Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Wednesday on Writing Advice

Writers can sometimes have a lot to say about writing. The merits of this advice can be arguable. If you're like me, you probably look up to a few (if not many) people in the business of writing, but we should take their writing advice with a grain of salt. No matter where you go, whether you're sitting in Panera, in a high school cafeteria, a college class, or an airplane, people will have something to say about writing. After learning you're a writer, even people who haven't touched a pencil since they were in grade school will have advice on "how you should write." I hate to break it to you, but even the writers you love can't tell you how to write. There's no standardized approach to creative writing. There are probably manuals, but those are more like guidelines than rules. Being a creative writer is like being a pirate, guys-- you have to know the rules, but you usually have to break them too. To help you become the best Captain Jack Sparrows you can be, I have compiled some good and not-so-good writing advice.

"If a young writer can refrain from writing, he shouldn't hesitate to do so," --André Gide.

I have a couple problems with this.

  1. I resent the assumption that all writers are male. Come on, really? 
  2. I understand it isn't easy to write, but I hate that so much of the advice from "great" writers is like this. It's cynical, sour, and kind of silly. You're not going to convince me not to write just because you crafted a witty statement about how hard the life of a writer is. If someone loves writing, you should have enough respect to assume they understand the drawbacks to the profession and are willing to deal with those problems. 
"It is by sitting down to write each morning that one becomes a writer. Those who do not remain amateurs," --Gerard Brenan.

Although it may not be everyone's cup of tea, I think this is great advice. Even when I'm stuck on my big work in progress, I will always try to work on a short story, write some poetry, or just write about whatever pops into my head. When all else fails, I'll go read for a while, and then come back to whatever writing or editing I was doing. I think that Brenan's advice is basically true. to become good at something, you have to practice. If you want writing to be your profession, you have to dedicate time to it, even when you don't feel like it. 

"I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity and blame to self-pity, and both are bad for writers," --John Berryman.

I definitely like this one. Personally, I think I'm probably the harshest critic of my own work that I've encountered (so far), but I know praise can completely go to my head. If you like something I've written, I automatically love you. I know it's a flawed way to think, but I try to control it. I know I don't take criticism very well either. I tend to take it very personally, even when it was meant to be constructive. When someone says, "I don't think your plot makes sense," I hear, "You are a horrible, talentless person." When you're so emotionally invested in what you do, it's hard not to take things personally. I mean, my writing is me, but I have to remember that other people don't look at it that way. I think anyone, whether they're a writer or not, can benefit from learning a healthy way to cope with praise and criticism. We need to depend on our own confidence, not on opinions of others.

"Read, read, read. Read everything-- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like the carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out the window."

Reading, apart from actually writing, is one of the most important parts of who I am as a person and as a writer (are those the same thing? I'm not sure). I think my style of writing is a mixture of all the things I've read, as well as my own experiences. That's how you get a "voice" as a writer-- you observe things, and then you explain them in a way no one else can. I think younger writers have to be careful not to imitate the authors they love, though. That's why you should try to read a variety of things. It can prevent you from accidentally creating copies of your favorite books. I disagree about the bad writing. I think you should keep your bad writing. There might be a line or a great metaphor in there that you can use later. If anything, when you finally write something you're proud of, the reminder of your not-so-great work will keep success from going to your head.

"Everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else," --  Georges Simenon.

Jesus. Can we stop with the whole "you don't want to be a writer" conspiracy? It's getting really old. Don't let anyone tell you that you don't care enough or aren't tough enough to be a writer. If you write, you can be and are a writer. You can have other interests. Your writing will benefit if you experience different things. Ugh. Advice like this drives me crazy. I need to be a writer--I could be something else, but I don't want to, and a quotation isn't going to convince me otherwise. Sorry, Georges.

"Unless you think you can do better than Tolstoy, we don't need you," -- James Michener.

I need to write. I don't care if I'm not as good as Tolstoy, and neither should you. Why? Because we aren't freaking Tolstoy, that's why. I'm not Tolstoy, I didn't experience what he did in his life, I have different influences, and I have a completely different perspective than he did. My writing isn't as good as his was, but that's honestly kind of irrelevant. Writing isn't some stupid competition to see if you can be the nest Tolstoy, or the next Rowling. If you're the next anything, we don't need you. We need people who are the first of themselves. 

"Better to write for yourself and have no public, than write for the public and have no self," -- Cyril Connolly.

 This is one of my favorite quotations of all time. If you know what you write was written to please other people, you're never going to be happy with your work. I think you have to do it for yourself for it to be worthwhile. Don't try to write something you think is marketable. If it's good, there will be a market for it somewhere. 

"There is no advice to give young poets," --Pablo Neruda.

Well, OK. Not much to say about this one. 

"If I had to give writer's advice, I'd say don't listen to writers talking about writing or themselves,"
    -- Lillian Hellman.

I guess you can disregard the previous advice, then. Maybe she's right, though-- it might be best not to take any advice at all. Maybe some of the advice you've heard has helped you, and that's great, but don't shackle yourself to a certain way of writing just because someone said that was the way to write. And never, ever, ever, listen to people who tell you to stop writing. Prove them wrong. 



p.s. Have you bought a Ray Bradbury book yet like I told you too?