One Piece of Indispensable Writing Advice: Don’t Take Advice from Writers


I mean it.

I hate it when writers give advice on writing, as if we were all the same, and what works for one will work for another. I see it all the time on the Internet, and it drives me crazy. Writers are the most capricious, unreliable, fickle, and inhomogeneous set of professional people in the world. They share not a single particular except the physical act of sitting down to write (and some not even that: Hemingway wrote standing up.) Some, like Fitzgerald and Parker and Lardner, were dissolute sots,  and some, like Leo Tolstoy, were clear-eyed, sober and austere. I once saw Andrew Piper and Lisa Moore on stage together at a festival in Ottawa. Piper said all writers are moody and troubled. Moore was quick to disagree (although I’ve met Moore on several occasions, and I would be hard-pressed to call her lighthearted and generous.) My friend John Stiles, poet and novelist, thinks all writers are nuts, and though I am at times inclined to agree, I’ve met some sane ones. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love believes the perception of writer as alcoholic manic-depressive to be a destructive myth, and my doctor in Toronto agrees. He used to treat me (as, ironically, an alcoholic manic-depressive) and he was always telling me that just because I was a writer didn’t mean I had to cultivate instability: he had many friends who were successful writers and as solid as Mount Robson. My friends Alice Burdick and Alison Smith are good examples of this: both innovative and talented poets, they have stable home lives and raise in conjunction with their husbands large, healthy, well-adjusted families (although Alison has an unhealthy obsession with kale.) Psychologically speaking, writers are a mixed bag, so why would you possibly want to take advice from such a disparate group of people, from whose mouths anything might fly, from “brush your teeth more” to “let’s go get smashed!”

Because they’re published, right? Because they’re successful? Because they know what they’re talking about?

Don’t count on it. I find it interesting to listen to writers to talk about their process, and find that most do so reluctantly. Often, when we do it, we are on a stage or in front of a camera or microphone so we put on a good show.  When asked where we get are ideas we tend to say a variation on the theme that it is “organic.” The origin and evolution of life is “organic”; when we say that we are actually admitting that we have no damn clue.  A baseball player can give you some pointers about holding the bat, but a writer’s advice about how to hold your pen or which word processing program to use is hardly going to be helpful. I thought one famous writer I met hopelessly ignorant when she didn’t know who wrote Six Characters In Search of an Author, but it didn’t seem to be hurting her popularity any.  When I saw her reviewed favorably in The New York Times I wanted to scream out, “But don’t you know she doesn’t know who Pirandello is?”

The origins of the ability to write, and the combination of tools and skills it takes to do it well, are an absolute mystery, and anyone who tells you differently is full of shit. Once a friend told me that when I described things to her verbally she could “see” them. When I used to go visit the aged writer Thomas Randall in his home in Liverpool, N.S. before he died I found his spoken words did the same thing. So this ability of our words to spark images in the minds of our listeners like a fire struck from kindling in the dark seems to me to be a component of the ability to tell to a story or write a poem. I can also feel in myself, when telling my friends a tale (usually a whopper), a certain full throttle  passion, an ability to get caught up in the narration of events and to carry it deftly towards climax or conclusion. I don’t often hear this in the stories of non-writers, which tend to be plodding and matter-of-fact (even if they do remain interesting.)

But you can hardly teach these things. You can hardly give it out as advice. And even the standard line “keep writing” is dangerous, because there are many in the world with misplaced passion. Would you tell someone with an obvious handicap who wanted to play professional baseball to keep trying? No, you wouldn’t. You’d tell him to find something more suited to his abilities. Play baseball, if you want, you could tell him. And if you love it. But don’t expect to be playing for the Padres any time soon.

I suspect most writers become famous incidentally anyway. When Still Life With June was published, and all of a sudden I was doing tours and interviews and writing guest blog entries and reading about myself in national and international magazines and accepting awards it all seemed a little unreal. I wondered how I had gone from there to here in such a short period of time.  I’d always wanted to be successful, but I always suspected that it wouldn’t happen. I don’t think it any of us do. I’ve never, in all my years, met a confident writer. Even the most famous of us tend to become the most arrogant, which is another give away. Confident people are rarely arrogant people. Arrogance is a mask to hide insecurity. And this brings me to my last point: never ask advice from an insecure person. They will try and bedazzle you with their knowledge, or make you feel small due to their success. They might take you in as an apprentice, but that is another word for slave. Keep your friends close, your enemies closer, and make your rivals apprentices so you can keep an eye on them.

The writer Barnaby Conrad apprenticed to the much more famous writer Sinclair Lewis for  bit in the seventies. He went to his his house faithfully every day to learn what he could of the craft, though most of it was spent listening to Lewis bitch about the world (I had the same experience with the then august Raddall, who, although I liked him a lot, never gave me one useful piece of information about writing and seemed to have a hate on for everybody, from Farley Mowatt to Dostoyevsky.) Midway through his apprenticeship the famous matador Manolete was killed (Lewis was just happy, and I fully approve, that  “sometimes the bull wins.”) Conrad was inspired by this event to write his most famous book Matador. He stopped going to see Lewis and stayed home to work on his book.

Lewis was hurt.

He sent Conrad a note saying, “I guess you don’t want to be a writer anymore.”

The great apprenticeship was over. I don’t know how much of Lewis was in Conrad’s book, but I suspect very little. Lewis died before it was published, but John Steinbeck loved it enough to become Conrad’s friend and mentor from then on.

But neither of them really were.  As long as you don’t take it as advice, I will tell you what I think is important when it comes to writing, besides that fundamental ability to spark fire from words.

Vision. You must have vision. I never wrote a thing worth a damn as long as I was trying to be a writer. As long as I was asking what it takes to be a writer. I became a writer on the day I started writing my first novel, and I realized I didn’t give a damn if the thing ever got published or not.  I was completely and utterly absorbed by my story. I simply had to tell it, to get it out, to get it down. Barnaby Conrad tells in his essay about Manolete and Lewis that in the middle of January in his writing room he had the window open, and his wife  complained about how fucking cold the house was. “But you see,” Conrad wrote, “I was not in my home in the north in the middle of January. I was in Mexico, in the bullring, under that torrid Mexican sun and sweating bullets.”

I had a similar experience with my first book. I started writing one day at  eight am before work in the morning, and I was working on a scene that took place in the tiny NS village of Tyler’s Cape at dusk. So absorbed was I in my scene that my internal clock began telling me that it was dusk, and that I had to get to an engagement I had made for that evening. I got up and ran about the apartment for ten minutes before I realized it was still only nine in the morning. The writing experience, and my own immersion in that world, was so intense that I had somehow completely altered my own internal, bodily sense of time, which I believe to be a much more reliable instrument than the clock.

How in the world could anybody, even someone who has experienced it, teach that? It would be like trying to give a lesson on the electromagnetic spectrum to capture the awe  and wonder of the stars. I rarely get asked what it takes to be a writer anymore, even by my friends. I never give them a straight answer. The usual: “Writers write. Writing=ass-in-chair” seem too glib and facile. Presumably the inquisitors know this much. What they don’t know, perhaps, is that if you have to ask, you ain’t there yet.

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