The Most Important Writing Advice I Have Never Received
Advice is needed. Advice is golden.
I want to believe that. Sometimes I have.
But advice has its shortcomings. It can be biased, misleading and a complete waste of time, despite the best intentions of those giving it.
And then there are those moments when we can look back and wonder why somebody didn’t just stand up and say the obvious.
This is one of those times . . . allow me to explain . . .
After bumbling through a number of English, Communications, Speech, and Film courses over my four years of college, I decided to pursue writing as a career. This conviction came to me even though I had no publishing connections, no professional experience and only an inkling of what I wanted to write. In other words, I was a bright-eyed, naïve idealist who wanted to take on the world.
Fast forward to today. My chosen career has been writhe with obstacles despite a plethora of sweat and grime on my part to write my heart out. From the end of my college years until now, I have sought any form of help I could get. I poured my meager funds (and hope) into conferences, seminars, workshops, and extension courses. I went to networking parties and events, and introduced myself to every prospective manager, agent and publisher. I hustled, at least as best as I knew how.
In the process, I received countless nuggets of advice. Many were solicited, the result of my curious mind and its multitude of questions. Some were not, the products of wise-cracking veteran professionals who saw yet another green scribe in need of a talking-to. If you’re a writer yourself, or any creative, you have no doubt experienced some of this counsel in your own artistic odyssey. Some of the phrases that I recall run the gamut of bad and good, including:
“Don’t give up.”
“Show don’t tell.”
“Kill your darlings.”
“You have to have a central character.”
“You need to meet more people.”
“You must create a following before you publish.”
“It’s who you know not what you know.”
That is merely a short sampling of the feedback I have received. As you can gather, much of the sayings were generic. Don’t get me wrong, I have been given more specific suggestions, which I appreciate and have added to the development of my voice as a writer. Still, the career I had hoped for has yet to materialize. I have gifted more hardcopies and e-copies of my books and short stories than I have sold. I continue to work a full-time-plus job unrelated to my passion while my dream of being a working author is relegated to a side gig. I keep up hope, though, as all us creatives must do.
In reflecting on the feedback I have acquired, it struck me not too long ago that one key bit of advice was missing. It wasn’t a small omission either, for as I dwelled on this lost piece of the creative-lesson puzzle, its importance became increasingly more significant, grander than at first sight.
Ready for it? It is:
Yes. That’s it.
Seven letters. Two words. Capped by a period, or an exclamation point if you prefer.
Why is this seemingly obvious and generic piece of advice so important?
Because it is at the core of why all of us writers, and other creatives, got started in the first place.
We began as children, entranced by the possibilities of make-believe and imagination. We played as action heroes and heroines in scenarios that involved us going to magical kingdoms and eras of a distant past, where we acted as the best versions of our created selves. We found love, defeated the bad guys, unearthed the treasure and were celebrated as victors.
Then, as childhood faded, so did that wondrous sense of make-believe. It morphed into something more grounded for most. Yet many — myself included — held out hope that what we could achieve what we could dream.
Those of us brave or foolhardy enough to become artists and pursue such fantasies faced a grim reality. The creative industries we wanted to break into are tough, with too few opportunities for too many dreamers. The power brokers that hold the keys to the castle are often tired of encountering would-be artists, and often reply to our efforts with a hefty dose of detachment and cynicism.
In order to prove ourselves to such gatekeepers, we train. We go to college to earn degrees in the liberal arts. We continue our learning by attending conferences and seminars, or by joining peer-run groups we’ve discovered on MeetUp or Facebook. We toil day and night, making draft after draft, work after work.
At some point during our struggle, we come across — either in the classroom, in interviews or by some other means — those stereotypes that are most damaging to our psyche. I write of the image of the “starving artist” or the “tortured artist,” a creative with seemingly endless talent that can only produce masterpieces so long as he or she is absolutely poor and miserable. Such an artist has somehow escaped discovery, a fact that adds to their agony as they drudge on in the faint hope that he or she will be discovered.
Well, that’s not for me.
I heard this stereotype-on-a-pedestal over and over throughout my years in college, from professors who only took to teaching because they had no other use for their MFAs. I continued to encounter it in the halls of expos and meetings, where some industry executive would casually smirk at the mention of one of us writers in the room actually wanting to “make it.” I experience it still in every Facebook post and social media thread about this rejection letter or that piece of biting criticism which one artist or another has received.
At every such occurrence, I bristle and resist the notion to buy into such a destructive and unrealistic concept.
There should be no such thing as a starving or tortured artist. Yes, I know there are. But there shouldn’t. And we shouldn’t feel compelled by some sixth (artistic) sense to celebrate it.
Any creative with whom this article has resonated with so far knows that. Rather than relish in the struggle, we should shed the idea of tears of pain and prop up the idea of a happy, well-adjusted artist, one who wakes up every day feeling grateful for the ability to create, no matter the dollars in his or her bank account. Too many of us hustle every day to makes ends meet, what with working long hours, sitting in traffic and juggling family responsibilities, just to name a few examples of the grind. In the rare spare time that we have, do we really need to abandon the idea of fun in our pursuit of making art?
The answer, from all of us, should be a resounding, “No.”
Should I feel burdened by the need to create? No. Should I taper my enthusiasm when I talk about my art with my friends? No. Should I feel guilty enjoying the time when I write (or paint or mold or draw or build)?
You — the artist, the writer, the creative — have struggled enough. You know it. And you realize that you will go on to struggle, so long as you pursue your dreams of contributing to our culture with a work that is all your own. That’s OK. Struggle on. But have such pains and hassle take a back seat to the wonder and awe you feel as you take your hands to clay, your brush to a canvas and your fingers to a keyboard.
Create. Invent. Discover.
And have loads of fun doing it.