The very first advice I ever received about writing was from my father. I’m pretty sure he’d heard or read them somewhere.He was an aspiring writer in the late ’70’s, and I think I was probably ten or eleven years old, probably more interested in drawing princesses and reading Little House on The Prairie than writing a story of my own. It’s taken years to really get a handle on what that advice meant and stopped blocking me from writing anything at all.
“If you only write one sentence, make sure it’s something true.” For years, I naively believed that this meant it had to be autobiographical. Who wanted to read about a kid from a working class neighborhood in Queens, NY who hadn’t done anything yet? I was pretty sure no one cared about my Girl Scout badges or how much I hated math. It took years before I realized that what he meant was that the story, while fiction, needed to feel and read true.
“Write about what you know.” This one was equally daunting. I read to escape the neighborhood I grew up in. I felt more comfortable with the March sisters than I did with the kids on my street. My mind reeled; how could anyone write any stories about fairies, unicorns and the rest of the enchanted forest folks if we were limited to writing about what we knew? I didn’t like what I knew. Here’s the thing, though. People, whether they are tiny with sparkly wings or riding to work on the subway every morning, are people. Life, be it on a city street or on an alien planet, is life. The struggles are the same. So, write about those things, and you’re writing about what you know.
“Every day, make sure you sit down and write for one hour. No more, no less.” This, I understood. As a kid, I could sit and do anything for HOURS at a time, so being creative for an hour was hardly a challenge. There are days as an adult where I have carved out ample time to write and manage to squeeze out an hour’s worth of work in an eight hour period. Somehow, I know that this kind of non-efficiency is NOT what Dad was talking about. Quite the opposite, in fact. Limiting writing time to an hour encourages the discipline of sitting down to write at all, and goodness knows there are days where I don’t even look at my work in progress. Setting an hour for writing aside also forces an economical use of time. Get as far as you can and then stop. If you think about it, most people can do just about anything for an hour. If you’ve waited on a long, long line at a theme park, you know what I mean.
Dad never published any of his stories. I believe he sold one or two, but the editorial process was too much for him to take. The lesson I learned there was later confirmed by my favorite writing professor, Stephen King. (I never met Mr. King, but his book On Writing, is as close to a formal class on the subject as I’ve ever taken) He said, and I paraphrase, that a writer needs to be ruthless with their precious works of fiction and be willing to tear them to pieces, editorially speaking. That process, with the right guidance, can create something really worth reading. No pain, no gain doesn’t just apply to excruciating workouts. Anything worth having comes with some amount of struggle, sacrifice and pain. So, in this, my father gave his advice by example. Not checking ego at the door equals not getting published, especially in the beginning.
What gems of advice about writing have you received? I’d love to hear about them. 🙂