I have to give a speech this weekend to a group of young and aspiring writers. I was told they'd want to hear about my process, and about the writing life, both personally and professionally; I was told they wanted advice. I quickly drew a blank. Advice? For writers? Isn't anything I might say hopelessly subjective? There is good advice out there, some really wise books about the subject. But I think the truth is that even if you hear these smart and reasoned pointers, you still have to stumble and flail your way to your own wisdom before the words of others make a useful, deep kind of sense. As I stared at my blank document, all I could think about were those newspaper romance columns. Advice for the lovelorn. I got sidetracked. I started to think of what I might say if I were Miss Lonely Hearts. This is what I came up with.
1. Love should bother you.
2. If someone asks you where your favorite place in the world is, you will answer Tahiti or New Zealand or Jones Beach, but you will really be picturing your lover's body.
3. You will never know your partner.
4. You should never know your partner.
5. You will never know how things will end up.
6. You should never know how things will end up.
7. But if you get to the place where things do end, your level of surprise and emotional distress should be tempered by your sense that you could not have ended up any place else.
8. Every day you will have to recreate your love.
9. It will get better with age.
10. Don't panic.
I don't think I can show up at my speaking engagement and deliver love advice and still get paid. But I do think I can extrapolate:
1. Your work will bother you. It will follow you around like an annoying little brother, pinching you every so often, even when you want to be doing other things with other people. When you hit on an idea that feels rich to you, it will not leave you alone. And when you try to attack the idea with words on paper, and when you fail again and again, and swear that you are ready to put the idea away, that it just doesn't work, you will find yourself lying in bed at night still thinking about it. If the idea is meaningful enough to you on some very visceral and emotional level, you will have to do battle with it until you make a narrative out of it.
2. Your work will feel like a wonderful place you can go. It will feel like a place you have to go. It might feel like the only place in the world where you can really explore and express every hidden, beautiful, ugly part of you. It will be your home ground.
3. People will ask you what your work means and you will try to explain it to them, but you won't really be able to explain it even if it sounds like you are saying something intelligent.
4. You should not be able to explain it. There should always be something ineffable and mysterious about it, even for you. If you've got all the answers, your work will not soar.
5. If you write with a narrative goal in mind, or if you write trying to shoehorn themes and big ideas into your work, it will become leaden and sink.
6. The only way to write fiction that will take someone else by surprise is to let your work take you by surprise too. Get lost. Be scared. Have no idea where you're headed. All those wrong directions are really right directions because they get you where you want to go.
7. You'll know you're at the end when you write something utterly unexpected and surprising to you, and then, when you try to write past it, you can't. You'll realize that without saying what you thought you were going to say, you've said it.
8.. Fiction is a living thing. Each day, you have to recreate not only the work, but who you are as a writer. You have to ask yourself all over again why you're doing what you're doing, and how you're going to do what you want to do, even if you gave yourself a perfectly good answer the day before. Don't stop making yourself answer that question. It's crucial.
9. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
10. Your work will often look horrible and embarrassing.It will be unoriginal. It will fill you with shame. You will lie down on your bed and think that no one has ever written more awful, ungainly sentences than you. Get up off the bed. Don't panic. Like any kid - your work has to go through its awkward, pimply faced adolescence before it emerges as something another person might want to look at, hold in her hands, take into her heart.
Like all advice, take it or leave it. Even if you reject some or all of it, the process of considering it and tossing it out will get you closer to identifying what writing means for you.
Thanks TEV readers for letting me into your world for the week. I loved reading all your comments and I appreciate the book suggestions. I hand you back to your fearless leader. Cheers!