Writing Advice

I detest giving advice. No, that’s not a strong enough sentiment. I hate giving advice, so I generally avoid giving it unless someone forces my hand. Advice pretends to be universal, though it really isn’t. Our situations are particular, complex, and fraught, and advice rares brushes the surface of this complexity. Advice pretends to be applicable to everyone while knowing it never is. I’m leery of people who willingly offer up advice, especially unsolicited advice. I didn’t ask I want to say, but never do. I often wonder what those who spout advice envision human experiences to be, and I figure what they envision looks remarkably similar to their lives. Something worked for them, so it must work for us? Their certainty makes me twitchy. I usually look for an exit.

It is hard for us to imagine the lives of others, their circumstances, their situations, and their constraints because often we aren’t aware of our own. How do we get outside of our own heads long enough to grapple with someone else’s reality? (Can we?) This is why I hate giving advice because of the needed particularity. I understand fully that life is hard, but what if I can’t imagine the particularity of that hard for you? I know there are others who can’t quite imagine why a task takes Herculean effort for me and barely any from them. What advice can I offer you without knowing more about your situation? Some of the most common advice that I’ve received proved to not work for me, and I beat myself up about it for awhile. I tend not to now. Advice is cheap; lots of people clamor to offer it up. This is why I hesitate and pause and usually fumble the question when someone asks me for advice. This is also why I tend to be searingly honest about my own situation. I provide the context for what I end up saying, even then, I still hate giving advice.

Three weeks ago, I did a reading in front of audience of mostly undergraduates. This was my first reading, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I made it through the last paragraph of my essay and choked up. This essay is one of the personal and vulnerable that I’ve every written. I read and reread it aloud because some of the paragraphs were hard for me to get through without tears. I made it through, but the last few lines hit hard. I took a gulp of bottled water and another, cleared my throat, and waited for questions. The undergrads were hesitant, but they started asking questions, good ones about craft, research, process, and audience. The last question of evening came from my friend, Richard, who asked what kind of advice I would have liked to heard as an undergraduate about being a writer. The question, one I should have seen coming, threw me.

I paused to gather my thoughts and then offered up the first thing that came to mind: “I never imagined I could be a writer.”

What I realized as I rambled through my answer was that no one even suggested I could be a writer while I was an undergraduate. At the community college I attended before I headed off to the university, professors assured me that I would make a good teacher, not professor, or nurse, not a doctor. I worked for the campus newspaper and later became the editor, but no one thought to mention that I could be a writer. Maybe, they assumed I would figure it. Maybe, they didn’t. This was rural, northern Florida. Writing didn’t seem like a practical career choice. When the newspaper hosted a writer from a nearby town, he was a man who thought he was funnier and smarter than he actually was. I left his talk wondering if all writers were assholes. He was not an example I wanted to emulate. Professors explained that my writing was good, but I had a keen sense it was somehow not good enough. (One professor, however, encouraged me to write more and keep writing. I’m forever grateful to him.) I was smart, but the creative life didn’t appear as an option. No one was encouraging a working class, white girl from a trailer park to pursue writing as a dream or a career. That opportunity seemed to closed to me, so why waste time pursuing it? And I didn’t. I took the long way back to writing.

All of this came out of me in a rush of words. The undergrads looked at me, and I looked back at them. They blinked. I did too.

I hadn’t given them a real answer to the question. Instead, I was making my way to an answer. I smiled brightly and apologized for rambling. “What I meant to say is I needed to hear, more than anything else, that my voice was enough.” Wanting to write was enough to be a writer. At 18, 19, or 20, I wished someone took the time to tell me that my perspective was unique. That the only person who could write like me was me. That I shouldn’t try to be someone I wasn’t. That background, the place where I landed, made me who I was. That this place that birthed me might not be New York City or San Francisco or Boston and that was okay. That this place, that no one had ever heard of, created me and pushed me to be a writer. That I shouldn’t try to be someone I wasn’t. That I could emulate other people’s writing styles on the way to finding my own. That there was something about my voice that needed to be heard. That writing would give me the chance to speak and be heard. That my voice mattered. That my writing mattered to me and that was enough.

I wish someone had told me to trust myself and my writing, so I wanted them to trust themselves and write how, when, and what they want. Also, I explained that you can’t run from who you are or where you are from. I tried running away more than once. And yet, I was standing in front of them reading an essay about my hometown. I moved away (ran away) 15 years ago, but here I was reckoning with my roots in public. How unseemly and delightful and indicative of what I write. Running away never quite works the way we hope it would. I was standing before them as evidence of this fact.

Own your story and the places that made you. And write what feels the most authentic to you. These undergrads might have gotten more than they bargained for, but I wanted them to hear someone say that what they write matters. And that they matter as writers.

Here’s what else I wish I had said to them: Write because you want to write. Just wanting to is enough. Write because what you write matters. Remember that always, especially because there are plenty of jerks in this world who will tell you otherwise. Write because you want to speak. Write because you want to be heard. Write because anyone can be a writer.

You just have to write and keep writing.

P.S. Don’t let anyone tell you how to write either. Writers write when they can. Figure out what works for you. And you don’t have to write every day (Daniel José Older beautifully explains why this is nonsense and so does Sarah Boon).

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