"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Writing advice, for better or for worse.

There was a Facebook post today from a friend, who passed around a status by a frustrated writer. Frustrated Writer had decided to say "Rules, Schmules, I'm gonna toss thoughts about word count, genre, marketability, and just write my story." Someone else commented on the status, encouraging Frustrated Writer to discard all the rules, storm the Bastille, etc. The punchline here is that the Someone Else commenter is well known as giving a lot of writing advice without ever being published.

On the one hand, this is a cautionary tale about listening to people who don't have the requisite experience to be giving advice. On the other hand...

I believe that Frustrated Writer should just write their story. Don't worry about how long it is or isn't. Don't worry about which bookshelf (or cyber-category) it will fit into. Screw all that. Write the story.

Just don't expect to publish that story.

I remember sitting in quite a few workshops at the Southern California Writer's Conference led by Lynn Gard Price, editorial director for Behler Publications. Lynn's workshops were about the publishing and marketability of books, and were always well attended. Behler publishes non-fiction "personal journeys with socially relevant themes."

A lot of people I meet at the SCWC are writing memoirs. These folks have been through something and want to tell the world about it. Their personal journey is usually socially relevant. They all arrive at Lynn's workshop with hopeful hearts, listening for her to tell them how to query her with their manuscript.

What she gives them is not a hopeless message, but a warning: there are dozens of memoirs out there about addiction, abuse, death, disaster. She tries to be kind. She knows each story is unique to the individual it happened to, but it is not unique to society. Much, much, much of it has been done. Lynn wants to know what makes your story rise above the rest as being the one that Needs To Be Heard.

It seems like there is always a moment in the workshop where I hear the quiet whistle of dreams deflating. What I want to stand up and shout when I get that feeling is, "Write your story anyway! Don't worry about the publishing. You need to write it for you!"

Not all stories will be published, but I think they still need to be told. Memoirs especially need to be written. If you've been through something and emerged on the other side, sometimes you need to write, just to figure out what it all meant to you. Sometimes you find out that you still have some inner work to do. Sometimes you find out that what you thought was barely escaping with your life was actually a huge victory.

Maybe you've got a piece of fiction galloping around your brain that is so outrageous or quirky or out-of-the-box that it only might appeal to ten people on the planet. Perhaps there's an experimental kind of writing that you're itching to try. Neither of these may be sellable.

Write them anyway, without expectation.

Think of it this way: writing the Manuscipt That May Be Buried can only do two things for you. First, you can always learn from every bit of writing you do. Frankly, if each bit of writing does not teach you something, you're missing out on the wonder of the written word. Second, getting this story written clears out the pipes and allows your mind to move on to something that might be marketable.

So this is my advice. Just freakin' write.

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