets in the way, as do current events, as does the unexpected drama of family and friends, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and the intestinal maladies of my two dogs. Okay, the second to last was a lie, and the last was probably too much information. However, the point I am attempting to make here is that writing matters. It’s important, to a lot of people. There will always be readers who want to disappear into a story, learn about other places, or step inside the skin of someone unlike themselves. Or, exactly like themselves. To have their world expanded, or have their hearts broken. To know the experience of reading a truth someone finally put into just the right words. Readers who feel, at the end of a book, more in touch with an emotion, or to experience that needed shift in perspective. They may even feel a little less alone in this cruel, chaotic world. Because think about it; why you need to read, is why you need to write.
In 2006 Allan Rae left a career as a flight paramedic to obtain his MFA in creative nonfiction. Today he is a qualitative public health researcher exploring the intersections of HIV, PTSD, and stigma, through personal and community narrative. Allan is also the editorial lead for creative nonfiction at daCunha. Starbucks, satire, and dogs do not displease him.