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Get to Work: On the Best Advice Writers Ever Received

By posted at 1:23 pm on January 6, 2015 7


How do they do that thing they do? While reading a novel or stories, fiction writers are often overwhelmed by a turn of phrase, a transition from the present action to a full and engaging flashback, or the sheer amount of ideas a writer is able to generate on the page. We look at our favorite books, underline gorgeous passages, and imagine ourselves writing our own novel or stories that capture our deepest selves for the reader to connect with, as these authors have done with such apparent ease. But a recent conversation I had with a panel of authors demonstrated that nothing ends up on the page with ease. Writing is a practice that requires a willingness to show up with your work each day. All writers struggle with the same issues, and with each book the issues continue.

Reading interviews with authors has always been a way that new writers seek validation and information, as well as a way to gain insight into the creative works and the lives of the writers they love. The Paris Review’s Writers at Work series has long been a go-to source for interviews with the leading writers of the times — everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Eudora Welty to Marilynne Robinson and Jonathan Franzen. Literary journals and writing magazines include author interviews, and The Millions features interviews as well.

So, what is the one essential fact we’re all looking for in combing through pages of interviews? How do you do it? How can I do it, too? What is the best piece of writing advice that you can give me?

I recently spoke with a range of authors who shared the best piece of writing advice they ever received. Some answers were brief and memorizable, some were longer and drew me into the author’s world and creative process. Whatever the answer, I was inspired to get to work on my new novel.

Here’s what they had to say:

covercoverRichard Bausch, author of Before, During, After; Peace
Mary Lee Settle to me in 1981, when I had just published my second novel and was having trouble getting started again: “Aw, Sweetness, you’ve just got to get stupid again, watch a lot of dumb movies and read a bunch of bad mystery novels, give the urn time to fill up again, it’ll pour when it’s ready.”

Nick Flynn, author of The Reenactments: A Memoir; The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands
Carolyn Forche told me that writing was a daily practice, a way of life. Marie Howe taught me to put everything I knew into each poem, to not hold anything back. These were my first teachers.

covercoverBret Anthony Johnston, author of Remember Me Like This; Corpus Christi
I’ve received loads of good advice over the years, but some of the best comes from Allan Gurganus. He says that when a writer must choose between thinking and trusting, you should always choose trust. Trust the sentence, the characters, the story.

Lily King, author of Euphoria; Father of the Rain
Honestly, the best piece of advice I’ve gotten did not come from a professor or a mentor or any writer or teacher at all. In fact, it might not have come from any one individual but from a team in a conference room. It’s the Nike ad: Just Do It.

You can think and fuss and pace and writhe and freak out and rationalize the hell out of it all — there are a thousands of ways to convince yourself that right now is not a good time (hour, morning, month, season) to write — but the truth about writing, the only truth, is that you have to put words on the page. (Yes, you have to replenish sometimes, too, but that comes after you have written something, not before.) Nike’s advice is not new. There’s Michelangelo who wrote on his apprentice’s sketches: “Draw, Antonio, draw Antonio/ draw and do not waste time.” (He wrote it in Italian, of course, and so fast that last line reads “disegnia e no prder tepo” instead of “non perdere tempo.”) And there’s Kingsley Amis who said it eloquently: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair,” and Nora Roberts (who has written 189 bestsellers, by the way) who said it with more compression: “Ass in the chair.”

Write, and if you don’t like it — and I’m not talking about enjoying it or feeling satisfied at the end of the day or feeling like it’s meaningful, and I am certainly not talking about happiness or joy — if it doesn’t connect you to yourself in some basic way that you know you need to feel whole, forget it. But if you do and it does, then just keep doing it. Because it’s your own consciousness we’re talking about here, your own voice you are trying to get down on the page, and only you can teach yourself what that really sounds like and how to lure it out. I have to give myself some variation of this speech pretty much every day. No excuses. Just Fucking Do It.

covercoverJill McCorkle, author of Life After Life; Carolina Moon
When I was in graduate school, the writer George Garrett visited our workshop and delivered the best advice I have ever received about writing. He said whoever invades your space while you are working: parent/spouse/friend/lover/teacher/preacher/some pristine version of yourself and so on — and breathes down your neck with criticism — I never said that! what terrible language! who wants to read this crap? — whoever is there haunting your space and asking for censorship, get rid of them. Clear the air of all judgment and criticism and focus on the work. I have treasured this bit of advice and for my own personal satisfaction have added to it the notion that at the end of a day of work, I can choose to burn everything done if I want. It provides the ultimate freedom of thought and expression.

Elizabeth McCracken, author of Thunderstruck; The Giant’s House
One piece of advice? Well: probably the one I think of most often is Allan Gurganus’s insistence that we read our work aloud. I had never done it before. I let it go for a while, but recently I’ve renewed my devotion to editing aloud: it makes you self-conscious, but then it makes you ruthless.

covercoverJayne Anne Phillips, author of Quiet Dell; Lark and Termite
Three great pieces of advice — From Tim O’Brien, as I had a book coming out, “Relax. Pretend it isn’t happening.”

From Frank Conroy, to his entire class, on writing a novel: “Don’t think of it as a novel. It’s a book. A book can be constructed in any way that works.”

From John Irving, in an interview, when asked “was it easier to write his 5th novel?” “No, it’s never easier. The new book doesn’t know the first four were ever written.” Yes.

Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves
The most practically useful tip on writing I ever heard was when I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins and Alice McDermott told us she wrote by hand, on legal pads. I had gotten into the habit of typing my first drafts. It seemed more productive to cut out the middleman. Alice wasn’t giving us advice so much as letting us into an aspect of her craft, but I heard the advice in it and returned to handwriting. It was the best decision I ever made as a writer.

Our earliest training in creating words is by hand. Children may not always learn cursive anymore in school, but almost everyone’s first attempts at writing come with a pen or pencil (or crayon or marker) on paper. There is something to be said for engaging a neural pathway that is that longstanding in our consciousness and that fundamental to our sense of self. And recent research underscores the benefits of handwriting, suggesting that our brains are activated differently when we handwrite than when we type, that the effort involved in handwriting engages the brain’s motor pathways and aids memory and learning ability.

But certain more pedestrian practical considerations come into play that make handwriting an attractive option for a first draft. It’s difficult to stop and edit as you write by hand, for one. When you’re typing, the words are dynamic, not static; they are never fixed in place until you print them (and even then, the blinking cursor rules). You attempt to perfect every sentence the first time through and end up making little progress. The sentence is barely written before the interpolating editorial consciousness (which will have its say in the second draft, in the 100th draft, but perhaps ought to be kept at bay here, in the first draft, the only place where the unconscious mind is given freedom to play before it cedes its place to the conscious mind’s ordering, categorizing, synthesizing, normalizing impulse) begins to fuss with it. The scaffolding for the larger organization of the scene or paragraph, which has come together as if by magic for a moment and is holding together tenuously in the mind as you take care of the individual sentence, begins to creak under the weight of your dual attention. Handwriting generates tremendous forward momentum, because it’s comparatively more difficult to rearrange words in a sentence when you’re handwriting; there’s no neat cut-and-paste mode, no way to artificially corrupt the integrity of the cognitive unit of the sentence.

There’s also no potential for distraction when it’s just you and a notebook. There’s no internet to go to, no email to check. If you leave your computer off, or at home, it’s just you and the page. Plus, when you handwrite, you can do it anywhere in the world. You don’t need a plug-in. It gives you power over your circumstances. And seeing the notebooks stacking up allowed me to feel I was actually writing a book. Whereas there’s something spectral about a thousand files in a computer.

The one drawback is anxiety over losing your work. I photocopy the notebooks when I’m done with them, store them in the closet and type the text from the photocopied pages. I’m anxious carrying around whatever notebook I’m writing in until I get those pages photocopied. It’s the only draft I have. That’s the beauty of it.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

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7 Responses to “Get to Work: On the Best Advice Writers Ever Received”

  1. timble
    at 8:49 pm on January 6, 2015

    On writing by hand: I’ve always been split between writing on paper and on a computer, and while I don’t think one is necessarily better I have observed some differences. When writing by hand I tend to write longer sentences with more dependent clauses; long paragraphs that sustain fewer ideas; pages that loop back into themselves, recursive monomania. Something about the physical act makes it possible to keep all the plates spinning. On the laptop I feel like I forget a sentence as soon as I put a period to it. There’s more forward motion but less insight. When I get stuck somewhere, I use the keyboard. When I’m moving too fast, I go back to paper. Just the sheer pleasure of writing in a nice book with a fine pen is worth the ticket though.

    My advice for writers: do whatever works for you. If that doesn’t work, try drinking.

  2. Trevor
    at 1:40 pm on January 7, 2015

    It’s refreshing to read some of this advice as I have been struggling mightily with my own writing recently. To make matters worse, I teach a Creative Writing Course for high school students, and we had a creative writing exercise yesterday where they were all able to come up with brilliant original pieces, making me feel more alone in my issues.

    My problem is difficult to identify since it is so nebulous and pervasive. I just have a general blankness every time I sit down to write. Plot, characters, themes are all eluding me. Sigh. Maybe I will have a drink, Timble.

  3. Emil Toth
    at 5:00 pm on January 7, 2015

    All of the above is wonderful advice. I found that I just have to sit down and begin to write, after that the prose and dialog flows on its own. I may have to revisit it time and again, but the initial thoughts are there and that is what counts.

  4. Courtlynn
    at 12:53 pm on January 8, 2015

    I have found that writing just one sentence gets the ball rolling. I totally appreciate the advice in regards to the Nike sign. Just suck it up and do it.

  5. Top Picks Thursday 01-15-2015 | The Author Chronicles
    at 1:02 pm on January 15, 2015

    […] tells us how to overcome the biggest obstacle to successful authorship, Sarah Anne Johnson compiles a list of writers and the best writing advice they ever received, and Malinda Lo discusses writing and […]

  6. Nate House
    at 6:44 pm on January 27, 2015

    Best piece of advice about writing came from my fishing buddy John: “Enjoy the fight,” he tells me whenever I get a fish on the line. I tell that to myself whenever I encounter a difficult section of a short story and try to avoid working on it. After the initial avoidance of said section, I find that the fight with it can be as rewarding as catching any fish.

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    at 9:54 pm on April 7, 2015

    […] people struggle writing a good piece, despite the fact that most of the time, they already have the idea, yet they can’t put it into words. I used to stare at my blank screen just wishing that the words […]

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