Some Advice on Asking for Advice in Writing and in Life
I’ve started and erased the opening to this blog post so many times I think I’ve already written about six posts for the trash bin. My conclusion is that the problem is this is actually a very short piece with a fantastically long explanation. So I’ll start with the very short version and try to rein in the rest.
Writers can’t help asking for advice, but almost always that advice is dangerous if not downright detrimental. And, honestly, that’s true in most of life as well. The only one who can tell you that your writing is “right” or “good” is you. And you’re the only one who knows if you’re living your life correctly too, for that matter.
By saying people should leave most advice lying right where they found it, I realize I’m spitting in the face of most of the Internet and a very large self-help industry. (Except that’s always bothered me. It’s self-help, but someone else wrote it. Which means that really, we’re all very interested in reading how other people helped themselves….) And I won’t lie to you: I’ve sought advice. I seek it every day. Like I said, this issue is complicated. The problem isn’t the seeking, I don’t think, so much as the taking.
In writing, the magic comes not from an author following a scripted list of steps, but in self-discovery. Writing is lonely and terrifying, and there’s always some idiot off in the corner with a drink declaring with a smirk that it’s easy, and you can’t decide if you want to break the glass and rake the broken bit over his jugular or fall to his knees crying and beg to know how, how is it easy? Because it’s frankly hollowing out your very soul.
The real answer, to me, is that the guy with the drink probably isn’t writing, or he’s lying, or he’s writing very shitty stuff. Oh yes, there are moments when the euphoria is high and we feel amazing and victorious. They’re the high points before the pits of despair where we feel like everything we do is garbage and we seriously doubt we will ever be worth more than the ripped up plastic bag hanging in the tree next to the rending plant.
Because that is the point of writing: discovering that pit and hollow in us, and filling it with words until we rise to the top and a story steps out. And, in my humble opinion, that’s one of the best courses of life as well. At least, it’s a good way to get out of a pit if you fall in one, which we all manage to do at least once or twice.
Life and writing both are not tests of how well we follow a set of checklists we can’t see and have to guess at, or checklists we feel in our bones don’t work. Life is not about correcting the wrongs with in us—or, at least, not correcting them by following someone else’s plan. Life is about that struggle, that swing between euphoria and despair. Life is about learning to ride both. About being strong during the dark times and glorious during the good times. There’s a Zen version where you can be centered no matter what, and some find that very enjoyable. Me, I have to confess, I’m kind of a junkie for the roller coaster.
So if you’re reading this and you’re a writer, stop reading the how-to books and taking the how-to classes and reading the how-to blogs. Or keep reading them but stop looking for answers and start looking for the parts that resonate so you can scavenge them and take them back to your cave and assemble your own advice. Read the rules and try them, try them all so you know for sure they work or don’t, or why you hate them, or why you love them. And write. Write and read and write and read every day, and stop hating what you write. Read your favorite book and stop thinking, “I can’t ever write like that,” because of course you can’t. It’s not you. But scavenge there too. Why is that your favorite book? How does it make your soul sing? Take that back to your cave, take whatever you find each time you read. And keep reading and writing and constructing.
If you’re reading this and you’re not a writer, same thing goes. If you’re depressed and sad or angry and lost or any other negative emotion, if you’re feeling alone and like your story, however you’re telling it, is going unheard or grates against the notes of the universe: scavenge. Look at advice and weigh it against your own experience and judgment. Face life as a god that knows all. Ignore those who judge you unless their judgments give you a flicker, a new direction to try. And live. Live, live every day of your life with passion, even if it’s a passion for quiet.
I’m closing with one of my favorite songs by Mumford and Sons, because they’re my go-to music when I can’t see my own road anymore. I’m a lyrics person, and the closing refrain of this one is one of my favorites. Set to the pulsing, soul-stirring music of Mumford and Sons, nothing gets me going more.
So if I have any concrete advice at all, it’s to listen to Mumford and Sons. Or whatever music or sound makes your soul sing. And listen to it a lot.
Love it will not betray you
Dismay or enslave you, it will set you free
Be more like the man you were made to be
(Note from Marie: I can’t seem to embed any kind of video here like on COP, so please follow this link instead)
Sigh No More – Mumford and Sons
Heidi’s latest novel Nowhere Ranch is available now from Loose Id. Kinky cowboys!! Get it here.