Sunday, June 2, 2013

Pompous, Heavy-Handed Writing Advice: Not Just for Poets Anymore

My go-to activity to distract myself from actually writing is to read online advice about writing. Since I’ve been in short-fiction writing mode lately, that’s what I’ve been reading about. I used to read advice about writing poetry, and spent a lot of time rolling my eyes at the pretentious, off-putting, and downright alarming “advice” that poets like to give other poets—most of which seems to boil down to, “You are an utter and profound failure, and nothing you write will ever live up to the form, no matter how many MFA programs you struggle through. Don’t even try. But if you must try, you are obligated to feel constant shame at your imperfection.” 

Somehow, I naively believed that fiction writing advice-givers wouldn’t have the same sense of pomposity, self-importance, and cranky ire towards anyone else who writes but themselves--but I was wrong. They’re just as bad, even worse in some ways because at least poets have, however flimsy, some justifiable conceit that what they are doing is Serious and Important. Fiction writers are just making up stories. No matter how thematically profound, in the end, you just make up a tall tale and put it down on paper, presumably with the hopes that it's interesting enough to keep a reader’s eyes on it until the end. That’s not any more important than anything anyone else does. It isn’t less important, either, but it’s certainly not profound enough for us to go around cloaking ourselves in a mantle of vainglorious pretension,  thinking that we’re providing some life-saving, world-changing service to humanity, and charging head-first into internet flame wars over minor points of style. 

Here are some of the testier snippets I found when surfing for advice on fiction writing:

Never attempt present tense! 

There seems to be global horror of the present tense among writers, which I don’t understand, as I love reading stories written in the present tense, and in fact, prefer writing in present tense.

Trust me, your story will not be “the one” to give you your big break. 

Huffy, aren’t we? Why assume every other writer is after a “big break”? 

I only care about the best, and the best in literature always trumps the best in popular fiction. 

You, sir, are wrong. The divide between popular fiction and “literature” doesn’t really exist. You can, for example, poo-poo Sophia Kinsella’s Shopaholic series all you want, but she  is masterful at tight plotting, and she’s a very disciplined writer. She writes funny, page-turning novels with complex plots that wrap up beautifully just as you’re about to lose all hope, and that is a skill I would love to learn. 

Poems in works of fiction are annoying and I almost always ignore them.

People who ignore important parts of a story because they’re prejudiced against poetry are annoying, and I almost always ignore them.

You should never write for pleasure. You should write only because you want to disturb humanity to its core.

Whatever you do, never write to entertain. Buy yourself a mirror, hold it up to Humanity, and shout “Booga booga booga!!!” They will fall over in sobbing despair when confronted with their abominable nature, and wail, “She was right. We should have listened. We’ll be different now, we promise!” Bam! You did it.

Know that you will eventually have to leave everything behind; the writing will demand it of you. Bareboned, you are on the path with no markers, only the skulls of those who never made it back – over and over again. 

Lay off the scare tactics, Natalie Goldman. Some of us need our day jobs. (I love Natalie, but this a bit much.)

I detest semicolons. I don't think they belong in a story. I gave up quotation marks long ago. I found I didn't need them, they were fly-specks on the page. If you're doing it right, the reader will know who's talking.

I’m impressed at your amazing skill with dialogue, and thrilled that your writing is so good that the conventions of punctuation don’t apply to you.

Yikes. As a palate-cleanser, here is some of the more generous-hearted advice I have found:

Don’t think of literary form. Let it get out as it wants to. The form will develop in the telling. Don’t make the telling follow the form.—John Stienbeck

If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don't just stick there scowling at the problem. But don't make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people's words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.--Hilary Mantel

Beware of writers who tell you how hard they work. Writing is indeed often dark and lonely, but no one really has to do it. Yes, writing can be complicated, exhausting, isolating, abstracting, boring, dulling, briefly exhilarating; it can be made to be grueling and demoralizing. And occasionally it can produce rewards. But it's never as hard as, say, piloting an L-1011 into O'Hare on a snowy night in January, or doing brain surgery when you have to stand up for 10 hours straight, and once you start you can't just stop. If you're a writer, you can stop anywhere, any time, and no one will care or ever know. --Richard Ford

--Kristen McHenry


Steven Cain said...

Seriously. I just got done reading a book on writing... 'Bird by Bird'. It was an accident, I swear. The pretensiousness doesn't bother me nearly as much as these published teachers need to interject all their witty little ideas..."Maybe your character is feeding grapes to a sabertooth tiger atop the empire state building." Ugh.

Kristen McHenry said...

Steven--I know, sometimes it can get pretty ridiculous. I'm glad I'm not the only one who finds those sort of "suggestions" annoying.