Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Best Writing Advice Ever!


by Susan McBride

A few years back while scoping out the bargain table at a local bookstore, I found LETTERS TO A FICTION WRITER (edited by Frederick Busch). It didn’t take long for me to realize what a gem it is. I’m not much on how-to books, but I love those that inspire me, and this one sure did. I wanted to share my favorite tidbits from some of the authors showcased in LETTERS. I have a feeling you’ll be nodding your head, smiling, and enjoying these wise words every bit as much as I did. So without further ado, here we go!

Lee Abbott: “Don’t write drunk…or stoned. Get a reader. Better yet, be a reader. Write fan letters. Show up for readings and the like. Fret not about fame and fortune. Take every opportunity to write well. Rewrite. Rewrite again. Pay your bills promptly. Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Change your oil every three thousand miles.”

Richard Bausch: “Don’t compare yourself to anyone, and learn to keep from building expectations. People develop at different rates, with different results, and luck is also involved. Your only worry for yourself should be: did I work today? Be happy for the successes of your friends, because good fortune for one of us is good fortune for all of us…You will never write anything worth keeping if you allow yourself to give in to petty worries over whether you are treated as you think you deserve, or your rewards are commensurate to the work you’ve done. That will almost never be the case, and the artist who expects great rewards and complete understanding is a fool.”

Ann Beattie: “Find the time to write. Protect the time to write. Be inventive: get gorgons. Forget e-mail. Whatever it takes. Because you’ll still need more time than there is, and also it’s important to leave enough time to waste…hope for luck, wish to turn out to be photogenic, and pray that the mess that book publishing is in may eventually result in something good.”

Andres Dubus: “I learned from Hemingway to stop each day’s work in mid-sentence, while it is still going well, then to exercise the body and not to think about the story till you go to your desk the next day…then with pen in hand, I turn to the first page of the story and read all that I have written, and I revise, cutting, adding, changing words and punctuation. When I reach the unfinished sentence, I do not have to pause.”

Shelby Foote: “The dirty minds, the slow wits, the critics with their pick-brain tendencies: these people must be ignored in the creative process. Nothing but ruin can come of even considering them. A man must write for himself, and then he must accept the penalties, including the possibility of damnation. You’ve got to put it all on the line; anything less than all is hedging and your work is weakened at the wellspring, hopelessly flawed, shot through with rot. Not to mention the sapping of vitality; that’s what hurts.”

George Garrett: “Trust your original impulse. Trust the muse completely until she proves to be, beyond the shadow of a doubt, unfaithful. But after vision comes revision. That’s another thing, a bag of tricks and then some. You need to know, confidently, that during revision you can fix anything, change anything to suit yourself…the creative process is a little like taking a bath. Other people can help you do it, but they can’t do it for you…all of us would rather not have to revise anything at all. Just put it through the typewriter or into the computer, perfect and complete the first time, effortlessly. Pure inspiration. No sweat and strain and doubt. And that happens, probably will happen once or twice in your lifetime. And that will always seem to be the best time, the way it ought to be. But through the labor, sometimes hard labor, you will discover what every good writer does, that you can make a work seem to be the effortless result of pure inspiration.”

Joyce Carol Oates: “Write your heart out. Never be ashamed of your subject, and of your passion for your subject…Don’t be discouraged. Don’t cast sidelong glances and compare yourself to others among your peers. Writing is not a race. No one really ‘wins.’ The satisfaction is in the effort and rarely in the consequent rewards, if there are any. Read widely and without apology. Read what you want to read, not what someone tells you you should read. Immerse yourself in a writer you love and read everything he or she has written, including the very earliest work. Especially the very earliest work…Write for your own time, if not for your own generation exclusively. You can’t write for ‘posterity’—it doesn’t exist…don’t expect to be treated justly by the world. Don’t even expect to be treated mercifully…Don’t be ashamed of being an idealist, of being romantic and ‘yearning.’”

Megan Staffel: “The mistake people make when they think about writing has to do with the assumption of ease. In other words, because you can write, you assume that you can write fiction. But writing fiction requires the same kind of struggles that doing anything requires…it will continue to be a struggle even after you’ve done a lot of fiction writing. It’s just the nature of the process.”

Hilma Wolitzer: “So this is what you’ve decided to do with your life. I’ll bet your parents aren’t exactly thrilled. When they were walking the floor with you during those long colicky nights, visions of a future neurosurgeon or international banker were probably what kept them going. But instead of supporting them grandly in their old age, you’re off to work in your pajamas every day, at no one’s behest, and without a guaranteed market for your product.”

I couldn't have said it better myself. ;-) Now I’m totally inspired to put on my hot pink Hello Kitty jammie pants, settle down at the keyboard, and get ‘er done. Happy writing, everyone!

Susan McBride is the author of the forthcoming Little Black Dress (William Morrow Paperbacks, August 23, 2011) about two sisters, one daughter, and a magical black dress that changes all their lives forever. She has also written The Cougar Club, a Target Bookmarked Breakout Title and one of MORE Magazine's "February (2010) Books We're Buzzing About." For more scoop, visit SusanMcBride.com. Just for fun, view the book trailer for Little Black Dress on YouTube.

26 comments:

  1. Sounds like an amazing book! Loved this. I think my favorite was Megan S.

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  2. Someday they will build that great writers' museum and your Hello Kitty pjs will be on display!! I will donate my Sox bottoms and, well... They'll probably call Fenway and see if they'll take them. Anyway, wonderful inspiring post, Susan!!

    I think Joyce Carol Oates gets my vote!

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  3. Yeah, Laura, I can see my Hello Kittie hot pink jammie pants in The Great Writers' Museum someday. And Fenway will have to FIGHT them to get your Sox pants. ;-)

    Thanks, Karin! I loved that book so much. It's one of my keepers. :-) I'm just wondering where I can get gorgons. Do you have to special order? Do they come in different sizes? Hmmm.

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  4. What an inspiring post!! I really needed this--thanks, Susan!

    My favorite one was Joyce Carol Oates: "Never be ashamed of your subject..."

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  5. What brings me a great deal of comfort in this quickly shifting publishing landscape is that the advice for being a good writer has remained the same (more or less): write your heart out, write for yourself first, prepare yourself for the workload...and don't write stoned or drunk. A good writing process is timeless.

    Thanks for sharing,Susan!

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  6. Great post Susan! Really relate to Richard B--don't compare yourself to others--people develop at different rates. I think this is a toughie that most struggle with. When I find myself wishing I was farther along in my career, I have to catch myself and think--everyone has their season. It'll happen when it's time. Not easy, but essential for sanity. The book sounds amazing. Thanks for sharing! I want Hello Kittie jammies . . .

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  7. Susan, your post is exactly what I needed to read today, thank you!! I remember reading this book years ago, before I was published, and finding inspiration in it then. But I'm so glad you reminded me of it because I know, after reading through the snippets you posted, that it will be even more meaningful to me now. Also, I need some Hello Kittie jammies ;).

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  8. Brenda and Maria, yay, I'm happy this hit the spot! I don't think I realized until I looked up some of these passages again how much I needed to read them, too! So much good stuff in there, and it never gets old. :-)

    Erin, I thought the very same thing: how cool it is to read these words of wisdom and realize they're as timely now as when the book was originally published in 1999. It's rather reassuring!

    Lauren, it's definitely one of those "keeper" books! Glad you enjoyed!

    Marian, I was just talking to Maggie Barbieri the other day about things happening at the right time. So I loved that passage, too, for that reason and so many others (like, the only important thing is did you write today...and cheering for friends...and understanding that a certain amount of luck is involved, too!).

    Marilyn, ah, I love my hot pink Hello Kitty jammie pants! Although they're a little warm for summer. Maybe I need to find some Hello Kitty capri jammie pants. Hmmm. ;-) Hugs!

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  9. That sounds like one of the few books that you can return to time after time and still benefit from reading.

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  10. Warren, it's definitely a book for the keeper shelf. :-)

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  11. Thanks, Susan,
    I love these excerpts and the comments from your readers. My favorite was from Joyce Carol Oates: "Don’t be ashamed of being an idealist, of being romantic and ‘yearning.'" It's hard not to feel very exposed when writing, but your blog just reminded me how many brave souls do it everyday.

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  12. Olivia, it is a rather soul-exposing thing we do, isn't it? But I'm so glad we all do it (despite how sensitive we are and how scary it can feel). I can't imagine a world without books. So hooray for whatever courage it takes to tell the stories we need to tell. :-)

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  13. This sounds like a great book, and I love the advice of Lee Abbott, " don't write drunk or stoned", I love that that's not a given, or maybe not based on some books I've seen...ha ha. What most writers keep saying and I love is that you have to keep reading.
    Wonderful post Susan, and now I'm intrigued about these Hello Kitty PJs you speak of!!

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  14. Thanks, Anita! As for the Hello Kitty jammie pants...they're just really comfy, and I like to think I write faster when I wear them. ;-)

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  15. Oh, my, I LOVE this! And I must find that book!

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  16. Judy, it's definitely worth finding! :-)

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  17. I LOVE these!! Thank you so much, Susan. I think I need to get this book ...
    xo

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  18. Ellen, you're so welcome! It was fun to revisit my favorite snippets from LETTERS and realize good advice never goes out of style. ;-)

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  19. Susan, thanks so much for posting this. I've ordered the book.

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  20. Literary Marie, that's great! Enjoy it! :-)

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  21. Just loved this post! I was thinking of making sticky notes of some of these for my computer. Where to start?????

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  22. Yay! So happy you liked it, too, Saralee! I know, there are just so many great tidbits in LETTERS, I hardly knew what to post!

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  23. I liked the quote about being a reader and writing a fan letter. I'd like to write a fan letter.

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