Thou Shalt Not Think for Yourself
Fighting Toxic Literary Advice Culture
Have you ever wondered what kind of culture is the most toxic, insidious, and irreparably damaging to literature as we know it? Is it the evident lack of culture of people sneering at you when they see you read a book on a bus or a subway train? Is it the lack of culture of those relishing the proliferation of various digital distractions and other blipping and buzzing devices which supposedly presage the twilight of the printed word? Is it the lack of culture of those telling you to put your dreams of becoming an esteemed writer to well-deserved rest and get a real job? No, it’s the inherently toxic culture of literary advice, which, for the most part, is guilty of ruining an unthinkable number of promising writing careers even before they have begun.
This article was inspired by a comment written by one of our readers who, since becoming a Medium member herself, has been busy fending off a hail of writing tips leaping at her and carpet-bombing her from behind every corner of her PC screen and at every tiny step of her unsuspecting computer mouse. But who’s to blame for it? Who’s the real culprit here at whom we could point the finger without running the risk of losing it, like a cheeky yakuza member?
The ones spreading such tips, when you think about it, are remindful of grotesque charlatans from old westerns who traversed sunburned plains to peddle, from their clunky prairie schooners, patent medicines, those miraculous remedies to all the ailments both known and unknown to mankind. And many writing teachers disseminating those tips closely follow in their footsteps — or rather in the wheel tracks left by their wagons — while pretending to be able to offer you a magical cure for all the literary ills you can think of.
That’s exactly what The Nonconformist is for, that is, debunking harmful myths and exposing ludicrous rules of the toxic literary advice culture.
But we, at The Nonconformist, refuse to buy into this insolent scheme, and, to tell the truth, we’re quite allergic to the likes of it. Furthermore, that’s exactly what The Nonconformist is for, that is, debunking harmful myths and exposing ludicrous rules of the toxic literary advice culture.
Why is it toxic? Because, let’s face it, those impenitent artistic tricksters keep inundating you with their endless — and supposedly essential — writing commandments not to help you become a better writer, not to tell you how you should really hone your craft, not to show you the arcane tricks of the trade, not to teach you how to develop compelling plots and relatable characters, not to initiate you into the behind-the-scenes workings of the publishing world, but to turn you into their compulsive and desperate reader — please note, a reader and not a writer — obsessively seeking more and more similar bits of advice without ever penning anything yourself. They would love to see you turn into a writing-tip junkie, all shaky and edgy, giggling and salivating uncontrollably, but, above all, kneeling at their doors and begging for yet another fix of their miraculous drug.
After all, it’s a business model, it’s a well-functioning industry, and an enormously profitable one, too. Everyone, more or less openly, wants to become an author these days, everyone yearns to see their name in print, crawling majestically across the glossy cover of their debut novel — in fact, there seems to be more people eager to take up a pen than to pick up a book and actually read it — and those literary advisers, those veritable fountains of bookish wisdom, simply and shamelessly take advantage of your innermost dreams and desires, just as every other business on this planet does. There’s no mystery to it. There’s no grand conspiracy lurking behind the smokescreen of all that rubbish. There’s no international intrigue resulting in sensational car chases and fistfights on the rooftop of some medieval cathedral or other. It’s good old greed.
Well, not only that. If you’re capable of giving out advice, of instructing and correcting others, of telling them what to do and what to refrain from, of influencing the souls of your fellow artists, you must be an unrivaled master of your craft, a true bookish maestro, and a consummate virtuoso of a typed page — at least that’s what it implies according to some. So, it’s where their egos — which you involuntarily tickle every time you read them — come into play.
They would love to see you turn into a writing-tip junkie, all shaky and edgy, but, above all, kneeling at their doors and begging for yet another fix of their miraculous drug.
Thus, as a fledgling writer — who hopes to sell more copies of your novel than those that will be leafed through, in awkward silence, by your immediate family members after you’ve pushed your books on them during a Thanksgiving dinner — you ought to realize that simple fact and come to terms with it as quickly as possible, for your own good.
The websites and handbooks responsible for keeping writing tips in circulation have more in common, in terms of their attitude toward you, with monstrous pharmaceutical companies rather than with any champions of free thinking and the liberal approach to art. For just like such pills-peddling giants they don’t want to see you cured, they don’t intend to help you mollify your artistic demons and relieve your suffering, or, at the very least, make it slightly more bearable, but, instead, they hope that you’ll be coming back for more and more doses of their highly addictive medicine, like the aforementioned junkie, without ever being able to cut off all the tubes and cords of the literary life support equipment.
It all comes down to the willingness to exploit an inevitable sense of inferiority plaguing and gnawing at most aspiring writers, to preying on their uncertainty, their timidity, their perfectionism, as well as their genuine need for real guidance and mentorship. And it’s just plainly, fundamentally wrong.
But what do such impressionable authors receive in exchange for their good faith and the trust they place in their thus-acquired literary gurus? A handful of laughable rules and prohibitions that have been devised specifically to hamper their growth and development as valuable members of the writing community, to contain their talent, to keep them at a safe distance from the respectable and already-established writers, to crush their self-esteem, and to inhibit their actions to the extent that they would feel daunted, terrified, and intimidated at the mere sight of every imaginable writing implement, even if it’s only a pencil attached to a notepad they use to compose their shopping lists. Thus, it’s all about instilling self-doubt and fears in such novice persons of letters, while, at the same time, building a tremendously lucrative business on their cowering bodies.
It all comes down to the willingness to exploit an inevitable sense of inferiority plaguing and gnawing at most aspiring writers, to preying on their uncertainty, their timidity, their perfectionism, as well as their genuine need for real guidance and mentorship.
It’s the polar opposite of the method adopted by motivational speakers of all shapes and sizes of their vocal cords, swollen from all that inspired hollering. Because, to replicate the style of writing teachers, they would suddenly have to choose not to uplift and encourage their listeners, not to make them believe in their own strength and abilities, but to make every conceivable effort to render them miserable, and to stifle the smallest even display of their resourcefulness and business acumen. Motivational speakers don’t follow this path for a simple reason: They know, better than anyone else, that only one in a hundred — or in a hundred of hundreds — of their listeners will walk out of their crowded meeting halls and do something useful with their lives. Thus, an average listener poses no threat to them. But writing teachers want to be sure, they want to have absolute certainty, that you’d not leave their class and sit down to write the next Anna Karenina. For this reason, they strive to make you as dependent on them as possible, to turn you into that literary junkie I’ve already mentioned, and all that to ensure that you would waste years and years of your life on pointless preparations and musings on the art of writing without ever picking up a pen or launching a word processor. They don’t want you to spread the wings of your literary talent — much less to question their dubious authority — but would be delighted if they could force you into the severely limiting frames of their asinine teachings, and, as a result, to have you completely under control. They’d love to talk you into sacrificing your own individuality on the altar of an imaginary code of writing or some other first-rate stupidity, and lure you into your voluntary metamorphosis into yet another obedient member of the legion of their mindless worshippers, that is, those eternal readers, but never writers. They’d love to squeeze you into a bookish baking mold, as if you were a lump of freshly kneaded dough, and cut off all that sticks out of it, especially your said wings. But, above all, they’d love to sell you yet another copy of their writing handbook. And they — and no one else — are the bottomless treasure troves of useless writing advice.
There’s also another thing: More often than not, they’ve never written anything themselves — or anything of any importance — have no experience in editorial work, and, to put it mildly, are as qualified to do this job as a toothless person is to criticize the latest toothpaste. Their contact with the world of writing is mostly limited to standing in front of a mirror and giving their well-rehearsed Nobel Prize acceptance speech to the set of toiletries queuing on a shelf.
It’s all about instilling self-doubt and fears in such novice persons of letters, while, at the same time, building a tremendously lucrative business on their cowering bodies.
But, if you can’t live without soaking up someone’s advice, if you need some kind of artistic lighthouse to guide you safely through the fog of creative confusion, at least turn to those whose work has stood the test of time, like Aristotle’s Poetics (his recommendations work perfectly both for drama and for fiction), or the critical writings of Henry James (he discussed extensively the art of writing fiction in his excellent prefaces to his own collected works; also, don’t pass up the opportunity to take a look at his notes to his unfinished novel The Ivory Tower).
However, this head-on assault on the literary advice culture doesn’t mean that writing is free of any rules or best practices! The main problem is that those rules aren’t the ones the self-proclaimed writing mentors keep imposing on their readers and listeners. To make matters worse, they’re for no one to know and for you to find them out yourself. Why? Because the techniques that work splendidly when employed by one writer, turn out to be misused and jarringly out of place when tried by another. After all, as the saying goes, one author’s aesthetic meat is another one’s poison. And it’s your job — and no one else’s — to find the ones that will suit your style the most, and to assemble your own unique set of writing rules.
But if you need some kind of artistic lighthouse to guide you safely through the fog of creative confusion, at least turn to those whose work has stood the test of time.
Personally, I’m not fond of the third-person narration as it tends to wedge emotional distance between the writer and the reader, whereas the stories told in the first person appear to be more personal and create an intimate bond between your main character and the person holding your book on their laps. The third-person narration leaves me cold, but — let’s stress that — it’s only me. Someone else may find it immensely effective and consider it a perfect vehicle for their stories and ideas. Thus, I wouldn’t dare to turn this personal rule of mine into a bit of writing advice and then to shove it down the other authors’ pens! Like: “Thou shalt not write in the third person.” It’s just something I’ve observed; it’s the conclusion I’ve reached as a consequence of my reading history, and I’m faithful to it.
Paradoxically, I’d advise you to do the same. Find your own path and follow it devotedly. Find the writing modus operandi that works best for you and you only, and reject the toxic culture of writing tips. Find your own rules, your own writing techniques — preferably by familiarizing yourself with other people’s books — and stick to them, stick to them with all your might, for, ultimately, they’ll become the very cornerstone of your own inimitable writing voice. And while shaping that voice, you should, if anything, stay true to yourself and not to the sham advice of others.
Thank you for reading.
Copyright © 2020 by F. R. Foksal
F. R. Foksal is a Polish author writing in English, his second language. His short story collection, Hour Between Late Night and Early Morning, is available at Amazon. He believes that writing about literature doesn’t have to be boring and that books still stand a chance in today’s high-definition reality.