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I assumed that I’d be famous by 21 and dead from a drunken car accident by 23.
February 26, 2011 6:36 PM   Subscribe

…But a few rare people will point out the stuff that they like, call you out on some of the dumb shit that you’re writing, and gently but forcefully suggest ways to make your dumb shit better. Treasure these people. Learn to recognize them. These people are your only hope. [...] You’re going to find them, and you’re going to hang out with these people as much as possible. You’re going to go drink coffee with them at 2am in shitty diners; you’re going to become new best friends with them; you’re going to call them at all hours on the phone.

How to be a writer, by Oliver Miller.
posted by Taft (48 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
That reminds me, does MeFi have a writer's group?
posted by LogicalDash at 6:42 PM on February 26, 2011


But a few rare people will point out the stuff that they like, call you out on some of the dumb shit that you’re writing doing, and gently but forcefully suggest ways to make your dumb shit better. Treasure these people.

This applies nicely to life in general.

The bit about not taking advice from writers also works.
posted by louche mustachio at 6:44 PM on February 26, 2011


Writers talking about their writing is like parents talking about their kids. It's kind of interesting but not near as much they think it is. But if they're your friends, you put up with it for a while, because that's what friends do. And then you change the subject.
posted by philip-random at 6:52 PM on February 26, 2011 [13 favorites]


This is great, thanks for posting it!
posted by clavdivs at 6:56 PM on February 26, 2011


That article was not particularly well written.
posted by zorro astor at 7:19 PM on February 26, 2011 [4 favorites]


a few rare people will point out the stuff that they like, call you out on some of the dumb shit that you’re writing, and gently but forcefully suggest ways to make your dumb shit better. Treasure these people. Learn to recognize them. These people are your only hope.

The best lesson in writing I got from a roommate who demanded to read everything I wrote while it was still in progress. That is to say: I'd sit there with a notebook in my lap (this was before I wrote everything on the laptop) and hand her the notebook when I was tired. At that time, I was trying to write screenplays. I was also way too impressed with Tarantino -- particularly the epic monologues of Tarantino. So I produced a pages-long speech every, say, ten pages or thereabouts, each one (I was sure) more brilliant than the one before it. I was certain that these were the high points of the script, the passages that would delight. In any case, the first page my roommate had not seen was pretty standard back-and-forth dialogue; the page following began a speech I was sure she would find magnificent. Trembling with excitement, I handed her the notebook, and tried not to stare as she read that first page, then turned the page...

...and then, seeing the beginning (just the beginning!) of an epic block of text, she sank into her chair and heaved out a huge, huge fucking sigh.

So yeah. That first paragraph of this comment? Don't do that. That's what I learned.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:39 PM on February 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Constructive criticism is a valuable attribute indeed. The one screenwriting course I took as a part of my film studies undergrad was unpleasant in a lot of ways, but the worst part was listening everyone tiptoe around the fact that almost everything everyone wrote (most emphatically including me) was terrible. No-one, including the prof, knew how to criticize constructively, so there was no real criticism at all. Everyone's writing was great, really great! Or at the very worst, "interesting." One guy wrote a ten-page screenplay with only one line of dialogue (which, I shit you not, was "What have I become?", and it was supposed to be spoken directly into the camera); the whole thing was just lengthy descriptions of the main character's actions (a car chase, mostly) and emotions. Hoo-boy.

And that man was...M. Night Shamalayan! And now you know the REST of the story!
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:01 PM on February 26, 2011 [9 favorites]


Good advice here.

Don’t listen to advice from writers. I realize that me saying this will invalidate this entire column, but I’m cool with that. Writers like to talk about writing because talking about writing is easier than actually sitting down and — y’know — writing something. (Like a novel, or a play, or a poem, or such.) Don’t listen to writers. And are you sure that writers even have your best interests at heart? Most writers that I know are petty, insecure, self-absorbed dicks. And writers don’t like competition. Therefore, take any advice that they give you with a grain of salt.

I think this one is true, but for a different reason. I think writers are mostly completely well-intentioned. But ask them about writing, and most'll just start spewing out all sorts of "advice" which is really just thinly veiled reiterations of what works for them. This way they feel like they're being helpful, but instead just makes them feel like they're doing the right thing. Writers, being petty, insecure, self-absorbed dicks, are always all sorts of insecure as to whether their own process is the right one. Anything else is seen as a challenge to the legitimacy of their process, like, oh, you do things differently, well that's the wrong way, let me tell you the right one.

(This is, of course, true for me, too.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:07 PM on February 26, 2011


Before mousing over the URL I made an internal bet with myself that this was a link to thoughtcatalog. I was hoping I was wrong. moving along...
posted by nonmerci at 8:07 PM on February 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


He lost me when he said it was awesome to suck.
posted by jeremy b at 8:12 PM on February 26, 2011


But ask them about writing, and most'll just start spewing out all sorts of "advice" which is really just thinly veiled reiterations of what works for them.

This. What I've learned is that every writer is different. There are scant few things that are valuable (particularly the "computer not connected to the internet" thing) that many writers agree on, but they basically diverge from there.....drink, don't drink, write in the morning, write late at night, first draft on yellow paper by hand, it goes on forever.
posted by nevercalm at 8:16 PM on February 26, 2011


Writers suffer from the worst and shittiest bout of Romantic diarrhea. They're competing with film students in a race to the bottom. (Film students have an edge in that people still watch movies/movies are "important" to people, but you can be a writer for far less money. So it's a fierce competition.)

Look, just because you put words down on a page doesn't suddenly make you special or interesting. Just because you decided, one drunken evening, to spend some time thinking about yourself and asking if you're as shitty as all the shitty people you love to loathe... that doesn't make you particularly interesting. Lots of people are capable of self-criticism without it turning into something dramatic. Yelling your mundane, soporific thoughts doesn't make them more precious.

If you look at all the great writers, writers in any genre, poetry, fiction, playwriting, screenwriting, lyricism, whatever, you find that generally speaking writing only serves a few purposes. Writing can serve as a creative/emotional release. Writing can speak about something that you feel others ought to hear. Or writing can be a style game, where you try and manipulate the rules into letting you get away with things. You don't have to do all three at once, or at all. Nabokov's Lolita is masterfully stylish, and is has a certain message about love, poignancy, and obsession, but it doesn't exactly come across as heartfelt. Sylvia Plath's poetry can be mushy and overcolorful, but her emotional honesty makes it all work. There is no "right" way to write, other than "however you feel like it". If you try to write about things you don't have a genuine passion for, it's going to sound false unless you spend a lot of time teaching yourself how to get things right. And even then.

We make a mistake, I think, when we lump all these forms of writing together. I grew up worshipping and loving style; James Joyce and Samuel Beckett were my idols because they were literally inventing new forms to write in, mastering them, and then moving on. (A punctuation-free monologue depicting a woman's thoughts flitting about that end when she orgasms? Fucking BRILLIANT puerilism.) But I used what I knew about writing to shit on a bunch of other kids my age who wanted to write about their feelings and just weren't all that interesting about it. Once you compartmentalize the different forms of writing I find that it's easier to accept writers for who they are, rather than forcing them to be what you want them to be.

There is no "right" way to write. There are no rules, other than: Stop worrying about rules. I fucking hate the fact that almost everybody I know has a beautiful, unique, original character, which they insist on bending and breaking to match the rules of whichever form they've chosen. I see a lot of creative writing from people whose voices inspire and inflame me where I can point at an exact word, or sentence, or character name, and say, "Here's where they decided their prose piece wasn't prosey enough." There's nothing more tragic than somebody losing their voice because they've been told it's not the right kind.

But on the flip side of that you have the young writers who decided they wanted to write because they're convinced that they are special, and that special means that you don't have to think about what you're going to write about. You just sit down and write about anything. But for young writers this usually means they write about writing. That's what this piece reeks of. It's not that the guy who wrote this is a bad writer (he's got a certain style, and a certain honesty), it's just that I've read so much writing about writing that now it's really hard to stand out and be interesting. And it's frustrating because to me it screams, rightly or no, of vanity. This guy's writing about writing because it makes him special that he's a writer. He defines himself by his writing. I think that's really sad. I mean, I think it's sad when anybody decides to arbitrarily define themselves as anything, but it's sadder when it happens during a creative process. The tragedy of a young person looking at himself excessively in the mirror.

If you want to write shockingly well at a young age, without much practice, here's how you do it: Write however you feel like writing. Let it come out the way it comes out. Don't lie. (This means: don't write about things you know nothing about just because you feel you ought to write about it; don't write using words and formations that you don't use naturally.) Make sure somebody else sees it, so that your writing becomes a conversation with everybody you know and everybody you love. If you only write for yourself then your writing will be a monologue about nothing but yourself.

You can't learn how to write naturally (and you will spend years learning how to recover your natural voice once you lose it). What you can learn is tools. Tools can be words, or punctuation, or certain sorts of creative formations that you can use to tweak your sentences and paragraphs; they can also just be experiences, like one perfect kiss on a dreary day, or a night getting drunk and raucous with a bunch of loud assholes. If you've got enough experiences then you can be a great writer without knowing a damn thing about writing.

And above all, never forget: it's just words. It's a bunch of letters mashed together arbitrarily. There's nothing mystical or wonderful about it, except for the fact that it's coming from one person's experience, and it's being shared with other people. There's absolutely a mysterious, romantic beauty to human connection and sharing. That comes from the humans. Not from the words. Words are nothing.
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:24 PM on February 26, 2011 [15 favorites]


Write for the sake of writing. Write because you have something to say. Write because you have a story to tell. Write because you have characters and dialogue in your head and because you'll go absolutely insane if you don't let them out onto the page. Write because you love the world and you love everyone. Write because you hate the world and hate everyone. Write because it makes you happy. If your writing makes others happy too, then great. But it's not a requirement.

Don't write because you want to be famous. Don't write because you want to be Charles Bukowski or Edgar Allan Poe or Dorthy Parker or William Shakespeare -- they've all done that better than you ever will. Don't write because you think you can make money from it and quit your job (you'd be surprised by how many people go into writing courses with this mindset). And don't write simply because silence makes you nervous. The world's a noisy place already, after all.

If all else fails, read. The world has plenty of writers, and never enough readers.
posted by spoobnooble at 8:28 PM on February 26, 2011 [7 favorites]


Writing can serve as a creative/emotional release. Writing can speak about something that you feel others ought to hear. Or writing can be a style game, where you try and manipulate the rules into letting you get away with things.

You forgot storytelling. Writing's a good way to accomplish that, too.

I don't know that this dude is arguing that words aren't tools used to facilitate conversation. But you can improve your tools, of course. And the less arbitrarily you smash together your words, the more likely you are to achieve clarity of communication. The rubbish of the advice "write however you feel like writing" becomes apparent if you've ever taught eighteen-year-olds how to write poetry. You start to realize that not everyone is the gifted communicator you once were. You find yourself saying stuff like, "You need to realize the impact of the words you use. Readers aren't mind readers. Poetry doesn't mean whatever you want it to mean," and so on and so forth.

There was a movie about this that I saw once. "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole." Most people who call themselves writers and choose that as an identity are assholes, sure. Many aren't writers. But some are. Writers are people who write. And some, apparently, like to talk about writing. It's understandable when you're immersed in something.

(Also, good writing is the closest thing we have to telepathy. I make words, and they put thoughts in your head. That's plenty mystical and wonderful to me.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:35 PM on February 26, 2011 [6 favorites]


Stop reading about how to write and go write.

Then revise it 6-12 times. You'll get it eventually.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:45 PM on February 26, 2011 [4 favorites]


There are no rules, other than: Stop worrying about rules.

Can statements like this really benefit the typical aspiring writer? I mean, practically speaking, aren't there plenty of rules? Central characters need to be compelling, don't they? Isn't that a rule? If we all agree that it is, then there are in fact plenty of rules out there. (If it isn't, then this statement is still useless since now it fails to define which sorts of rules the writer should disregard.)

I know there are tons of legendary writers who found literary success from "breaking the rules", but I'm sure none of them needed anyone telling them to "stop worrying about the rules" to get them going. It's the kind of advice that can only help those who don't need it.
posted by jeremy b at 9:22 PM on February 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


Rory, I was with you until the last paragraph. I think words are magic.

There are so many times I have been reading a book and come across an idea that I didn't know I had myself; that connected me to an experience I forgot, or even a dream I forgot I once had. Without the desire of the writer to explicitly tease out that idea, I would have missed out on so much. And that doesn't even begin to touch moments of realization and recontextualization that a skilled writer like Basho can strike you with:
Summer grasses:
all that remains of great soldiers’
imperial dreams
A thoughtful, inspiring string of words is a work of art, and just like all other art, represents the most unique thing about humanity. Animals care for each other and share experiences, but what other animal can use a few symbols to connect across centuries and cultures and tell you to sing like you aren't dying?
Nothing in the cry
of cicadas suggests they
are about to die
Words aren't nothing. Words are how we transmit our mistakes and ideas and hopes and tragedies and joys to the future. Words are everything.
posted by notion at 9:22 PM on February 26, 2011 [10 favorites]


From now on, I will only quote dialogue from The Unit when replying to threads.

"Many are very sick. They will die if you cannot help. Can you help?"

"Yes Nayaburantsveltania I can help, but you must trust me."
posted by I love you more when I eat paint chips at 9:29 PM on February 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Writers, being petty, insecure, self-absorbed dicks, are always all sorts of insecure as to whether their own process is the right one. Anything else is seen as a challenge to the legitimacy of their process, like, oh, you do things differently, well that's the wrong way, let me tell you the right one.

I've been a serious writer as much as I've been anything else over the past 30 years or so, often in a pretty creative realm (screenplay, fiction etc), sometime making a half-assed living at it. Maybe I've just matured over the years, but I don't think this particular thought defines my attitude very well at all. That is, about the only serious writing advice I ever give anyone is a simple, "You gotta put in the time. You gotta do the work. Writers must write. The TIME might just be sitting there staring at a blank wall, or going for a long walk, but that's still writing; that's focusing on the work at hand. That's the sweat of it."

Beyond this, what's already been said is true: every writer has their own style, their own method, their own time of day (or week, or year) of peak focus, concentration, performance, and their own tricks for getting the best out of themselves. The challenge then for the new writer (young or old) just getting started on "taking it seriously" is to find what works for them, and then commit to it, skip parties, skip roadtrips, skip entire holidays ... and then, like some cray lady once said, "Never retract, never retreat, never apologize, get the thing done and let them howl."
posted by philip-random at 9:32 PM on February 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


philip-random, I suspect you are in a better place than most writers. Or perhaps I just spend too much time on writing message boards, trying to justify my own process (and procrastinating).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:36 PM on February 26, 2011


I still love William Zinsser's "On Writing Well." It's a classic. He has a weekly column too. It is probably 25 years since I read it and I still remember a sentence from the book, "A writer is inexorably alone with himself." Now that sentence is the product of one hell of a writer.
Back in the 1980s, when word processors were new and alien, I used to buy lots of copies of his book "Writing on a Word Processor" and give them to my screenwriter clients when they bought their first computer. The book explained all sorts of radical new ideas, like how you could actually revise text in the middle of a page, and not have to retype the whole page! Wow!

My favorite writing advice is attributed to Nabokov, but I've heard it in a couple of different forms, maybe someone knows the source, I've never been able to track it down. I recall it two ways:

There are no great writers, only great readers.

There are no great writers, only great rewriters.

Somehow I think the first version sounds right, but the second one is more practical.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:40 PM on February 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Asimov used to say that a writer was worthless until after his or her first million words. His strongest advice was always just to start, and realize that you're going to throw out almost everything. After you've put that million words in, then if you have talent, it'll be obvious.

In looking back at it now, I suspect that most people with the gumption to generate that much are probably the ones that have to write to stay sane, and those are always the best authors.
posted by Malor at 10:55 PM on February 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm an editor and I sure wish more writers treasured me and my forceful suggestions. :)
posted by Jacqueline at 12:47 AM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


Anyone can talk about writing. That's easy. I've lost track of the number of people who tell me they're writers and when I ask them what they have written, the answer is, well nothing yet but one day they're going to write a screenplay/novel/autobiography etc. That's bollocks. Writers write. Even if it's crap. They write because they can't not write. And they don't write as a means to brag about it. And they might not ever make any money out of it. And maybe nobody else will ever read it or ever enjoy it. Maybe they'll even laugh at it. But a writer will write anyway.
posted by Jubey at 12:53 AM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


"And above all, never forget: it's just words. It's a bunch of letters mashed together arbitrarily. There's nothing mystical or wonderful about it."

Er, no, that's actually the opposite of writing as most people understand the activity. That's chimps with typewriters you're thinking about, Rory.
posted by Prince Lazy I at 1:31 AM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's that whole "six hours a day" bit that always kills me. That, and the not sucking bit.

He's right about Elmore Leonard's shitty advice, though. I remember reading that at the time and deciding right there and then that I probably didn't need to do anything about the fact that I've never read any Elmore Leonard.
posted by Decani at 2:35 AM on February 27, 2011


Is this a joke? Is this a spoof? This is (mostly) bullshit.

1) Don’t listen to advice from writers.

No listen to it all... especially from writers who obviously know what they are doing. No all of it is going to work for you because we are special snowflakes but some of it will.

2) Chill out

No, get serious...

3) Just relax

See above... treat it like a job of work or you will never get anywhere. And don't repeat the dame point twice.

4) You’re gonna have to write all the time

Nah, you are going to have to put some effort in but you don't have to do it day in day out. Also see above, make you writing efforts count for something don't just spend your time pissing about.

5) You’re going to be poor for a really long time.

OK this is probably going to be true... but there have been plenty of overnight(ish) successes as well.

6) You’re going to have to realize that you suck and that you’re awesome at the same
time
.

What? It can't be both... though you might have bits of one in the other and you need to get rid of the crap

7) You’re gonna need help.
No, learn to be self-critical... learn how to weed out the nuggets of gold from the dross yourself. Other writers that are as crappy as you ain't going to help much.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:03 AM on February 27, 2011


the ones that have to write to stay sane

This.

I didn't even know about this aspect until the day the computer would not let the fingers fly, trying to keep up with the speed of the thinking through.

And I'm neither A writer nor think of myself in that way.
posted by infini at 4:09 AM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


I remember reading that at the time and deciding right there and then that I probably didn't need to do anything about the fact that I've never read any Elmore Leonard.

Your loss, buddy. Short, punchy, dead-on observation. And funny.
posted by Wolof at 4:30 AM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


What kills me is that there's no such thing as "how to be a writer," only "how to be a better writer," or "how to make a living from writing," or "how to write better in a particular form." There's really no such thing as an aspiring writer -- either you write, or you do not write. (I get my writing advice from Yoda, obviously.) Maybe more people read it and maybe fewer people read it, and maybe nobody reads it, but the point of writing is writing. And as simplistic as it sounds, if you're not doing it, then ... you're not doing it, and nobody can help you with that. If you currently don't write, but you think you'd write if you got a different computer or a different work schedule or started drinking peppermint tea, you wouldn't. YOU WOULDN'T. That way madness lies. If you're not writing already, the only thing that will make you write is deciding to do it.

Because I'm a career-changer (did something else, then started to do more writing), I get a fair number of e-mails from people who say, "I want to quit my day job and become a writer. Can you explain to me how to go about that?" And the answer is something they never, ever want to hear, which is, "You have it backwards -- you have to become a writer and then, if it goes well, you can quit your day job." Again, what makes you a writer is writing, and while I do think it's an enormously satisfying thing to do, I agree with one of the points that's already been made, which is that it's also work. And you go about it the same way you go about anything else that's a lot of work -- you do it, even when you don't feel like it. That's the biggest difference, to me, between successful writers and dabblers. Ever write when you don't feel like it? Then you're on the right track.

But I'll say this: Never, never, NEVER listen to writers who would start (and end!) a piece by saying how stupid and pointless the piece is. If it's pointless, don't publish it. If you don't REALLY think it's pointless, don't say it is.

In the end, that is not a very good piece of writing about writing, it doesn't look like it was given much of a second pass, and it's a better example -- to me -- of what not to do.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 5:36 AM on February 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


"I'm going to write a novel."
"For the love of all that is holy... WHY?!?"
"Because I'm going to be a writer."
posted by spoobnooble at 5:53 AM on February 27, 2011


Reading this conversation gives the impression that if you don't have hours of leisure and an avocation, you better hope you never need to leave a paper trail at all!

Writing is one of many forms of communication. I had to learn it and it's been pretty useful. For the most part, I only write things that I have to - application essays, term papers, e-mails and memos, etc. Once in a while I have something to say and a venue in which to say it and I write it down and sometimes it's really good.

The fact that I don't spend hours a day practicing doesn't mean that I can't communicate effectively and even compellingly in this medium. 

That's why we need good writing programs in schools. So that people who aren't propelled by an inner fire or some identity yearning to be manifested can, when they have something to share, write it well - whether it's a story, article, thesis, letter to the editor, novel, etc. 

Then the rest of us can benefit from the knowledge,  experiences, and creativity of a much broader swath of the population than the rare genius overflowing with words that must be written/the dedicated craftsperson with the discretionary time to spend six hours a day writing things that they never even expect anyone to read.
posted by Salamandrous at 6:59 AM on February 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


About would-be writers, Andre Gide used to say: 'Decouragez! Decouragez!'(discourage!). The implication was that real writers would not be discouraged, and the rest would save a lot of time. (found via google)
posted by yoHighness at 7:01 AM on February 27, 2011


You forgot storytelling. Writing's a good way to accomplish that, too.

Durr. Yes. A good yarn is like a good bowl of soup.

Words aren't nothing. Words are how we transmit our mistakes and ideas and hopes and tragedies and joys to the future. Words are everything.

Words are the medium. Words are the message. Words are exactly as valuable as the intersection of one person's mind and yours. If words are beautiful, it's because you find them beautiful; nobody else is allowed to tell you that you're wrong, because your relationship with the language means nothing to anybody but to you, and perhaps to Basho, and he's dead.

I mean, please don't mistake my intent. I'm a poet and a playwright and a weaver-of-yarns. I know that the right combination of sounds and images in a sentence functions like the right compositions of shapes and colors in a photograph, or the right look on an actress's face in a film. One of my favorite parts of learning poetry was learning about the turn, the moment in a poem where things abruptly shift direction, and the weight of the first half pushes the second half into your lungs.

But it serves nobody nothing to worship the aesthetic of the written word to the point where the words mean more than the people. There are writers who will focus so much on whether their sentences are beautiful constructs that they forget the story they're writing is drab and boring.

Similarly:

Can statements like this really benefit the typical aspiring writer? I mean, practically speaking, aren't there plenty of rules? Central characters need to be compelling, don't they? Isn't that a rule? If we all agree that it is, then there are in fact plenty of rules out there.

The problem with teaching people to write compelling characters is that the word "compelling" is one of those mysterious universes that contains a heck of a lot more than an aspiring writer would believe. And "compelling" is a word with a certain sound to it that tricks people into thinking that some things which are compelling actually aren't, or that certain things are which are actually dead boring.

I have a friend writing a play who breaks my heart because he'll spend minute after minute telling me exactly why I'm going to care about his characters, how much I'm going to empathize with them. It breaks my heart because I know I'm not going to. The play's going to spend a lot of time jabbing me in the ass telling me why I should, though, and every time it does I'll empathize less.

A good teacher of writing can teach people how to write likable characters without ever turning it into a hard-and-fast rule. I was lucky enough to have a certain accomplished poet as an instructor for a month in high school, and the way he handled poems was remarkable. He completely respected each poem as an already-intact piece; he never suggested we add anything to our poetry; in his mind, the challenge of revision was simply to make the poem as effective on paper as it was in our mind. It was taken for granted that the poems were powerful in our own minds; why else would we be writing them?

I don't have a huge amount of experience teaching writing, but I can only imagine one way to become a good writer, because it's the path that every writer I've ever known or read has followed:

— Write a lot. Exhaust all the easy boring ideas you've got in you so that you feel the need to write more inventively.
— Learn how to dislike your own writing. At the same time, learn to love your writing when it's at its best.
— If you're interested in writing a particular form, read as much within that form as you can. If you have no interest in a form, read anything else. Read anything else anyway. Also look at how writing intersects with other art forms, so that you see both what writing can do out of isolation, and so that you can appreciate how powerful writing can be when it stands alone.
— Live a life that is not writing.

I don't trust people that write about how to write, with a very few exceptions. Isaac Asimov is my childhood love, and when he talks about writing he's smart enough to only talk about the drab mundanities, and to point people out to the mysteries without talking about them. Stephen King doesn't really write about writing, he just writes about his life and lets us connect the two. And if you really need a book that helps you out, don't get a book about writing, get a book like Keith Johnstone's Impro, nominally about theatre improvisation, really about finding joy and mystery and wonder in the world around you, learning how to sense when you're following it and when you're not, conveying it in all the things you do.
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:23 AM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm an editor and I sure wish more writers treasured me and my forceful suggestions. :)

I am a reader and I sure wish more writers treasured editors and their forceful suggestions. Especially if they are writing long books or book series.
posted by ersatz at 9:39 AM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't trust people that write about how to write, with a very few exceptions.

I hear you. Will you tell your friend about his play?
posted by clavdivs at 10:04 AM on February 27, 2011


I was lucky enough to have a certain accomplished poet as an instructor for a month in high school, and the way he handled poems was remarkable. He completely respected each poem as an already-intact piece; he never suggested we add anything to our poetry; in his mind, the challenge of revision was simply to make the poem as effective on paper as it was in our mind. It was taken for granted that the poems were powerful in our own minds; why else would we be writing them?

This is a damned good point, but only if the writer is sincere, which in my experience, is not a given. Not that many people who write are consciously fucking the reader around; just that some are not sufficiently in touch with themselves to know what exactly they're doing. This was me when I was younger. I had an intense desire to write and spent a lot of time at it, cranking out many, many pages ... some of which actually achieved small successes for me by the time I was in my early 20s (ie: strong marks, publication, even a couple of screenplay options).

But I knew something wasn't clicking. I knew there was nothing in my work that spoke to a unique style-expertise-insight that only I could offer (not that I could have told you this in so many words -- I just always felt somewhat a fraud). Other than the obvious (that I hadn't yet written my million words of drivel), what I came to realize as the real failure was that I hadn't really "lived" yet -- that the reason I had no unique style-expertise-insight to offer, was simply that I had no unique experience. I was just a suburban middle class poser who had pretty good writing skills and an overall high impression of himself because, somewhere along the line, he'd figured out the self-esteem thing.

How did this manifest in my writing? I thought I could get by on pure style and imagination alone. Of course I could write a war story. Just make shit up, maybe go to a few war movies. Of course I could write a murder mystery. Same basic strategy.

And it's not as if I ever had some great and powerful insight that changed my attitude. No, life itself just imposed itself on me in various amazing and excruciating ways. Stuff like falling in love (and out), going vaguely mad, failing in all manner of hilarious and humiliating ways ... and otherwise, just volumes and volumes of raw, weird, unique experience and, ultimately, research (which is what we're doing in life when we have no idea what we're doing). This isn't to say that everything I write now is memoir and/or autobiographical, because it isn't. Not even close. But my writing does now, I believe, have a definable gravity that I could never have mustered before (even the absurdly humorous stuff).

Which leads to a final thought, what I call the R.I.S.E. scenario. All compelling writing comes from four main areas: Research-Imagination-Style-Experience. That is, if you haven't got something to offer from all four of those quadrants, serious readers are ultimately going to wonder why they're spending so much time with you.

So my advice to the young writers out there. Other than putting in the hours actually doing the work, what you've got to do is get out there (in there?) and have a life. It can be dangerous. It might kill you (it almost did me), but do it right and you might just end up with something we all need to read about.
posted by philip-random at 10:08 AM on February 27, 2011 [5 favorites]


He's right about Elmore Leonard's shitty advice, though. I remember reading that at the time and deciding right there and then that I probably didn't need to do anything about the fact that I've never read any Elmore Leonard.

Oh, ha, yeah, but no, not really. And actually, Leonard delivered the words of advice that, um, some of us in this very room might want to heed: "Try to leave out the parts that people skip."
posted by kittens for breakfast at 10:23 AM on February 27, 2011


I love Elmore Leonard's writing, probably to a fault, precisely because he does "leave out the parts that people skip". As for his advice, well it's certainly worked for him, which is probably true of all useful advice offered by so-called successful writers.

Well, it worked for them.
posted by philip-random at 10:32 AM on February 27, 2011


clavdivs: I don't know. He isn't coming to me specifically for advice; he talks to a lot of people about it, more for conversation than because he's looking for critique. Part of me thinks I should talk to him about it, and part of me worries that it would be obnoxious to bring it up unless he specifically asks me for feedback.
posted by Rory Marinich at 10:34 AM on February 27, 2011


So, you’re going to need a peer group.

Pfft. Tell that to Charles Bukowski. Or Hermie Melville. Or Whitman.

a few rare people will point out the stuff that they like

Once you start down that road, you'll spend the rest of your life a beggar. I'm pretty sure Jacqueline Suzanne took that road. And John Updike. Yeah, rich beggars, but nonetheless...
posted by Twang at 12:32 PM on February 27, 2011


— Write a lot. Exhaust all the easy boring ideas you've got in you so that you feel the need to write more inventively.
— Learn how to dislike your own writing. At the same time, learn to love your writing when it's at its best.
— If you're interested in writing a particular form, read as much within that form as you can. If you have no interest in a form, read anything else. Read anything else anyway. Also look at how writing intersects with other art forms, so that you see both what writing can do out of isolation, and so that you can appreciate how powerful writing can be when it stands alone.
— Live a life that is not writing.


At least two of these rules are very close to what was posted in the linked article. Just sayin'.

Anyway, I think much more important than liking or disliking your writing or realizing that you suck and are awesome at the same time is to develop the ability to read your writing as if it is not your writing. This is why young writers will fall over themselves trying to explain what they really meant during poetry workshops and why some writers never learn how to edit themselves. Learn to anticipate reader criticisms and answer them. Learn to be as ruthless with your own words as someone else will. Learn . . . well, learn not to care about your words unless you're putting them to good use.

I don't know the necessity of living an interesting life. I think it's good for writers to have varying interests, no matter what they write. But adages about how only interesting people can be interesting writers often rings false to me, because Emily Dickinson lived a life subsumed by writing. So did many other writers, even if they did other shit. And there are many, many people who have lived fascinating lives but are terrible writers. Why else would celebrity ghost writers exist?

The best books I've read on writing were very practical books. Lawrence Block's Telling Lies for Fun and Profit which taught me not to stuff my books full of said bookisms and mirror scenes at thirteen. Basically, it taught me the marks of an amateur. And Nancy Kress's Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, which was recently recommended to me on here and has totally revolutionized the way I regard novels, but not in a stifling, overly structured way a la Save The Cat but in a naturalistic and holistic way. It's made me think about the implicit promises a writer makes to her audience, and how to fulfill them.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:59 PM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


But it serves nobody nothing to worship the aesthetic of the written word to the point where the words mean more than the people. There are writers who will focus so much on whether their sentences are beautiful constructs that they forget the story they're writing is drab and boring.

Hmm... is it more of a battle against uselessly ornate language?

Or maybe I get it, and the words always fall short of what they are trying to express? With that I am on board. Whatever billion things happen in your brain and body every moment of every day are fairly hard to express. I still think we're doing a good job trying, though.
posted by notion at 6:43 PM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Here's another one: don't go to an MFA program. You will have to sit through about six semesters worth of other writers giving you their opinions while snarking about you behind your back. The pettiness, insecurity and fear that any other writer has for/towards/about you is multiplied. And the professors are in on it, too.
posted by mrfuga0 at 7:00 PM on February 27, 2011


Ha! Did you go to the same program as me, mrfuga0? Sure sounds familiar!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:31 PM on February 27, 2011


This is more for people who may have been or are currently in danger of being browbeaten by various received pieties than for people who feel like they're in a good place:

1. It's ok to write just for money. “No one but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”—Samuel Johnson. It is also ok to not write for money.
2. It's ok to write because you like to write and not because you have anything to say.
3. It's ok to write if you just like words. “People” and “experiences” and “life” have no divine claim on anyone's #1 priority.
4. It's ok to write because you want to be famous. It vastly more likely that you will become famous if you really want to become famous. I would hazard that almost everyone who is famous for producing art really wanted to be famous. A lot of people don't particularly want to be famous. That's fine too. Eschew morality on this point if you have a moral that says don't be egotistical.
5. Neither Bukowski nor Poe nor Parker nor Shakespeare are necessarily better writers than you. Dream big you fucker.
6. Rewriting is handy but not necessary.
7. It's ok to do an MFA. Many programs will pay you to do so and as far as jobs go it might be a pretty good one depending on what your job/life opportunities are otherwise.
8. Reading is handy but there have been some compelling caveats advanced.
9. “Writers write. Even if it's crap. They write because they can't not write.” This in particular is a pernicious little weapon. It's been stated or implied several times in this thread alone and it comes directly from Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, which IMO has needlessly distressed countless novice writers. The relevant text:
You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledges to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.
It's a sweet notion but in fact some writers are motivated by glory. Some do it because it's fun. Some very good writers I know are trying to figure out how not to be writers because it doesn't seem like it will be a fun life. A good friend of mine, a young playwright whose every play wins an award, doesn't seem to particularly be all that into writing, less so reading. She's just extremely smart and has exquisite aesthetic and linguistic sensibilities. Some good places to start if you're interested in an antidote to the Rilke quoted above are Wilde's “The Decay of Lying” and Nabokov's Lectures on Literature.
10. You can't choose what kind of writer you will be. This is a weird thing to realize. It is an extension of the fact that you can't choose who you are. This means you have to experiment to find out what kind of writer you are, and you have to allow yourself to write stuff that is strikingly and disappointingly like your heroes' writing. However, this should only be disappointing until you realize that your unconscious is generously demonstrating to you that you're not the same person as your hero. Embrace this and have the courage to be who you actually are and not who you wish you were. Then, engineer a game that will ferry your soul into the world. If you don't engineer your own game you will be ipso facto playing someone else's game, that they created special for themselves, for their own particular strengths, which you will not be better than them at.
11. Also, be funny.
posted by skwt at 8:51 PM on February 27, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'm ok, you're ok.

That guy in the corner? Not ok.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:03 PM on February 27, 2011


Oops:

"strikingly and disappointingly like unlike your heroes' writing"
posted by skwt at 7:17 PM on February 28, 2011


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