“What Is The Best Writing Advice You Actually Follow”

I keep picking the juiciest berries from online conversations elsewhere and lug them here. This stimulating question was asked by Kathryn Mockler on the publishing cum community site Red Lemonade (where I’ve been busy lately): “What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given or heard that you actually follow?” — What a great forward pass to quote Gardner, whose “Becoming A Novelist” (1983) I’m re-reading — his advice (he’s full of it) refers to the novelist’s need for “daemonic compulsiveness”:

«Nothing is harder than being a true novelist, unless that is all one wants to be, in which case, though becoming a true novelist is hard, everything else is harder.»

Here’s the context, a somewhat complex passage, which is made more digestible in the book by quotations from books by Herman Melville (comparing the rhythm of his writing as a beginner with the mature master):

«…By the nature of the novelist’s artistic process, success comes rarely.The worst result of this is that the novelist has a hard time achieving what I’ve called “authority,” by which I do not mean confidence—the habit of believing one can do whatever one’s art requires—but, rather, something visible on the page, or audible in the author’s voice, an impression we get, and immediately trust, that this is a man who knows what he’s doing—the same impression we get from great paintings or musical compositions. Nothing seems wasted, or labored, or tentative. We do not get the slightest sense that the writer is struggling to hear in his mind what he’s saying, the rhythm with which he’s saying it, and how it relates to something later in the book. As if without effort, he does it all at once. He snaps into the trance state as if nothing were easier. […]

So—[unlike a short story writer or poet,] a novelist is not likely to develop authority by success after success. In his apprenticeship years he succeeds, like Jack o’ the Green, by eating his own white guts. He cannot help being a little irascible: some of his school friends are now rich, perhaps bemused by the fact that one of their smartest classmates is still struggling, getting nowhere, so far as anyone can see. […]

Nothing is harder than being a true novelist, unless that is all one wants to be, in which case, though becoming a true novelist is hard, everything else is harder. […]

Daemonic compulsiveness can kill as easily as it can save. The true novelist must be at once driven and indifferent. Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life. Poe came close with poetry and fiction, selling very little. Drivenness only helps if it forces the writer not to suicide but to the making of splendid works of art, allowing him indifference to whether or not the novel sells, whether or not it’s appreciated. Drivenness is trouble for both the novelist and his friends; but no novelist, I think, can succeed without it. Along with the peasant in the novelist, there must be a man with a whip.»

This…most of it… is advice I try to follow, though the drivenness described by Gardner has strong internal enemies, daemonic forces begging for short term gratification, validation and all those other time-bound things that, according to Gardner (and I believe him), will, at least for the maker of novels, not do to mature into the writer he or she could be.

On a related note: to get my feet wet on Red Lemonade, I have now posted excerpts from my planned collection of flash fictions (2009-2011) on the platform. It was easier than I thought it’d be and I’m pleased with the result — check it out and let me know what you think. This collection, which I’m putting together now, will consist of my 100 or so best (in my view) stories, including several unpublished ones.

Oh yes—call to arms—I’m still looking for a publisher, so if you can spare one, or if you’ve recently encountered a desperate publisher on a bridge (ready to throw himself down for lack of new talent, crying into your coat because he needs a flash fiction author), do let me know…

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