Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Thinking About Advice

Sometimes when I’m writing a story I start imagining a writing professor teaching the story. The writing professor is very nice to my story. She makes all my failings seem like genius. “See what he’s doing here,” she says. “This whole story is really about destabilizing our sense of narrative. The aunt’s seemingly cliché character traits are deft commentary on the modernist tradition. See?”

I mock the excuse-making writing professor. But at least she’s nice. At least she’s not the mean, flat-topped bully who tells me what I need to do is throw the damn story away and go take a shower. Because, you see, I stink.

There is a debate as to whether writing can be taught. I’ve always found the discussion a bit odd. Sure, a tiny proportion of people in the world can write masterpieces without ever studying narrative structure or learning the principle of show-don’t-tell (and all its caveats). But most of us awaken to this world in, at best, a state of mediocrity. We need to be taught. To be shown. What talent we have needs to be found and shaped. There may be no rules to writing, but there is definitely good advice.

And yet…

The greatest lesson for any writer has little to do with the words on the page. The greatest lesson is to ignore those interior voices. The writing professor. The bully. The tanked-up partygirl who thinks it’d be fun to just go drinking. The bowtied loudmouth who reminds you that there is an argument happening on the Internet and your opinion is needed.

All of these fine folk are fools. Their opinions are worthless. The only way to ever create a decent story/novel/article/etc. is to stay in the chair until it is done and then remain in the chair until it is revised and revised and revised.

Of all the lessons I’ve learned from my mentors, the most consistently valuable is to stay in the chair. And to stay true to myself and not the voices. Failure will still happen. But it won’t be guaranteed. And in this business, that’s actually a pretty big step.