Friday, February 8, 2013

Five of the Dumbest Things I’ve Heard about Writing (More than Once)

The world is full of advice and opinions, and most times it is more contextual than it is “bad or good.” One thing I’ve learned about suggestions is they often need to be dissected before they can be utilized properly.

That all being said, there are few things that can be considered unequivocally wrong. That does not mean, however, that there aren’t many I find stupid.

1. “When I read terrible writing, it makes me not want to write anymore.”

I can understand this, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

See, the only real reason why an author (or any artist) would be discouraged after witnessing work horrifically made would be the similarity with his own. Having spent my time in creative writing classes and on the internet, I’ve read a lot of “bad” stuff, and I have to say, when I think I can do better, I’m thrilled that it’s bad.

When you start to outgrow the “basic mistakes” phase, and more to the point, become aware of your own improvement, any acknowledgement of that improvement is great. From a purely egotistical point of view, reading bad work should only build up your confidence, unless, that is, you can’t tell the difference between yours and Aurora Dawn 969’s.

Logistically, for those of you who aren’t hypercompetitive and don’t just thrive by constant praise, nothing improves writing like reading really, really awful stuff.

Sure the advice is usually to stick your nose in a Chekov for a few hours, and there is some benefit to that, but there are issues with quality of writing that makes learning from hacks easier than learning from masters. For one thing, the main difference between a master and a hack is the master is able to hide his hackery. When looking into a great book, we’ll see superficial points—isn’t Aragorn cool?!—but the reader will be too engrossed in the story by beautiful words and subplots/points to see that that’s really what the author is saying. Essentially a fantastic scene is extremely complex with the mistakes and motivations well hidden and compensated for, where a terrible scene is usually pretty simplistic and obvious.

It’s like trying to learn from a handsome, rich, and charismatic man how to pick up women versus one of those socially inept line-slingers you see in movies. Though both can teach you something, the line-slinger will show active cause and effects, whereas it’s pretty damn hard to tell if the first guy’s success was because of what he said or because he’s hot.

The real reason, however, that I find this statement frustratingly dumb is not because it doesn’t make sense, but because it is usually prefaced by the speaker’s indication that other people shouldn’t be writing. Considering that it’s their fears someone out in the world is thinking the same thing about their writing, it seems to me that we should all just do each other the favor of being concerned with how much work we’re doing and not how much people who are “less talented” than us are.

Lastly, I have spent far too much time in this career having people degrade the concept of “practicing” to really take this statement at face value.

2. “I don’t know why I thought I deserved to do this.”

There’s two ways to look at the world of writing. One, it is a business. This viewpoint helps people better understand pitching, make active decisions, and see scams. Two, it’s a form of self-expression. This viewpoint will direct authors to better understand their work, make active decisions, and see themselves. Really, the greatest success comes from being able to balance these two concepts and knowing when to sacrifice one for the other.

In either of these cases, however, what you “deserve” is irrelevant. If it’s a business, then it’s about what people will buy. They don’t want to purchase your product then that’s your problem.

If it’s a form of self-expression, then you have the right to say what you want, even if it is just what you ate for breakfast. No one wants to read it then that’s their problem. Everyone deserves a right to say what they want to say, whether or not anyone wants to listen, whether it be a discriminated group describing their pain, or a bored housewife describing hers.

We like to think of authoring as coveted work, meant for innate geniuses and talents, where the unworthy plebeians are not allowed to tread. That is true, to some extent, at least when it comes to getting published and read. But just because someone doesn’t want to print or look at your manuscript doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to make it.

Of course, the people I heard saying this were in a fit of despair after receiving some sort of bad review or rejection letter, and so yes, they were being overly dramatic. And they have that right. But it disheartens me to see them to not only take it so hard, but to express a feeling that we all secretly have; we have to deserve the right to try.

In reality, trying to achieve our dreams is an innate part of life, and, if you think about it, the basis for what all American civil rights are oriented around. We have the right to choose our futures, and the opportunity to try is a right, not a privilege.

3. “You’re not writing for the right reasons.”

Mostly this pops up in the middle of a conversation where an author expresses her motivation or goal in writing and someone explains the cause of her problem is due to having that motivation at all.

Try. Go up to a semi-artistic and remotely vocal person and tell him that you want to write a “great book,” and stand back to get an earful.

He will say something along the lines of, “It’s the wrong approach. You want to express yourself, to say something that speaks to you. You want to write for the right reasons.”

You'll find though that every reason is the wrong reason, according to the right person. Not only do the opinions change from each individual, but there are, unfortunately, many who care about the “right and wrong” of artist’s motivations only so far as to discourage others. Writing is a highly competitive field in which we try to find reasons why we are meant to do it over our fellow creators, and one of those things is motivation.

It’d be like one guy saying that he should get the girl because he doesn’t just want to sleep with her. Which, is legitimate, when true. An author who only wants to write to make a whole bunch of money is headed down the wrong path, except—and here’s the thing—an author who only wants to make a whole bunch of money will quit pretty damn quick.

No one writes for one reason and one reason alone. If we write for the fun of it, when the fun runs out, we stop. If we write for the money, when the money doesn't come in, we stop. But, if we write for the fun of it, and we write to finish a book, then we are more likely to go on after that fun runs out. But then we stop. If we write for the fun of it and we write to finish a book and we write to accurately express a vision, we edit. But then we stop. We don’t get published, we don’t go through the pain of submission and query and, yes, even actually being in print, unless we want all those things as well as some sort of money or respect or fans or all of the above.

The only “right” reason to write is the reason that gets things written. Any wrong reasons by themselves will not end productively. And, quite frankly, telling people that it’s unacceptable to write for certain reasons will simply lead to self-delusion. It is important to understand what your goals are and be honest about them because there are a hell of a lot of decisions to be made over the course of your career, and those decisions cannot be made by someone whose pretending not to care about the things that she actually does.

4. “You shouldn’t start writing until you’re 30.”

This is actually the number one piece of writing advice I’d ever gotten. Their spoken logic was that anyone under thirty has no life experience.

The issue is insulting for several reasons, and wrong for several more. One is the attitude in which children (and apparently young adults) have nothing to say, that they don’t understand the world, and that their opinions don’t matter. People have been saying that about each other for centuries, though it could be anywhere from culturally to racially to sexually oriented. Everyone has things to say. And, as I expressed above, they have the right to say them. Most importantly, we can learn a lot from even the most inane childlike drivel, not just literary lessons.

The reason it is wrong is that even if we were pretend for the sake of argument that no one wants to hear about the experiences of anyone 29 and under then let’s take into consideration the concept of practicing. I constantly say practicing is a process  underrated by choice speakers, and this is an example. If someone can’t write anything interesting until he’s thirty, it doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be gaining experience until then.

Writing is the only art form our educational system forces each and every student to work on constantly, and I think some interpret that lack of stagnancy as a correlation of talent and age. A student who stops drawing at ten will draw like a ten-year-old at 30. I believe this is the same for writing, just in this day and age most people stop writing at 18 or 22. How good that person is at 18 or 22 varies, of course, but my point is that, unlike drawing which is much more obvious when we are bad at it, and is something that more people haven’t been forced to take classes in, many people believe that writing improves with age. Perception can, and it can benefit a story, but it’s not the whole of it.

Lastly, I have to say that age is the number one excuse I hear from people. Whether it be “I’m too old,” or “I’m not ready yet,” it’s all about being the wrong age. Why? Because age is an indicator of time. “This is why I can’t do it now.” Well, the fact of the matter is we’re not all going to live forever, and, unfortunately, we don’t know we’re even going to live long. There is never a right time to do something, and we’d best be ready for the opportunities when they show up. You’re too young until you’re too old. You’ll never be ready if you don’t get the experience. If you don’t do it now, there’s a good chance you never will. The advice to “wait” just seems like a nicer way of saying, “don’t.”

5. “It’s about whatever you want it to be about!”

This is the outlier. Unlike the others on this list which have to do with demoralization, “It’s about whatever you want it to be!” has to do with a criticism of creation.

What bothers me is when someone makes something, tells me it’s metaphorical, and then says the metaphor is whatever I want it to be.

If I wanted to read a story that was about anything I wanted it to be, I’d write one.

I come to you because, strangely enough, I want to hear your opinions. I want you to do the leg work of perspective and thought. Show me a Whole New World, if you will, but don't expect credit for me touring it myself.

Advice and opinions are subjective, able to be used and discarded in more ways than the simple on/off switch that can be attributed to them. When it comes to some things however, no matter how much truth they may or may not contain, I find that motivation is important. These five things are stupid because they come from the wrong place. Competition and judgment is a part of the writing world we have to contend with; I just wish people would be less obvious about it.