March 14, 2014
Just a reminder: I’m reading tonight at CU Boulder. Here’s the event info.
I was thinking this morning about writing advice. There’s SO MUCH of it out there. A new article or essay gets posted almost every day. Even random tweets and FB updates from working writers can look like advice, if you take what they’re doing as something you ought to be doing.
I got to wondering — how much of all this writing advice sinks in, and how much of it are lessons that don’t actually mean anything until you’ve been working at this gig for a certain amount of time and you learn it for yourself? I don’t mean the logistical advice like “don’t pay an agent up front.” I mean the nitty-gritty of making stories and building a career. Stephen Graham Jones posted this great retrospective looking over his career so far and what he’s learned. I found myself nodding at so much of it because, you know, I’ve been over that same road. But that’s what I mean — do you have to do it before you can learn it and offer it as advice to the next up-and-comers? Can the up-and-comers learn it without going through it themselves?
I’ve read Anne Lamott’s brilliant book on writing Bird by Bird twice. The first time, right after it came out in the mid-90’s — I hadn’t sold a word yet, and I ate it up, especially advice like “shitty first drafts” that seemed so validating. Like she was in the trenches calling, “Follow me!” and I was right there. I read it again a couple of years ago, and I was kind of shocked because there was all this stuff in it I didn’t remember reading the first time — but that I knew anyway. Things I thought for sure I had discovered all by myself, with the powerful rush of epiphany — like how plot and character are the same thing, and how even after you sell a book and are a real working writer, you’ll still struggle. This quote in particular, about being successful at writing: “It will not make them well. It will not give them the feeling that the world has finally validated their parking tickets, that they have in fact finally arrived. My writer friends, and they are legion, do not go around beaming with quiet feelings of contentment. Most of them go around with haunted, abused, surprised looks on their faces, like lab dogs on whom very personal deodorant sprays have been tested.” This is true. This is me and my writing friends. I don’t remember this bit from the first time I read the book, but I remember it from the second time.
All this stuff about writing I’ve learned through hard experience — people were there telling me about it all along. Someone really had warned me about all this right at the beginning. And it’s not that I didn’t believe Lamott. It’s just there was no way what she was saying would sink in until I’d been through it myself. And I wonder how much this is true of all writing advice.