Bad creative writing advice

When I was pregnant with my son and reading all those books about how best to give birth, how best to put my baby to sleep, or feed him, or name him—it was around that time I started to think more seriously about how crazy-making the barrage of writing advice really is. I admit I read all those pregnancy books with at least some conviction and earnest attention—I had no idea what I was doing!

In fact the best advice I got came from a neighbor whose own children were grown and who stopped by one day—seeing me depressed and frazzled at the store—offering to hold the baby for an hour while I took a shower and dressed. No one knows how to do it. Writing is a process so mysterious and weird and fragile and confusing and specific as to be almost impossible for any writer to fully articulate even to herself.


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For me, the only writing advice that stirs anything meaningful in my guts or brains—advice that opens me up rather than shutting me down—is advice that acknowledges the limits of what we can know about ourselves or our work, that acknowledges even revels in the unknowable, the void. The very first novel I wrote was horrible, as so many first novels are. I put my novel in a box and hid it somewhere. I was wondering that with my very first novel, and then one night I had a dream. At that time, I lived out in the middle of the country.

In the dream, I was walking out of the house toward the barn, and this horse stuck its head out through the top of the barn door. Ed, the talking horse. That was all because of Mr. Created by Grove Atlantic and Electric Literature. Article continues after advertisement. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit your bitching. Your book has a birthday.

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You have to fix bigger things than your writing. But I have giant, chicken-scratch handwriting, and would always end up jotting down thoughts over half a dozen pages and then never really looking at them again.

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I have probably fifty illegible notebooks sitting in desk drawers, and I would easily have filled fifty more had I not been introduced to the most elegant solution by a friend, the author Ashley Cardiff: A sketchpad. This has been my great revelation. Plus, it gives me an excuse to buy fancy mechanical pencils.

It can teach you something that helps you improve your business, it can become a story you pass along to a friend. With a short piece, you never lose sight of the whole because you can read and reread it many times as you work. I make a change and then I read the whole piece to see how it works. I also make a huge effort to commit as much of the book as I can to memory.

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Eternity and recipient of a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Conversation often crystallizes my own thinking far more effectively than solitary reflection.

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But I want the first sentence to set a tone or indicate a theme for that chapter, so I have to start with a clear sense of the meaning of the events that follow, and how I want the reader to feel. Let the play accumulate, as I call it; let it percolate and stew in your mind; and write down any ideas, bits of dialogue, descriptions, words — anything you think you might be able to use.

Many of these things will come to you unconsciously while you are walking home from school, bathing, mowing the lawn; be sure to get them all into your notebook. Conkle , professor emeritus of drama whose plays have been produced on Broadway. I tend to hate the latter experience, though I recognize that it is almost invariably good — a bit like swallowing disagreeable but essential medicine. What words will express it?

What image or idiom will make it clearer?


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Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? I treat writing a lot more like architecture. That would be ridiculous. You may not be able to solve the problem, but turn aside and write something else. Do not stop altogether. For me, writing is a craft that needs constant honing. As a former musician and former speechwriter, I definitely write for the ear.

I listen to music all the time for inspiration and energy. I tend to make playlists as the sound track for writing different books. They serve as snapshots in time. Then I try to rehearse the reply or answer. My friends are great critics of my writing and I always make sure they have read the drafts and galleys and been brutally frank with me about their reactions.

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They know I can take it. As soon as he gets up, he goes to his office and starts writing. He works for an hour or two and then goes to brush his teeth. I have a very similar approach. Only I brush my teeth before I start. This originally appeared on Thought Catalog. Become a member. Sign in. Get started. Do These 27 Things Immediately.