This summer someone I’ve known for a long time said she wanted to talk to me. This made me nervous, but it turned out she had “been writing” and wanted to know if I had any advice.
I did, but almost none of it was mine.
I told her that I was continually reassured by two things Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird. She says that she keeps a small frame on her desk and reminds herself to just write what’s in the frame. In other words, a big project can be overwhelming, but if you concentrate on describing a small scene, what’s in the frame, that can be done. Alex Haley, who wrote Roots, said that he never thought he could do a novel, but he knew that he could do a page a day. And, E.L. Doctorow points out that “writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Doctorow also said, “Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.” There’s no getting around it. Writers write. But one key to doing that writing, I believe, is the second point Lamont makes. She says the key is shitty first drafts. Don’t worry whether it’s good or not. Just get something down and then you can revise (and revise and revise and sometimes revise a work all the way into the wastebasket, and that’s useful too). The artist Lynda Barry says the two crippling questions for an artist are: Is it any good? and Will people like me? You have to ignore these.
One thing about advice is that it’s easy to find two writers who contradict. One might say you have to write in the morning, and another will insist on night-time. Some will say draft by pen and others will insist that a computer is the key. Each of us finds our own way, but when we seek advice, we can't simply be looking for something that confirms our practices and beliefs.
Samuel Johnson said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” and he’s frequently quoted by those who insist on getting a contract or an agent before writing a word. This may be good advice, but it depends on why you’re writing. For those of us who write poetry, it’s irrelevant. A woman once asked me how she too could become a “professional” poet, and I explained that I didn’t know any. No poet I know makes enough to pay their coffee bills let alone a mortgage. But that’s not why we write. Nor, initially, do I have a sense of audience.
Consequently my advice is different than Johnson’s. I’m of the “write-for-yourself-first” camp. Don't worry about whether it will sell, or what might be popular, or what people might want, or if it's the same or different than other works. Write it, and it will be what it is. But, the caveat, of course, is don’t be upset or surprised if other people don’t respond to it; after all you wrote it for yourself.
So, at a certain point, a writer wants and needs to see what readers think and to get feedback. Although you shouldn’t pass around work for critique too soon, once you have a solid draft, and you legitimately want responses, then it’s valuable. However, I’ve found that writing groups are useful primarily - not because of the feedback - but because of the sense of community and accountability. They reassure you that what you’re doing is important and legitimate, and they provide you with deadlines and a sense of audience. Unless I have a deadline, even if it’s self-imposed, I tend not to produce anything, or, at least, not complete it.
When you do get feedback, take what you consider helpful, and revise. Then revise again.
How much of this advice is useful? I don’t know. Probably very little. I can give specific tips on craft, techniques, and mechanics. If you ask for help on openings, titles, metaphors, etc., I have plenty to say. But with this kind of general discussion, I struggle. I once wrote a poem about these interactions that appeared in my collection Love and Other Collisions. It’s still contains the only actual advice that I have.
On Finding Something To Say After a Reading
She stops me at the door to ask if I have any advice
for a young poet, and, for once, before I say something
flip or trite, I ask, “For you?” She nods, and I realize
she probably has been waiting all night to approach.
I try to think what might be useful, something beyond
the usual -- “read,” “write,” “listen.” If she isn’t doing
these, telling her won’t help. What about a koan?
Write what the river says to the trees. Write what
hasn’t been written and must be. But I’m no monk.
I could shrug, insist, “No, I don’t,” but she’s waited
too long now. Then I remember how before a game
my coach would say, “Run your ass off. Ignore
the scoreboard and bleachers. And damnit, have fun.”
It reassured us then. Maybe it’s enough for her now.