20 Pieces of Advice for Writers
I’ve written a number of posts over the years where I hand out unsolicited writing tips when really the best advice is: ignore all advice and forge your own way! Still, I’m one to seek out words of wisdom myself, even if I only heed a small percentage of it. Stubborn Taurus, what can I say? Quite honestly I can’t stand people telling me what to do. So take all this with a huge grain of salt. Be suspicious of free advice. Feel free to give it the cold shoulder.
1. Consider the Opposite
The first piece of advice I’d like to give anyone creative – writers, photographers, artists – is that when anyone gives you a piece of advice, you might like to consider the opposite. For example, we’ve all heard advice about never using X word. I remember once hearing you should never use the word archaic in a poem. That immediately became a goal for me. I think that when we consider things quite opposite to what is expected, we stay freer and more open to breaking rules. Which is something else we should consider.
2. Be Humble, and Also Cultivate an Enormous Ego
As a writer, it’s good to know that you’re no big freaking deal. You’re not. Do you know how many people are writing books? Do you know how many books have been written? Almost anyone can write a book. You’re not that special. But at exactly the same time, writing a book is amazing! That you can sit down and write and make something that is art is incredible and uplifting and holy guacamole, you need to honour that. You are a freaking beautiful writer and you are writing sentences that will make the angels sing.
If you don’t have a pretty healthy ego it’s going to be hard to keep this train moving, you know?
3. You are Required to Make Something Beautiful
Do you know what? I’m just going to repeat this every chance I get. You are required to make something beautiful.
4. Make Use of Your Exhaustion
If you haven’t yet read Anne Bogart’s What’s the Story, here’s one more reason. She tells a story about a play she goes to see and how the producer was jetting in and out from all time zones during rehearsals, clearly exhausted. She didn’t have high hopes for the work but upon seeing it realizes its brilliance and that it “rocked my world.” She then says, “Until then I had assumed that when you reach a state of exhaustion, you must take a break until the creative life and force returns.” She says this example showed her “that through exhaustion it is possible to be catapulted into the next octave, to catch the next wave.”
I’ve spent a great deal of time feeling exhausted, afraid, nervous, and inferior. I’ve still written 10+ books. You just have to keep working.
I say this but as I said earlier, be suspicious of all advice.
5. Change Something
Again from the Anne Bogart book. She quotes Jasper Johns who says, “Take something. Change it. Change it again.” She then tells this wonderful story about Philip Glass breaking damaged records in his father’s music store. You’ll have to read the book to get that story :)
But think about still life paintings. Often you’ll notice in the 17th century examples where an artist will paint a similar scene to a previous painting with just one object added or subtracted or moved. Themes recur. A flower in a vase becomes another flower in a vase in the same window niche. Paint something, change it, paint it again. Write a poem, change something. Change it again. Keep going in that fashion.
6. Get Out of the Way
I’m currently reading How to Disappear by Akiko Busch which is wonderful. In the intro, she says:
“When the ceramic artist Eva Zeisel was asked how to make something beautiful, she famously replied, “You just have to get out of the way.”
7. Be a Decent Human Being
Sure you don’t have to be a decent person to make art. But why not be?
In Stranger at the Door Kristjana Gunnars quotes Laura Riding:
“If what you write is true, it will not be so because of what you are as a writer but because of what you are as a being.”
Gunnars herself says, “It has always seemed to me that good accomplishments are unlikely unless the life they come out of is good.”
Maybe you’re not as famous as X writer. Okay. Fine. But you are a good person and this is actually the whole entire secret dope hello meaning of life. So you’ve won. Whatever else happens is gravy. So don’t be an ass. Try not to suck.
8. Remember the Mystery, Remember Joy
In her book Strangers at the Door, Gunnars reminds us that “there is something mysterious in the act of writing.” Let’s take a minute and remember why we started writing, how much we loved delving into our imagination and being carried away, as Gunnars quotes Cixous saying, “by exaltation” and by an acute joy. She says, “the artistic pursuit has in it the mystical elements of exaltation and adoration.” We write because we are hoping for transcendence, incandescence, a hallelujah! We don’t talk about that nearly enough, imho.
9. Keep Your Nerve
There are days when I think what does Austin Kleon have that I don’t have? ha. But okay, here he is on nerves. First he quotes Wayne White:
“I really don’t think the artist is an intellectual. I believe that the artist is a set of nerves.”
And he also quotes Emily Dickinson:
“If your Nerve, deny you— / Go above your Nerve.”
In her ridiculously indispensable book Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle has a chapter on fear. She quotes George Oppens who says,
“Great artists are those who, in the end, do not have a failure of nerve.”
And of course, I cannot talk about keeping your nerve without the words of Georgia O’Keeffe:
“I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.”
I’ve referred to O’Keeffe’s words so often in my own life and I couldn’t be more thankful for them.
10. Do Your Own Work First
This is super sound advice which I have put to use myself. I’ve been getting up early for years to do my writing. I’m not naturally a morning writer, I don’t think, though by now I can’t see doing it any other way. Here is what Molly Spencer has to say about it in a recent blog post:
“At some point in my writing life—I don’t remember when, but it was years ago—this became my mantra and my exhortation to myself: Do your own work first.
It may have been influenced by Mary Oliver, who once wrote in a letter something like, “I can’t meet with you, or anyone, in the morning… because that’s when I write” (I’m paraphrasing).
It may have been influenced by Robert Hass, who said, “Take the time to write. You can do your life’s work in a half-hour a day.”
11. Find a Way to Get to an Extraordinary State
“For writing a first draft requires from the writer a peculiar internal state which ordinary life does not induce.” So says Annie Dillard in her well known book, The Writing Life.
She also asks, “How set yourself spinning?”
For me, the answer has usually been a combination of staring into space and reading. I’ll dip in and out of those works that inspire me, trying to set myself on fire. I also play and re-play the same music before I begin writing, so when I hear it, I know it’s time to write. Yes, it’s useful to stay off social media, it’s useful to be alone in my room. But I also try not to make excuses. I try to make the space, even if it’s only a few hours a week. I focus on that space beforehand with all the energy I can muster.
Figure out what those things are that get you spinning. Rinse and repeat.
Odds are that social media is not part of that equation….
11. Adapt Yourself to the Paintbox
This is also from the Dillard book. She talks about the artist Paul Klee:
“Adapting yourself to the contents of the paintbox, he said, is more important than nature and its study. The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint.”
When I have been making no headway with the things I want to say, I have sometimes tried it out in another form. The poetry isn’t working? Try a novel. Try an essay.
She says that “writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? and, Can I do it?” If the form you’re writing in isn’t working, invent a new one, uniquely suited to you.
This has to do with figuring out what is your precise task. What can you make with the contents of your paintbox?
From Anna Kamienska:
“Every poet has some task to complete. When you start to do it, when you discover your task, your poetry at once gets dynamic and becomes authentic.”
12. Shake off Jealousy and Hate
There are a lot of reasons to shake off the bad stuff. Particularly though, you need to shake it off because it will impede your work. When you’re on the threshold of writing you need to disrobe, shake off that dust. You need to come clean, soul-clean. You want to step into the radiance, into the mystery, you have to leave hate behind.
On the Threshold of the Poem
by Anna Kamienska
On the threshold of the poem shake off the dust
the powder of hate from your soul
set aside passion
so as not to defile words
Into this space step alone
and the tenderness of things will enfold you
and lead you toward the dark
as if you had lost worldly sight
There whatever was named will return
and stand in the radiance so you and I
can find each other
like two trees that were lost in fog
13. Your Work Will Catch Up to You and Waiting is Your Friend
Your work really will catch up with you. Sometimes the writing will go quickly, and at other times slowly. I advise you to let it come as it will. The publishing machine is slow, but that’s okay, too. (I mean, it’s not, but it’s the way it works). Sometimes you will be waiting for the writing to come, and sometimes you will be waiting for the work to arrive in the world, and at other times, you will be waiting to see if anyone reads what you write. I tell you, the best thing you can do is make friends with waiting. Find a way to make the waiting beautiful, too.
In her notebooks, Anna Kamienska says, “The situation in which for three years already I have not been allowed to publish a book, acts in a way in my favour. It distances me from everything that is not necessary, liberates me even from those eager ambitions I had. It teaches me to be humble.” She adds: “Perhaps my task as a poet is to describe the landscape of loneliness.”
14. Why Not Add to the Beauty and Wonder of the World?
I mean, really, why not? There are hundreds of thousands upon thousands of books being written each year, and paintings being painted, and pots being thrown, songs being sung, and photographs taken. That could be intimidating to think about. But why shouldn’t you join in? Making art is a way of life, it’s a way of being in the world. I like the way Glenn Gould puts it:
“The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline, but a gradual lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.”
15. Worry Less about Making Something New, and More About Learning Something New
I think this is a pretty lovely strategy. It comes from the wonderful C.D. Wright and her book Cooling Time, which I love.
“I do not know if I am trying to do something new but I know that I am trying to learn something new. The doors fling themselves open.”
16. Put your Faith in the Practice and Appreciate the Fray
From the same C.D. Wright book which begins, “I believe in a hardheaded art, an unremitting, unrepentant practice of one’s own faith in the word in one’s own obstinate terms.”
She says of coexisting with “antithetical poetries” that “while I am not always equal to it, I appreciate the fray.” Wright also quotes Merwin, who said, “Practice practice put your faith in that.” You’ll hear echoes of Rumi and his line about submitting to a practice.
Wright says that she is “looking for a way to vocalize, perform, act out, address the commonly felt crises of my time. These are spiritual exercises.”
Oh, this time we live in. To think of writing about it as a spiritual exercise. That kind of rigorous intensity. That kind of fray.
17. Talk in a Whisper
It’s quite exciting to me that Astonishments by Anna Kamienska seems to be available again. For a while there it wasn’t.
Why write? The endless ongoing question. Because it’s something you can do in a whisper says Kamienska:
“In a whisper. To talk in a whisper. In a whisper – like the sea.”
18. Write Toward Astonishment
Anna Kamienska said that the definition of poetry could be “laborious astonishments.”
The advice hidden in this is that writing is a lot of work, do it anyway because holy man is it worth it.
19. Be Obsessed
For regular readers of this blog, you’ll be familiar with my obsession with Bruce Springsteen and obsession in general. I don’t go on about it because I want you to also become obsessed with him (though, feel free) but to illustrate the joy there is in just loving something, delving into a subject, or a thing that you just unabashedly love for who knows what reason.
In the book of interviews with Bruce (see we’re on a first name basis now!), titled Talk About a Dream, he quotes Martin Scorsese who says: “The artist’s job is to make people care about your obsessions and see them and experience them as their own.”
I’ve been obsessed with so many things. Still am. These are my themes. Though not everything I love ends up, per se, in my writing. But what happens is when you become interested to this high degree, you are awake, you notice, things are heightened, you’re curious, hell you’re alive! This state is most useful for writers.
20. Everything is Going to Be Okay, Let’s Be Lonesome Together
There are a lot of reasons to read and to write. Often they’re one and the same. Mary Ruefle says, “Did I mention supreme joy? That is why I read: I want everything to be okay.” I write because it tricks me into thinking everything is going to be okay. Maybe it’s not even a trick.
C.D. Wright says, “Some of us do not read or write particularly for pleasure or instruction, but to be changed, healed, charged.”
Writing is a lonely act. So is living. The days can be lonesome. We can feel alone.
“Every poet's words. (1) I am alone, you who are alone come with us, this will not break the solitude. (2) Whoever says: ‘I am alone’ breaks the solitude and affirms it by this act of speech.”
– Helene Cixous in Stigmata: Escaping Texts
“Right now, all I got's this lonesome day
It's alright, it's alright, it's alright, yeah
It's alright, it's alright, it's alright, yeah
It's alright, it's alright, it's alright, yeah
It's alright, it's alright”
– Bruce Springsteen
We might be alone together, but we’re also very much “Alive Together.”
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading this very long post! If you like this post and others, there are lots of ways to support this blog. Scroll to the bottom and look for the “support” button, for example. Share this post with your friends on social media or by emailing the link. Buy one of my books. The latest one, The Flower Can Always Be Changing, has been shortlisted for a Writers Guild of Alberta Award. Leave a comment here or on social media.