some useless pieces of writerly advice
July 18th, 2009
I’ve been getting a bunch of emails and Facebook and MySpace messages lately asking me about the writing process. Maybe one of these days, I will get it together enough to post an FAQ on my web site like some writers do (and I love reading those and peering into other people’s processes). But for the time being, I figured now, during a time when I’m not writing anything professionally because I’m on maternity leave, maybe would be a good time to spew a bit of useless advice.
The thing with this kind of advice is, it really is useless. Because what works magic for one writer creates road blocks for another. Case in point: Outlines. I used to teach a YA Novel Writing class and the curriculum—which was pre-written for the class—insisted on a solid outline. I felt like a total fraud proffering this teacherly advice because outlines don’t work for me. Maybe in the early days of working on my nonfiction book they helped or when I first started writing magazine articles, it helped me to sketch things out, but with fiction, I often don’t want to know where I’m going or I want to have a vague idea in the back of my head but to reserve the right for detours or course corrections or, in the case of the novels I have written only to trash ’em, total about faces. Other writers, however, swear by outlines, and write amazing, creative, lyrical novels with them, which was why outlines were in the curriculum. So I guess that would make Useless Piece of Writerly Advice #1: Take All Writers’ Advice, from Stephen King on down, With a Huge Grain of Salt. What works for one person, no matter how successful, might not work for you. So, you can stop reading now if you want to.
This sort of segues into Useless Piece of Writerly Advice #2, a nugget that took me many years to figure out for myself, but hey, I never claimed to be a fast learner: Own Your Voice and Your Style. About 14 years ago, I started my writing career desperate to work for a teen magazine, the late, much-beloved Sassy Magazine. The fact that at age 25 I was obsessed with a teen magazine (though this was a teen magazine like chocolate is a food; it was made of awesomeness) should’ve told me something. By the time I finished college (I took three years off before starting) and moved to New York, Sassy had died and Seventeen had stepped up to the plate. So I got a job there. I loved it. I loved the stories. I loved the girls I interviewed and the girls I wrote for. I loved people I worked with and the people I met on the job. And the voice and style I wrote in were so easy for me. Too easy. It felt like there was something wrong with it—that and the fact that the stories I did, which were important stories about real issues, didn’t get respect. Respect from who, you might ask? The media elite that I now don’t get a flying hoot about but back then I did. I wanted more. I wanted to write for—CLICHÉ ALERT—The New Yorker. Harper’s. The New York Times Magazine. And I worked my butt off and was getting closer to those echelons even though it wasn’t making me happy and it wasn’t what came naturally to me and it wasn’t what I was good at. To make a very long piece of advice a little less laborious, I finally started to really enjoy what I do and to find some modicum of success when I came back to the teen world, with open arms this time, realizing that there had been a reason I’d been drawn to teen mags all those years back, a reason I’d thrived there. That’s my voice. My style. What I’m good at. I’m arrested development. Hooray. The point being, if your descriptions of food make everyone drool and everyone you know loves to read about your blog of your latest concoction and you love writing about this stuff but dream about being Paul Krugman , think about it: What are you going to be best at? To thrive at? The thing you love! And there’s a way to weave food into politics and economics.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m on maternity leave now, but I’m still writing a blog. Why is that? Well, partly because I love the replies I get from you. Two and five year olds are great and all but sometimes the conversation is less than scintillating. But I also need to keep writing. I always need to keep writing. Back before I wrote novels, I was a freelance journalist and sometimes in the beginning—and this was so scary—the assignments would dry up. I soon learned the best way to not freak out about that was to just work on some other project that I wanted to sell or just wanted to write and sure enough, a new paying assignment would come through. Useless Piece of Writerly Advice #3: Momentum Breeds Momentum. Inertia Breeds Inertia. What the hell does that even mean? A lot of people worry about writers’ block. The way out of writers’ block, if you ask me, is to write. Maybe the book or story or poem or whatever you’re working on isn’t coming. Whatever. Leave it for a while. Work on something else. I think the juices need to flow for the juices to flow, capiche? I think for this same reason I seem to have to write the wrong novel to write the right novel. If I just sat around waiting for the right idea to hit me, it would never come, but through working on something else, something that I think might work, or that has elements that work, doors open and I find my way to the real deal.
Now, in light of what I just wrote, this next bit might seem contradictory, but sometimes the truth and its opposite are flip sides of the same coin. Deep, man. Useless Piece of Writerly Advice #4: Know When To Let It Sit. There is a notion among writers of “pre-writing,” this being the time you spend before you hit the computer just sitting and thinking and percolating on your story/article/characters/belly button. A lot of people pooh-pooh the idea of pre-writing as just another way to procrastinate and maybe if by pre-writing you are catching up your Tivo’d True Blood, this is true. But if you are truly thinking about your story, I think pre-writing is great and just as productive as a marathon session at the Apple. Maybe even more so. When I was a less experienced writer, I would try to force it. There would be days where I didn’t know where I was going and I’d just sit down and charge ahead anyhow and usually a lot of that writing wound up in the bin. These days, I can sense when I’m ready to move forward and when I’m not. And when I’m not, I wait. The good thing about pre-writing is that you can do it and simultaneously do things like fold laundry or walk to the market. I’m all about the multi-tasking.
A kind of offshoot of the last UPOWA has to do with inspiration. It strikes different people in different places, but for me and also for other writers I have heard talk about this, it tends to strike in the same places over and over again. For me, it’s most often on walks (alone) or in the shower. So often, I’ll be struggling with a scene and then take a shower or a walk and then I’ll just figure out the answer. I need to step away from the computer. (And in the case of the shower, I’ll run back to the computer, dripping in a towel and write that way for an hour. And I wonder why I catch so many colds!) Other people dream their stories (surely you’ve heard that the inspiration for Twilight is that Stephenie Meyer dreamt the Edward-Bella meadow scene and started writing it down and just went from there). Useless Piece of Writerly Advice # 5: Court Inspiration. What that means is, if you know that staring at the river gives you ideas, go stare at the river. If you dream up wild stories, for heaven’s sake, keep a pen and paper or a recorder by your bed. Not every idea you get is inspired but some nuggets will be golden and other ideas will be clues on a scavenger hunt leading you to….well, you never know unless you follow up.
Okay, that’s about enough useless advice for now and the girls have been napping for a bit and I still have the house to pick up and some ideas to dream up (okay, not. I’m really not working right now and it feels lovely to let my mind just flop out for a while; it’ll come back on when I hit the reset button in a few months). I know that some of you probably had some different ideas in mind when you asked for advice. You probably wanted advice on getting published, not on writing. Well, I purposely avoided all that. For one, there are web sites and books galore on that subject and the info you need is more than any blog post can do justice—and if you’re at the stage to start querying agents for books, I suggest you check out Jeff Herman’s book on the subject or the myriad web sites. And if you want to learn how to write magazine articles or a YA novel, I suggest you take a class, like the ones offered by Mediabistro (full disclosure: I used teach there). But, really, my Final Useless Piece of Writerly Advice is this: Worry About Writing, Not Getting Published. I know this sounds all woo-woo touchy-feely, but the best work, the truest, most organic work is the stuff that comes from deep in you, the stuff that you are writing because you have to write it, not because you are gunning for a publishing deal. I have written three books. By far, the crappiest is the one I wrote when I had a publishing contract before I wrote it. The best is the one I wrote not really thinking it would ever get published. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to write from such a pure place again, and in some ways, my work will probably suffer for it. But I’ll do the best I can to write from the true, authentic place in me, and that means separating writing from publishing as best I can. Maybe that sounds ridiculous and naïve. Maybe it is. But as I warned you upfront: My advice is useless.