Why I’m going to stop giving out writing advice
I’ve had a huge run of good luck, lately. In the past year, I’ve sold quite a few stories. Because of that, part of me decided that I now have a license to pontificate a little bit. And to some extent, I do. I’m definitely the kind of writer that I would have listened to a few years ago: someone who was a little bit ahead of me in the game and might have a little bit of advice on how to hop to the next level. In fact, I spent ages browsing the blogs of writers just like me, trying to get some sense of how they went about getting to where I wanted to be.
But there are a number of reasons that I just don’t feel honest when I give advice.
I’m not that good – Writers really shouldn’t aspire to be me: a guy who’s sold a few soon-forgotten stories to a few tiny magazines. They should aspire to be Kafka or Kerouac or Borges or Ted Chiang or Gene Wolfe or China Mieville or whoever their favorite author is. I think people do themselves a tremendous disservice when they aim too low. I’m pretty good, but I’m not nearly as good as I want to be. And I’m not as good as you should want to be either.
I don’t remember what I did – Writing is a series of ladders. You go up one ladder and then you forget what it looked like. All you can remember is the ladder you are on. I remember times in my life when I was really cerebral about my writing. I remember times when trying to write every single day was exactly the wrong thing for me. In fact, overambitious productivity goals were for many years a significant impediment to my growth as a writer. The advice that I currently give to people is to listen to themselves and try to develop their own way of doing things. But maybe that’s not the right advice for most people. Maybe most beginners need to learn discipline. Or maybe they need to learn to relax and just write whenever. Maybe they need to set goals, but those goals should be small and achievable. I don’t know.
I don’t remember what I am doing – Honestly, most of my writing proceeds as kind of a blur. If you were to point to a specific story, I’d only have a vague idea of how I thought it up or what steps I went through in revising it. I promote the myth that most of my stories spontaneously cohere from free-writing exercises, but, in reality, I think that well over half of my stories occur to me as ideas (often while I’m driving) that I then sit down and pursue in a fairly ordinary way. I didn’t even realize that I wasn’t a genius of spontaneous story generation until I actually sat down and thought about the roots of most of the stories I’ve sold.
I don’t know what I’m going to do – It’s entirely possible that I’m doing all kinds of things wrong! The way I write is fast, thoughtless, and involves a quasi-mystical communion with my subconscious. A lot of writers seem to get a lot of mileage out of writing slowly and carefully. It’s likely that I will someday (maybe soon) hit a plateau and have to change the way that I write. In fact, my writing process has changed a lot over the last year. If you’d asked for my advice just a year ago, it might have been very different. Thus, it seems a little disingenuous to hand out advice that might not even be working for me.
It feels unfair to you – I get rejected all the time. Like…every third day, I get a rejection. I just started sending out a story that I think is literally the best story I’ve ever written: a story that I was sure was going to get reprinted in Year’s Bests and nominated for awards. It got rejected. Twice. And that’s okay. But sometimes I feel like I compensate for that sort of rejection by going out and pontificating to people who’ve had slightly less visible success. And that’s dumb. I’m a better writer than most aspirants, but I’m not necessarily a better writer than you. There’s no reason why you should be have to listen to what is mostly a ritual of preening that serves what I find to be kind of an ugly psychological need in myself. Sometimes good things can result from bad motives, but I think that bad motives often have a tendency to poison the results. It’s possible that I’m giving out helpful advice, but given that my motive is to make myself feel important and not to necessarily help other people, I think it’s also possible that my advice might be making people feel bad rather than actually helping them.
So yes, I apologize to anyone and everyone that I’ve given writing advice to, particularly if that advice was in any way unsolicited and/or unhelpful. I’m still going to keep writing about my writing process and the ways that it’s evolving and the things I am doing to try to become a better writer, but I am going to try to steer clear from any implication that this is stuff that you should consider doing.