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Thursday, October 31, 2013

On an advice roll here...

Here is some excellent advice for beginners from the great Ira Glass, illustrated by Zen Pencils artist Gavin Aung Than.

Rainer Maria Rilke similarly suggested you should strive not toward being an expert but to be a beginner. It's a good and hard thought, one that didn't make any sense to me at all until I started writing my first book. A beginner? Yuck! Isn't that the stage you want to get through as quickly as possible? The most embarrassing stage? How much better and less humiliating to be competent!

But competent is a low bar to shoot for, ultimately. Striving to be comfortable with not knowing, with trying harder, with accepting that your taste is beyond your current effort -- so hard. So crushingly hard. And yet -- so necessary if you're going to make anything really interesting.

I wish I had thought about things this way when I was younger. Not because I would now be happier now had I stuck with what I was bad at and somehow become despite early lack of promise an excellent volleyball player or piano player or ballet dancer or algebra... doer (?) but because I could have saved myself from some nasty self-comments and harsh self-judgment along the way, and maybe had some more fun with those things.

And also, I might have recognized that while I was making up all those stories that got praised by others but that I found... lacking... that I was on to something. Those early efforts did show promise -- and they were lacking. Both.

Sticking with it, working harder, not accepting easy praise or settling for good enough -- that was what was important. Maybe if I had recognized that the work I was doing was the work I needed to do, I might not have seemed in my own mind's eye so weird and wastrelly for quitting my job to sit in my parent's downstairs den for a full year of writing and rewriting and throwing away and starting over and rewriting my first book. I knew on some level that what I was doing was putting in the work. I knew I was teaching myself how to do it, training myself like a golfer (or baseball player, or jazz musician) works on swing. I knew, but I still kept asking myself what the heck I was doing with myself -- 22 years old, 23, no job, making stuff up. Tick, tock, time was marching on. What was my plan?

I like how Ira Glass puts it, here -- the simplicity and dignity of his formulation. You have good taste. Now you have to work long and hard to make stuff you will think is good.

Actually, I still have to remind myself of that almost every day. 20+ years and 30+ books into this writing life, most of what I am doing is flailing my way toward my idea of the stories should be, not quite getting there, starting again. Revising. Beginning. Putting in the work.

How about you?

Rachel Vail

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Another good bit of advice

Today's good writing advice is from Robert Frost: 

Like a piece of ice on a hot stove 
the poem must ride on its own melting.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

How to write

I saw this lovely bit of writing advice from Ricky Gervais. 

Watch it first and then see if you agree with me here.

My favorite parts, which prove that it's not just about write what you know but rather notice the details and tell them true, are these moments: when he holds up a heart-shaped paperweight and says, "This isn't my desk, by the way"; the twist that at 13 he wrote this piece to stick it to his teacher by making it as deeply boring as he could; and when he says the old lady's home smelled "of tea, and lavender, and mold". How much do you learn about him and the way he sees the world just because he picks up that paperweight and laghing, says those 7 words? And about his character as a 13 year old wise-guy kid, from that goal of his? Especially combined with his comeuppance and his declaration of how proud he was to have failed at his goal but succeeded at something deeper? And finally -- wow -- can't you just SMELL that old lady's home? Those 3 smells combined in his 13-year-old wise-guy kid's nose? Tea, and lavender, and mold. It's not a cliche. You never heard somebody's home described like that and he didn't need to tell you square footage or socio-economic situation or what color was the wallpaper. He got right to who that lady was, and how he looked at her, his whole experience sitting there bored and miserable. He deserved that A. As he later says, "being honest is what counts. Trying to make the ordinary extraordinary..." So it's not just "write what you know" but rather: get to the honest stuff, the truth (and the best way there is through the weird true details you notice or invent, and then invest with attention) -- that's what makes good writing.

Also a twist is good, whether in a story or a martini.

And hooray for excellent teachers, who push us to do better than we think we can.

Rachel Vail