by Jeana Conder
A couple of weeks ago I set out on the task of asking local writers to answer a series of eight questions I compiled. The responses I received are now creating our newest series, “From the Mouth of Writers.” We hope that this series allows upcoming writers to gain knowledge from others with the same passion. This week’s question:
What is the best advice you have received about writing?
A poet once told me that all you have to do to be a writer is (1) LIVE (2) READ (3) WRITE (4) THINK ABOUT WRITING (5) REPEAT UNTIL DEAD. I’ve always thought that was a sound checklist. I routinely share it with my students.
When I was a sophomore in high school, my English teacher said that I didn’t need to “try to be different”. He believed that I was “different enough” to become a successful writer by just writing the truth about myself.
The best advice given to me as a writer was to try different techniques, to push myself outside of my comfort zone. I used to live in San Francisco and had been writing for some time when I took a class with the Writers Studio. Their model was based on reading a published writer's piece, breaking down the various techniques in terms of voice, point of view, style, and approach, and then using those techniques as guidelines for beginning a piece of your own. This method helped me become much smarter as a writer and reader: by forcing me to take on different styles and voices, I expanded my range. The surprise is that in the process, I developed my own voice as a writer. I would recommend this process to anyone.
“A fool on a fool’s journey would be a fool to stop.” Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Read everything and write every day. I don’t necessarily follow it, but it’s great advice.
I have been teaching for ten years in a low-residency MFA program. Twice a year the students and faculty meet on campus (Hamline University) and the writing talk flows. I have taken in so much great advice, but possibly the most eternally pertinent to my own writing comes from a faculty colleague, Claire Rudolf Murphy, who likes to pound the podium and urge “Cut the exclamation marks.” That caution is about much more than punctuation, of course. My writing leans toward the emotional and I need to monitor that aspect all the time. Looking for exclamation marks is a good approach.
Write every day; in a journal or otherwise. Meditation.
I have been given a ton. As any published writer who has been around will tell you. I suggest you attend workshops or take classes and read writing books (or any book, for that matter) and look over the acknowledgements to see what inspired that particular author. Don’t Stop Writing! Oh, and read and read and read and NOT just in your genre.
Read, read, read. There's no way you're going to become a great writer, without first becoming a great reader.
In an interview on the Longform podcast, Cheryl Strayed talked about the success of her memoir, Wild. Paraphrasing here, she notes that the success was one part luck—extraordinary luck of the kind that so rarely happens, it should not be a thing people wish for—but, more importantly, she had written the best book she could, so that when luck came, she was ready. In other words, she had worked hard. Really, she had worked her butt off.
I think about this all the time: that of all the things writers believe they can control, in truth the only thing we can do is work, and do the best work possible. I believe deeply in working hard. I take writing seriously, and do not romanticize it (no lit candles, no prayers to a muse, no special pen, no writer’s block). Nor do I treat writing an occasional hobby. The writers I know, and respect the most, have all found ways to make space in their lives for writing. Writers prioritize writing—are sometimes even selfish about it. (Ha! Ha! you laugh. Does he have kids yet?) The act of creation can be wonderful, and frustrating, and euphoric, but it is also a choice I make each day when I sit down: I am a writer. I am here to write. So I do the work.
Things: Always be honest. Your reader will know if you aren’t; Write about something you know and are passionate about.