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Best Writing Advice We've Ever Gotten

Last week, we posted the worst. Now here's some of the best! - Anne and Ellen

Ellen Potter

1. Some of the best writing advice I’ve heard came from a friend of mine who is a New York City Police Officer. Although he’s seen plenty of crazy situations, and has stared down the wrong end of a gun more than once, when people ask him what it’s like to be a cop, he usually shrugs and says, “Eh. It’s just a job.”

 I like that. I think that’s a healthy way to look at being a writer too. It’s easy to make a fetish out of writing (i.e., “I can only write after I light 12 patchouli-scented candles and have a chiropractic adjustment.” Or, more commonly, “I can only write when I feel inspired.”). Writing is just a job. A challenging, glorious, gut-wrenching job, but a job nonetheless. You don’t need to be a Sensitive Genius in order to be a writer. In fact, it’s probably better if you aren’t. You just need to be insanely persistent. You need to show up for work every day, even if you sometimes feel like you are staring down the wrong end of a gun.

2. Another great piece of writing advice came from Oscar. Oscar is a horse. I was taking riding lessons when I met Oscar. I am a fairly crummy rider. Oscar loved to take advantage of crummy riders. He knew he had a sucker on his back the moment I climbed on. He bolted then stopped short. I stayed on, but barely. That was just the beginning. He had all sorts of tricks designed to unnerve me. After five minutes of this, I told my instructor that I wanted to get off. Oscar had won, fair and square. But my instructor said, “If you get off now, you’ll always be intimidated by horses like Oscar. Imagine you have Velcro on your butt. Just stay put. ” After assuring me that Oscar was not going to kill me, I agreed to try again.  I imagined the Velcro. I stayed put. And after a while Oscar grew bored of his own shenanigans and began to play nice.

 Okay, the writing connection is this: When you feel completely stuck in your writing, when every cell in your body is telling you to give up, stay put. Don’t let it intimidate you. If you shy away this time, and tell yourself that you just don’t have the skills, talent, brains, or whatever, you are setting yourself up to admit defeat every time you hit a rough patch. Imagine that Velcro on your butt. And your butt on the seat. And Oscar . . . I mean your writing . . . will eventually settle down and begin to play nice.

Anne Mazer

 I wish I could say that my best writing advice came from a beloved teacher or mentor or friend. But oddly enough, it came from people with whom, to put it politely, I had very, very complicated relationships. Maybe their words sank in because I was always arguing with them in my head. Or maybe I disagreed with them so frequently, that the good advice really stood out. Who knows? Frankly, I have to grit my teeth to acknowledge that these people gave me good advice. No, not just good advice, it was great advice. Maybe even the best advice I ever got. Grrrrr….. 

1. “You never know what you can do. Don’t give up.” Never mind that the person who gave me this advice was always telling me what I couldn’t do. They were right on the mark with this little gem. It whistled into my ears, oozed into my bloodstream, and started circulating wildly in my brain. Every time I’ve ever gotten discouraged (which is a lot), I’ve thought of it. It gives me hope. And it’s true: no one, not even you, can predict what you might do next. You may have just written the worst chapter in the history of literature, but tomorrow, you could surprise everyone, including yourself, by writing something pretty darn decent. You’ll never know if you storm away from your story in a snit. There are surprises around every corner. Would you really want to miss out on one by quitting too soon?

2. "You’re a misfit in an office.”  When Person B delivered these words, I knew the game was up. For five years, I’d been working to perfect the role of secretary/administrative assistant. I had the suit, the make-up, the heels, and the hair. (Hard to believe for anyone who knows me now.) Not only that, but I had somehow learned to type, could scrawl a bit of shorthand, and was almost competent at taking phone messages. I was faking a lot of my job, and getting away with it, too. People were paying me a generous salary, and I hadn’t been fired yet. But Person B saw right through me; he knew I didn’t belong there. I could have gotten mad at his words, and maybe I did, a little. But then I surprised myself. (See Advice #1, above.)  The next words out of my mouth were: “I’ve always wanted to be a writer.”                  

And then I became one.  

I learned something invaluable that day. It’s okay to be yourself. In fact, it’s essential to be yourself. Don’t try to fake it, like I did, and turn yourself into someone who you aren’t. That’s a waste of your life. (Of course, we all have to do things we don’t like from time to time, but that’s different than trying to force yourself into a role that doesn’t suit you.)  Although I had limped along as a secretary for years (I have only pity for the people I worked for), when I became a writer, new and unexpected strengths appeared. Suddenly I was organized, committed and determined. I discovered that I could work hard and love it, that I could persist through failure, and that I could find my voice.

This advice also applies to writing itself. Don’t try to make yourself into Neil Gaiman, or Suzanne Collins, or Tamora Pierce, for example. They are wonderful writers and will inspire you. Read them, learn from them, but then find out who you are, as a person and a writer. It will take a lifetime, but I promise you won’t regret it.