Elizabeth Wurtzel on Writing

Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation, reflects on the difficulty of writing:

It’s not that hard to be a lawyer. Any fool can be a lawyer. It’s really hard to be a writer. You have to be born with incredible amounts of talent. Then you have to work hard. Then you have to be able to handle tons of rejection and not mind it and just keep pushing away at it. You have to show up at people’s doors. You can’t just e-mail and text message people. You have to bang their doors down. You have to be interesting. You have to be fucking phenomenal to get a book published and then sell the book. When people think their writing career is not working out, it’s not working out because it’s so damn hard. It’s not harder now than it was 20 years ago. It’s just as hard. It was always hard.

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Further reading: Elizabeth Wurtzel on her “one-night stand of a life,” published earlier this year in New York Magazine.

(via Longform)

Advice on Writing from Susan Cain

I heard Susan Cain, author of Quiet, speak in person in 2012. I like her advice on how to quit your job and become a writer:

2. You Need a Safety Net. People are always celebrating the courage of those who chuck A in order to do B, but I am not a brave person and maybe you aren’t either. You probably need an alternative source of income. When I first quit law, I made writing the beloved hobby – but not the career — around which I centered my life. In the meantime, I set up a small consultancy, training people in negotiation skills. This gave me the chance to do meaningful work, pay the bills — and still have plenty of time for my “hobby”. That took the pressure off. (Taking the pressure off is a recurrent theme with me. )

3. In the Age of Social Media, Resist the Urge to Share: For many people, the things most worth writing about are also, inconveniently, too painful or embarrassing to talk about. The only solution to this tension is to write in your diary – to write as if no one will ever read it. Write exactly what you think and feel, with no fear of judgment. Eventually you’ll produce something so important that you’ll feel compelled to share it, despite your trepidations.

4. Writing is Not Supposed to Be Hard. You have probably heard that you’re supposed to leave drops of blood on every page. This is not true. Well, it’s sort of true. Writing does require tons of discipline and perseverance and concentration. But it should not be unpleasant. It should be the thing you itch to do every day. You can train yourself, in Pavlovian fashion, to feel this way, by making sure that you always write in conditions of pleasure. For me, that means writing in sunny café windows, with a latte and chocolate on hand. For you, it might be something completely different. But sunny windows and chocolate are a great place to start.

I think point #2 should be #1: it’s that important, in my opinion.

Writing Tips from Joyce Carol Oates

This afternoon, Joyce Carol Oates took to Twitter and dispensed ten bits of writing advice:

10) Write your heart out.

9) Read, observe, listen intensely!–as if your life depended upon it.

8) Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader–or any reader. He/ she might exist–but is reading someone else.

7) Be your own editor/ critic. Sympathetic but merciless!

6) Unless you are experimenting with form–gnarled, snarled & obscure–be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.

5) When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun. (This is Raymond Chandler’s advice, not mine. I would not try this.)

4) Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”3

3) You are writing for your contemporaries–not for Posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become Posterity.

2) The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE.

1) Write your heart out.

I also enjoyed her addendum about writing workshops: “Something magical can happen in a writing workshop. Don’t know why–but I have seen it countless times: writers are inspired by one another.” I think it’s not just inspiration, but accountability that matters. When you’re presenting your ideas to (with) others, you feel compelled to do a good job (rather than procrastinate or give up altogether).

The best writing book I’ve ever read is Stephen King’s On Writing. Much of the advice from Joyce Carol Oates’s is explained deeply in King’s book.

Elizabeth Gilbert on Writing

In this Paris Review piece published at the end of 2012, Julian Tepper writes about some (uncharacteristically caustic) writing advice he received from Philip Roth:

I would quit while you’re ahead. Really. It’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and you write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.

This week, Elizabeth Gilbert countered with a brilliant post on Bookish.com, a site that was unveiled this week:

Because, seriously–is writing really all that difficult? Yes, of course, it is; I know this personally–but is it that much more difficult than other things? Is it more difficult than working in a steel mill, or raising a child alone, or commuting three hours a day to a deeply unsatisfying cubicle job, or doing laundry in a nursing home, or running a hospital ward, or being a luggage handler, or digging septic systems, or waiting tables at a delicatessen, or–for that matter–pretty much anything else that people do?

Not really, right?

In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and share a little secret about the writing life that nobody likes to admit: Compared to almost every other occupation on earth, it’s f*cking great. I say this as somebody who spent years earning exactly zero dollars for my writing (while waiting tables, like Mr. Tepper) and who now makes many dollars at it. But zero dollars or many dollars, I can honestly say it’s the best life there is, because you get to live within the realm of your own mind, and that is a profoundly rare human privilege. What’s more, you have no boss to speak of. You’re not exposed to any sexual abuse or toxic chemicals on the job site (unless you’re sexually abusing yourself, or eating Doritos while you type). You don’t have to wear a nametag, and–unless you are exceptionally clumsy–you rarely run the risk of cutting off your hand in the machinery. Writing, I tell you, has everything to recommend it over real work.

In fact, maybe that’s why established authors complain so loudly about their tormented existences–so nobody else will find out how great writing actually is, and take their jobs away. (Kind of like those people who come home from amazing holidays, and then lie to their neighbors about how terrible that remote Mexican beach was, just to make sure the place remains undiscovered and unruined forever.)

Or maybe it’s just vanity that makes authors gripe so much about their ordeal. Maybe writers have simply come to believe themselves to be so very special, and their work so very important, that they can’t imagine anybody else capable of doing it: You, little one, could never possibly create what I have created, or withstand all that I have withstood, so you’d best not try at all.

I recommend reading the whole response here.

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(via Explore)

Silas House on Writing Every Waking Minute

Silas House teaches at Berea College and Spalding University’s M.F.A. program in creative writing. In this post, he offers the following advice to aspiring writers: “Write every waking minute.” By that, he means immerse yourself in thinking about your writing, your characters, your plot:

I live a few blocks from the campus where I teach. Every morning, I ride my bicycle to work. Along the way, I’m focusing on the cars speeding by me, seemingly intent on making the life of a bicyclist as miserable as possible. But I am also thinking about the main character in the novel I’m writing now.

The book is set in Key West, so naturally he rides his bicycle all over the Florida island. When pumping those pedals toward my office, I am not myself on an orange-leaf-strewed campus. I am my character, pedaling down to the beach after a long day of working as a hotel housekeeper. I see the world through his eyes. I imagine what he is thinking. I use that brief time to become him.

I transform the mundane task of grocery shopping into a writing exercise by studying my fellow shoppers through the eyes of my character, a man who is on the run from the law.

I eye each one with suspicion and dodge any cop who might be trotting along with a grocery basket in hand. I sometimes steal a quirk from a woman nearby to apply to one of my female characters in the book. I am multitasking, but there is stillness at work here.

This is excellent writing advice and I hope you read the whole thing.

Write More. Write To Your Friends.

James Somers has an idea: more people should write. He explains in his blog post:

When I have a piece of writing in mind, what I have, in fact, is a mental bucket: an attractor for and generator of thought. It’s like a thematic gravity well, a magnet for what would otherwise be a mess of iron filings. I’ll read books differently and listen differently in conversations. In particular I’ll remember everything better; everything will mean more to me. That’s because everything I perceive will unconsciously engage on its way in with the substance of my preoccupation. A preoccupation, in that sense, is a hell of a useful thing for a mind.

Writing needn’t be a formal enterprise to have this effect. You don’t have to write well. You don’t even have to “write,” exactly — you can just talk onto the page.

But this was the most interesting idea. Any takers?

I suggest writing emails to your friends. Writing with an audience in mind makes the writing better, and writing to a friend means you won’t get hung up on how you sound. You’ll become closer, too, to whoever you share your thoughts with, and odds are you’ll draw the same thoughtfulness out of them. Your inbox will become less of a place for coupons and bullshit than for the thoughts of humans you like.

I like it.

Writing Rules and Advice from the New York Times Features

In this meta post, the writers of New York Times distill the writing advice they’ve offered or featured in various recent columns:

Rule 8: Nobody’s Perfect

Yes, Times writers and editors do make mistakes and the in-house feature “After Deadline,” which the public can view, too, takes them to task by highlighting and correcting errors in grammar, usage and style that appear in print.

Use this blog to understand grammatical points, like subject verb agreement. Then, become a better editor of your own work by taking the After Deadline Quiz.

Rule 9: Fail

Learn from your mistakes and failures, a topic Augusten Burroughs tackles in How to Write How-To”:

… to pass along the knowledge of how to succeed, first you must know how to fail. A great deal, if possible. This is essential because it’s far more common (and easier) to make mistakes than to enjoy success. Being aware of potential points of derailment helps to better and more accurately navigate your readers past your own missteps so they can succeed where perhaps you first failed quite miserably.

The post is a great place to start if you’re looking to improve your writing. Still curious? Continue here.

“Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit”

Published almost three years ago, Steven Pressfield’s (he of The War of Art fame) classic post, about the most important writing lesson he’s ever learned, still resonates more than ever:

Nobody wants to read your shit.

There’s a phenomenon in advertising called Client’s Disease. Every client is in love with his own product. The mistake he makes is believing that, because he loves it, everyone else will too.

They won’t. The market doesn’t know what you’re selling and doesn’t care. Your potential customers are so busy dealing with the rest of their lives, they haven’t got a spare second to give to your product/work of art/business, no matter how worthy or how much you love it.

But it’s not all bad news. Steven suggests three steps to help people care about your product/writing/whatever:

1) Reduce your message to its simplest, clearest, easiest-to-understand form.

2) Make it fun. Or sexy or interesting or informative.

3) Apply that to all forms of writing or art or commerce.

When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated. You begin to understand that writing/reading is, above all, a transaction. The reader donates his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer, must give him something worthy of his gift to you.

Needless to say, I am still a beginner when it comes to selling myself. But I am learning every day. What about you?

Everything in Writing and Life is Fiction

It seems like every writer has some advice that he can offer on how to write better, smarter, faster. So it was quite refreshing to read Keith Ridgway’s take in The New Yorker, where he readily admits he doesn’t know what’s he doing:

I have no idea what I’m doing. All the decisions I appear to have made—about plots and characters and where to start and when to stop—are not decisions at all. They are compromises. A book is whittled down from hope, and when I start to cut my fingers I push it away from me to see what others make of it. And I wait in terror for the judgements of those others—judgements that seem, whether positive or negative, unjust, because they are about something that I didn’t really do. They are about something that happened to me. It’s a little like crawling from a car crash to be greeted by a panel of strangers holding up score cards.

Something, obviously, is going on. I manage, every few years, to generate a book. And of course, there are things that I know. I know how to wait until the last minute before putting anything on paper. I mean the last minute before the thought leaves me forever. I know how to leave out anything that looks to me—after a while—forced, deliberate, or fake. I know that I need to put myself in the story. I don’t mean literally. I mean emotionally. I need to care about what I’m writing—whether about the characters, or about what they’re getting up to, or about the way they feel or experience their world. I know that my job is to create a perspective. And to impose it on the reader. And I know that in order to do that with any success at all I must in some mysterious way risk everything. If I don’t break my own heart in the writing of a book then I know I’ve done it wrong. I’m not entirely sure what that means. But I know what it feels like.

I loved this paragraph:

And I mean that—everything is fiction. When you tell yourself the story of your life, the story of your day, you edit and rewrite and weave a narrative out of a collection of random experiences and events. Your conversations are fiction. Your friends and loved ones—they are characters you have created. And your arguments with them are like meetings with an editor—please, they beseech you, you beseech them, rewrite me. You have a perception of the way things are, and you impose it on your memory, and in this way you think, in the same way that I think, that you are living something that is describable. When of course, what we actually live, what we actually experience—with our senses and our nerves—is a vast, absurd, beautiful, ridiculous chaos.

Highly recommend reading in its entirety.

Writing Advice from C.S. Lewis

In June of 1956, a young American fan named Joan Lancaster sent C.S. Lewis a letter. Lancaster received a letter back in which C.S. Lewis offered the following writing advice:

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’timplement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”

4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”

5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

A lot of these tips appear in Stephen King’s On Writing. But it’s good to know when/how writing tips are recycled and offered as wisdom time and time again.