When you’re a writer, you receive a lot of free advice. A good deal of it (most, I’d say) comes from people who do not write. I’ve been told I have to learn Latin (which I have nothing against, but don’t consider a requirement), read Proust (again, nothing against Proust, but it’s not a requirement), don’t quit my day job, do quit my day job, read Bridget Jones’s Diary because I might learn something (dispensed from a man in the grocery store to whom I used to sell bread – and for the record, nothing against BJD but …), write a mystery, write a fantasy, write YA, write an Oprah book (I’m working on it, believe me), write a best seller (ditto), write short stories for Playboy, Esquire, and The New Yorker (I haven’t even tried).
I could go on with this. A plethora of free advice was dispensed to me from complete strangers early in my career, a great deal of it before my first novel was published and a great deal of it before my second novel was published, in that sort of twilight space in which I’d proven I could write, but had not yet proven I could write again.
The free advice used to infuriate me. So much of it felt incredibly distant from the life I lived, and even from the life I was trying to build. Well, I’ve built that life now, and it’s far better and richer than the one I imagined, and the free advice has fallen off. It seems I might have some of my own ideas on how to go about being a writer.
So, here is my free advice to writers, for what it’s worth. Like all free advice, it’s suspect.
Write. Write all the time, even when it is not a project for publication. Write badly. Write just because. Don’t listen to advice from strangers. They are all strangers. Know yourself. Know your work. Know your characters. Listen only to the invisible people in the room. Don’t try to sound smart. Prove nothing to nobody. Make some friends – real friends who are willing to listen to your fears, (although you will not be calling it fear at the time) without judgement. Have friends who can hold up a mirror to show you just how fierce you really are. Grow fangs and claws and wear your heart on your sleeve. Dumb down so that everything is new. Be an expert in nothing. Always begin. Appreciate tree frogs, and rescue them when they get caught between the shutters and the wall. Take walks in the dark. Give money away. Let your stories breathe without publication. Let them breathe with publication. Love senselessly and enthusiastically. Write down everything that crazy fucker at the laundromat said to you. Describe hands. Watch bracelets jangle down wrists as wine glasses are hoisted. Look into people’s eyes. Don’t look into people’s eyes. Visit with snails. Visit the dead. Stand with one hand on the tombstone of the infant daughter and the other on the tombstone of her parents and feel the current. Turn off the TV. Don’t listen to the news. Pay your bills. Live cheap. Work a job that has nothing to do with art. Drive a car with a lot of bumper stickers on it that contradict each other. Have an identity crisis. Quit and start again.