Tough love

I sent this tweet out into the world this morning, mostly to get it off my chest.  I didn’t expect to get any reaction at all1, but it hit Favrd and I got no less than 6 direct replies to cheer it.  So I thought I’d throw a little more backstory out there, in case anyone cares2.

See, I have this friend, who really wants to “be” a writer.  I put be in quotes, because he doesn’t really want to do the writing, he just wants to inhabit the state of being that he equates with writerishness.  He’s very earnest and innocent about it though, which makes it hard for me to give him the advice that he truly needs.  And he asks me for a lot of advice.  Which I don’t have a lot of time to give, but have given freely anyway.

This morning I got a rather long email from him3 asking me about such-and-such writing book and whether he should buy it, and it pushed me over my limit with the “nice” advice.  After tweeting my initial reaction, I wrote him a longer but equally profane email version of it just to shake him into reality a little.  The gist of the message being that reading about writing and taking “workshops” about writing and buying that top-of-the-line MacBook Pro and custom writing software aren’t necessary and definitely aren’t going to make you a writer.  You need to Put Words Onto Paper – something he did only rarely at best.  The guy spends so much positive energy on trying to absorb knowledge about the subject versus practicing the craft.  I felt it was time to stop coddling him and push him into the pool.  I finished by saying that if he wanted any more advice from me, that I’d have to see a sample of his writing for me to critique by the end of the week.  Nothing motivates like a tight deadline.

I get the feeling this won’t be the last time I’ll want to write a “Tough Love Writing Tips” guide – so much “writing advice” out there is either clinically dry and laden with pedantry, or excessively touchy-feely Get In Touch With Your Inner Creative Spirit nonsense.  Rarely do I see anything that’s direct and painfully honest, yet also relevant and entertaining and not entirely spirit-crushing.  So I’m considering expanding my email, dressing it up into a full-blown “guide”, and putting it on the site.  Not sure how useful it would be, but it would certainly cut down on the number of advice notes I have to send.

  1. Other than maybe lose a few followers because of my ALL CAPS PROFANITY. Wouldn’t be the first time. Too many sensitive Twitterers, there are.
  2. I know you don’t care. But you’re reading this, aren’t you?
  3. Yes, he knows I am posting all about this. He’s cool with it, and we shared a laugh over it too.
posted 7/8/08 at 11:11am to Slightly Too Long For Twitter, Writing · 5 replies · »

5 replies to “Tough love”

  1. Holden said:

    You did your friend a favor. However, I think the most important thing a writer can do is *read* (not books about writing, but just books in general, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, cereal boxes, whatever). How many “poets” do we know who wouldn’t be able to name the last three books of poets they read, or couldn’t name a single CONTEMPORARY poet, yet spew their little rhyming, flowery vomit all over the place? Clearly, I know enough to annoy me.

    The (very close) second most important thing a writer can do is read.

    In my oh-so-humble-and-typical-of-a-writer opinion, of course.

    Jul 9, 2008 at 10:28am
  2. Holden said:

    I meant the close second to be “write”. No coffee yet. Argh.

    Jul 9, 2008 at 10:29am
  3. Tony said:

    Kristen, you’re absolutely right, and the poetry example really brings the point home. I’m going to mention that at fair length in my expanded “guide”.

    The kinds of writerly books I was particularly excoriating were strictly the how-to and “You Can Do It!!” volumes. Not that they don’t have a place, but you can only read so much of that before you need to dig in and *do*.

    Jul 9, 2008 at 12:28pm
  4. the communicatrix said:

    Do it. Write up the book, that is.

    Or at least do yourself a favor and write up some boilerplate. You will get more, rather than less of these as time rolls on.

    One does not want to discourage, yet one must at some point deliver the bad news that actual writing must be done in order to become a writer.

    Jul 14, 2008 at 6:44pm
  5. Merlin said:

    I mostly agree, except inasmuch as there are two kinds of writing books that I really believe have helped my writing (and then this one _other_ kind of book that hasn’t).

    If you’re talking about Strunk & White or Wm. Zinsser (which I suspect you are not), we’d have to _really_ disagree. Like “let’s get pistols and meet on the courthouse green at dawn”-level disagree. I think these are the owners manuals for a serious writer’s brain.

    Then there’s books like Stephen King’s _On Writing_, Anne Lamott’s _Bird by Bird_, and Natalie Goldberg’s _Writing Down the Bones_. I can absolutely see how a pro writer could look at any of these and scoff, but, in their own way, each offers a mix of encouragement and tough love that amounts to “You can do this; but you REALLY have to try. And it’s hard, weird WORK. Not a jokey reason to buy reading glasses, a Shakespere sweatshirt, and a fountain pen.”

    Then there’s a more general sort of book — and I wouldn’t want to name names — but these are the cotton candy factories that dot the “Writing” section of any book store, and they’re really books for tourists who want to _read_ about being a better writer, rather than actually working on the craft and re-writing until your eyes hurt. It’s aspirational writing pr0n that amounts to a novelization of a Merchant/Ivory movie about typewriters, sensitivity, and people in interesting hats.

    All of this is very subjective, of course, and we all find things that do or don’t work for us. But the part where I think I may agree with you is the bit about *craft*. Studying or reading about anything you want to get better at MUST NEVER be at the expense of actually DOING that thing. That goes for oral sex, jogging, massage therapy, Ms. Pac Man, and — yeah — writing. Anything that requires you to focus your mind and body on something you care about but haven’t mastered. Just gotta _keep doing it_.

    If a book or class does that, it’s useful; if it doesn’t, it’s not. But you also can’t discount the bottom line that a good book can’t help someone who’s not really serious about making the changes needed to turn good advice into _work_.

    Aug 9, 2008 at 5:12pm

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