Thought Catalog

How To Be A Writer

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“First, try to be something, anything, else.” – Lorrie Moore, ‘How to Become a Writer’

A few months ago, The Guardian published some lists of fiction-writing advice from famous writers, or at least, from semi-famous writers. Some of the advice was solid, practical, and good. (Zadie Smith: “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.”) And some of the advice was meaningless poetic bullshit. (Andrew Motion: “Think with your senses as well as your brain.”) …And some of the advice was just plain wrong. (Elmore Leonard. “Never use the [word] ‘suddenly.’”) Yeah, really? I can’t use the word “suddenly” anymore? Bullshit. I think I’m about to suddenly break this rule. Very suddenly.

_____

ANY-way, all of this writing advice from famous novelists got me to thinking. And what I thought was: “Hey, I’m a writer.” And then I thought: “Do I actually have an article to write today?” And then I thought: “No. No, I don’t. Definitely not. I have nothing to write about.”

All of which led to today’s somewhat unnecessary article, in which I offer you unsolicited tips to becoming a better writer! Seriously. And please to enjoy.

_____

‘First, try to be something, anything, else.’

HOW TO BE AN A WRITER

1) Don’t listen to advice from writers. I realize that me saying this will invalidate this entire column, but I’m cool with that. Writers like to talk about writing because talking about writing is easier than actually sitting down and — y’know — writing something. (Like a novel, or a play, or a poem, or such.) Don’t listen to writers. And are you sure that writers even have your best interests at heart? Most writers that I know are petty, insecure, self-absorbed dicks. And writers don’t like competition. Therefore, take any advice that they give you with a grain of salt.

2) Chill out. Most people are a thousand times more interesting when they’re talking than when they’re writing. Why is this? Because people panic when they start writing. People instantly revert to memories of 10th grade English class, and memories of No. 2 pencils, and lined notebooks. And then they freak out and tense up. Don’t tense up. Just relax. Seriously.

3) Just relax. …Um, seriously. Chill. When are you funniest and most interesting in life? When you’re hanging with your friends, maybe having a few beers, and telling a funny story. So when you write, do that. Just be normal. Act like you’re telling a story to your friends. Write the way that you talk. This will be much more interesting, I promise you.

4) You’re gonna have to write all the time. I wrote for about six hours a day, every day, for 15 years before I could quit my boring job and become an actual paid full-time writer.

Which reminds me of a funny story. In his excellent autobiography, animator Chuck Jones talks about his first day at art school. And on his first day, the “mean” professor said this to the class: “You have 200,000 bad drawings inside of you. The sooner you get rid of them, the better it will be for everyone.” Startled gasp! The class was horrified. And Chuck Jones, genius and creator of Bugs Bunny, etc., was horrified for a second too. Until he realized this: “Wait. I’ve already done at least 300,000 drawings.”

The same thing happened to me on my first day of school. Our professor said, “If you want to be a writer, you have to write for six hours a day. No exceptions.” And I was appalled, until I remembered that I did that already.

You’re gonna have to write all the time in order to get better. No one can make you do this. You’re going to have to make yourself do it.

5) You’re going to be poor for a really long time. People told me this when I started out, and I didn’t believe them, because — wait for it — because I was an idiot. I assumed that I’d be famous by 21 and dead from a drunken car accident by 23. I was wrong.

And also, being a poor writer sounded kind of romantic to me when I was, say, 18 years old. And being a poor writer is kind of romantic — for a while. It becomes less romantic when you’re 30 and can’t afford to buy a soda when it’s hot out, and can’t afford to have a girlfriend because that would actually involve paying to go to a restaurant or something. So. There’s that. So if you can’t handle being really really poor, then stop now.

6) You’re going to have to realize that you suck and that you’re awesome at the same time. …Which is a little something that the poet Keats called “Negative Capability” — i.e., the ability to hold two conflicting ideas in your head at the same time.

Listen, the first thing that you write is going to suck. There’s a simple reason for this. If writing was that easy, then everyone would do it. Sitting at home all day in your pajamas and scribbling down pithy little thoughts is a way more fun job than, say, being a garbageman or a dishwasher. (And I’ve been both.) Being a writer is hard, because being a writer is fun.

So, you’re going to have to realize that your writing sucks. Otherwise, you’ll never improve. But you also have to believe (against all hope, sometimes) that your writing is awesome. If you think you’re great from day one, then you’ll never improve and you’ll never get published. But if you always think that you suck, then you’ll get discouraged, and you won’t write for five to six hours a day like you need to.

And that’s the awesome/sucky dichotomy. It’s a tough one, but I’m sure you can pull it off.

So, you’re going to have to realize that your writing sucks.

7) You’re gonna need help. …And you’re going to need this help because it’s hard to tell when something you write is good or bad. So, you’re going to need a peer group.

Maybe you’ll have to take a class at a local college, or maybe there’s a writing group that meets at your local bookstore. You can show your stuff to your friends, but the odds are that they’ll just lie to you and tell you that everything you write is really great. They’re going to tell you this because: (a) They probably don’t care about writing that much, and (b) They don’t want to hurt your feelings.

So you need to surround yourself with fellow writers who are supportive but also honest. Some people will tell you that your writing is always good. These people are lying. And some people will tell you that your writing is always bad. These people are also lying. …But a few rare people will point out the stuff that they like, call you out on some of the dumb shit that you’re writing, and gently but forcefully suggest ways to make your dumb shit better. Treasure these people. Learn to recognize them. These people are your only hope.

…They are your only hope to becoming a real writer, that is. And you need to find them. You’re going to find them, and you’re going to hang out with these people as much as possible. You’re going to go drink coffee with them at 2am in shitty diners; you’re going to become new best friends with them; you’re going to call them at all hours on the phone. You need to hang out with these people as much as possible.

Because in the end, we all work in the dark. We are blind. We can’t see what we’re doing. We exist in a cosmology of not-seeing. We have to take things on faith. And in the end, we just have to hope and pray that someone out there actually wants to listen to the things that we are saying.

_____

…And that’s really all the advice that I have to give about writing, I guess. Hope that helped! And if not. …And if not, well. …And if not, well, I just sat here for five minutes trying to think of a clever way to end this essay. And I failed. So there’s further proof that writing is really hard, and that maybe you shouldn’t listen to me, after all. TC mark

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    • Michael

      Three Thumbs Up.

      • http://www.facebook.com/TomSmizzle Tom Smith

        I want to 'like' this but I really appreciate the fact that 'Three Thumbs Up.' has 3 likes.

      • Mike

        I wanted three thumbs up + two toes. But three will do for now.

    • guest

      consider this bookmarked

    • too rude magazine

      Fantastic!

    • federico

      “I’d be famous by 21 and dead from a drunken car accident by 23.”- what im banking on. even if i dont get famous, i would like to die at 23

    • RamonaCC

      Makes me want to go hang out with my writer friends and drink coffee and encourage each other. Also, makes me want to write. Job well done.

    • Jody Fossler

      bad line: “We exist in a cosmology of not-seeing.”
      good line: most of the other lines.

      • Oliver Miller

        I liked that line! But was it too pretentious? It seemed a little pretentious.

        • Guest

          I think it was a little pretentious, yeah. I don't agree with it, and you made no effort to justify it in any interesting way, therefore line = bad imho. It just kinda caused that line from Dante about the poet entering the blind world to echo in my head, and then I just sorta shrugged and told myself that not all poets are blind, nor do all people “exist in a cosmology of not-seeing.” !

        • Oliver Miller

          Fair enough. Agree to disagree?

        • degrus

          You gotta murder your darlings, Oliver. A sort-of-famous writer said that. Also: Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out. A properly famous writer said that.

    • http://9fragmented.blogspot.com Clare Strahan

      Seems like a job for the Literary Rats … http://9fragments.tumblr.com/

    • http://twitter.com/jgriffiths James Griffiths

      In 'On Writing', Stephen King attacked the idea of writer's workshops, complaining that the feedback received is often too vague and unconstructive – less about practical advice and more about, you know, my, like, feelings about this piece being like, interesting, but I don't really get the symbolism of the hat?

      Do you have any advice on how to filter out the useful writers workshops / creative writing groups from the useless?

      • Oliver Miller

        I mean, yeah, I think vagueness can be a real problem in writing workshops. I think, generally speaking, like I sorta said in the essay, that if people are acting like everything under discussion is really great, then that's probably not true, and it's a bad workshop. And if people are acting like everything is really bad, then that's a bad workshop. Writing workshops are tricky, and it's hard to find a good one.

        I can't really think of a good way to filter them, except by going and testing it out. My mom's a shrink, and she gives this advice to people who are looking to find a shrink: “Go three times, and if you don't like that person, stop after three times.” I mean, that's not revolutionary advice, but it's a good point. Give a workshop a chance, and if you don't like it, stop going. I wish I could think of more clever/groundbreaking advice, but I really can't.

    • Meinwelt22

      perfect !

    • Guest

      Best “How To Be A Writer” advice I've ever read. The best part was already knowing most of this, but having it presented in a way that makes it all seem doable.

    • http://www.raptitude.com David Cain

      I think Elmore Leonard was right on. Suddenly is a poor word, always. Find another way to say it.

      • Oliver Miller

        I agree that the word “suddenly” can be used poorly — as in the ringing phone example in the comment above. But can't all words be used poorly? And I really like using the word “suddenly”; I don't think it should be banned, or that it's always a poor word. That seems like overkill to me. Shrugs.

    • http://twitter.com/brucehead Bruce Head

      I agree with much of this post, but the commentary about ignoring advice from writers seems peevish at best. Elmore Leonard is right about the word “suddenly”. Most of the time, it's unnecessary and used as an ineffective shortcut to create tension. I was reading a Robert Ludlum novel the other day (actually, listening to the audiobook version) when I heard this line “Suddenly, the phone rang.” It distracted me from the rest of the scene, as I stopped listening to ponder: Is there any other way for a phone to ring? “Gradually, the phone rang”?

      As for Andrew Motion's advice (“Think with your senses as well as your brain”), it's not “meaningless poetic bullshit” (how charming). Often writers forget to have their characters use the full range of human senses; rather than just “seeing”, characters should smell, hear, touch, etc. If you think with your senses as well as your brain, you will endue your characters with more life.

      • Oliver Miller

        Fair enough.

        • Oliver Miller

          I sorta know that Andrew Motion is a bad dude in real life, which was why I was pissy about him. My bad. It's complicated. But I digress…

    • http://twitter.com/frank1569 Last Name: Allen

      Thanks! Just what I needed to read. Or, I should say, need to re-read every other day… as I gather the last of the nickels and dimes from the tray to grab a cup of coffee…

    • http://twitter.com/calvinaftercal Calvin

      Absolutely loved this post, and will take all of these decisions to heart (with a grain of salt). I am going to still go and read my books on writing by Stephen King and Ray Bradbury, but honestly Oliver your advice rings true.

      Would have liked to get your thoughts on how reading influences writing. I've heard from some people that you shouldn't be reading any books/novels/articles/whateverthehellelse while you are trying to write, because it influences your own style and characters/plot too much. What's your opinion on stuff like that? Is it important to keep things in perspective and see what else has already been written? Can this help to supplement (not necessarily substitute) advice from writers groups and other writers?

      • Dan

        Stephen King's book is fantastic. It's also fairly similar in tone if not style and, of course, specific words.

    • http://twitter.com/phmadore phmadore

      Don't waste the reader's time. That's the only valuable writing advice a writer can give. You didn't follow it, sadly.

    • Denise Paulsen

      I disagree with the tenets of the article. I don't know a lot of writers. I know of them, more than i know them. Anyways, they've always been helpful and generous with advice. Although, as Oliver said, some will pat me on the head, gimme a cookie and glass of milk, telling me i'm wonderful. When nothing could be further. I should stick to asking women. They don't want to see me naked.

    • http://twitter.com/TonyComstock Tony Comstock

      I used to have really hard time writing anything. Then one day my college English professor said, “Think of it like a debate where you don't have to let the other person talk.”

      Bingo.

      • S.T.

        Good point; more or less a ‘paradigm shift’ for those that might read this. I think I’ll try that…

    • http://volyablog.wordpress.com/ Ian

      I really like your style. Er, in writing not your spiffy jacket. Your jacket may still be spiffy though.

      I think the bit about people who don't care about words not being able to tell you whether your writing is any good is definitely true. I have experienced it. It isn't meant maliciously, but if you don't cherish words you can't appreciate them in the same way. The subtlety is lost. Like a chef with someone with an unrefined palate. Or at least I assume. I have an unrefined palate.

      I am not sure other writers are really lying when they tell other people their stuff isn't any good. I think they believe it. I also think they are so focused on what they are trying to do that they often just register stuff that isn't what they are trying to do as “not good.” I am sure some of them liars though.

      • Oliver Miller

        I apologize for the jacket in my photo. That jacket was always a little TOO spiffy; it always made me feel like I wasn't cool enough to be wearing it.

        And yeah, I was definitely speaking from personal experience about friends telling you that everything you write is great; and no, they don't do it maliciously at all. But when I was 19 or so and trying to write short stories for the first time, I would show them to my friends and they'd be like, “Yeah, this is story is great, etc…”

        And they were either wrong, or lying to spare my feelings, because my writing when I was nineteen was definitely not “great.” Eventually, I realized that it just wasn't going to help that much to show my writing to my friends — and what the hell were they supposed to say, anyway? “Oh, Oliver, this story is terrible”? They were trying their best; it just wasn't helpful for either party involved.

        • http://volyablog.wordpress.com/ Ian

          I mean really the lesson is we should always see the world as we saw it when we were 19 ;)

          Also I am all for subjectivity and personal experiences.

    • http://twitter.com/scalzi John Scalzi

      “Most writers that I know are petty, insecure, self-absorbed dicks.”

      Most writers I know are pretty cool folks who subscribe to the principle of “pay it forward,” which includes offering advice as usefully as they know how.

      As with anything, when receiving advice, one has to judge the source and calibrate from there. That said, the blanket admonition not to listen to the advice of other authors is a good way to help newer writers remain ignorant of their field longer.

      • Oliver Miller

        I was sort of joking, and also trying to say that you should take any advice that I give with a grain of salt — which you did, so that sort of worked out.

    • red

      Thank you for this.

    • Lm Presoton

      Whoa! Number 1 is brutal, lol! but in some ways kinda true. You have to find supportive writers that 'don't hate' on you.

    • l.l.

      hey oliver. publish something or at least work/write for someplace that pays you and then dispense advice.

      • Oliver Miller

        Zuh? I do get paid for my writing, and you don't have to listen to my advice if you don't want to; it's not a requirement. I think I said in the actual column that ignoring my advice was a potentially good idea.

    • Kris

      Oliver, whether people agree or disagree with your article, I think you achieved the unstated goal of all writers: to be read. Lots of comments mean lots of readers who agree and find your tips useful but don't have time to write. These non responding ghost readers may need to heed step four.
      I think there is something here for most would-be writers and something to bitch about by people who think they are writers but are obviously are not because they are reading an article titled, How To Be A Writer.
      If I were in your writing group I would suggest that this fine piece is ripe for expanding into other articles fleshing out each point. Tell us how to chill. Or the pitfalls of writer groups, especially those on-line. Etc.
      You could also add an eighth tip. Writers need to read, a lot! Writing is expression of what comes out of a person but if nothing went in than what comes out will be vacuous.
      You hit a couple of nerves for me. I'm going to try and start chillin at my keyboard even though my inner critic is usually not interested in doing that. I'm assuming a tortured balance is possible.
      Thanks for posting.

    • James

      Wow. Holy comment thread criticism Batman! I dug the shit out this post because it felt like advice a writer friend would give me at a bar over the tenth beer. Great stuff Oliver. Thanks for that.

    • Big_Red_Dog

      If I had known more, I would have written less.

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