I Shouldn’t Give Writing Advice

People routinely ask me to help them write. Which is really, really kind and humbling, but also kinda dumb. You guys, I have no idea what I am doing here, or there, or over there. There are so many better ways for you to learn how to write, or start the process. Like a quick Google search of: Help me write, might bring up more concrete advice. Because honestly, I can’t tell you anything that hasn’t already been said by a thousand other writers. I can’t really tell you where to start, or how to start, or which genre you should be looking into. And I certainly can’t tell you what to do with your writing life. Because y’all, I have no actual idea what the hell I am doing with my life and I routinely rely on fellow writers, mentors, and friends to tell me what to do. And normally they say, “Have you tried wine?” I have great people.

In all seriousness, writing can be fun, and helpful, and sometimes cathartic. But writing is also tough, and rigorous, and sometimes it just doesn’t happen. A lot of times it doesn’t happen. But sometimes, sometimes when it does, it’s like magic.

In fact, I used to think that there was some sort of mystic connection between the paper and the pen. Like some other-worldly thing was helping me, letting the words flow, I was just the vessel (… that must follow where it goes, trying to learn from what’s behind you, and never knowing what’s in store, makes each day a constant battle, just to stay between the shores…) Sorry for the Garth tangent. This was especially true when I would feel like I didn’t do all that much. I would sit down one morning, with my cup of coffee and my laptop, usually the day before whatever I was writing was due, and I’d pour my heart into a short story, or a personal essay, send it over to my workshop, or a writing instructor, and they would swoon. Like, how is that even possible without some divine assistance?

That was all way before grad school. Way back in my 20s when I thought that all the good things happening in my life, were somehow bestowed upon me. My kid is super smart? Just good genetics. My dog is the coolest ever? All dogs are cool. Then one day in the middle of grad school (where coincidently I learned more about myself than anything else, French philosopher Derrida included) it hit me, I was actually doing all these things. I was actually putting the work in. I was actually responsible for the trajectory of my life, and my writing, I just wasn’t giving myself credit for it.

That’s a really long, humblebrag way to say, you have the ability to write your story, just as easily as you have the ability to live your story, and if you really want to do it, you are probably doing it right now, without even realizing it. You probably lay in bed at night and laugh about this thing that happened to you in college, and you think, I should write that down. You probably think back on your life and try to remember when something happened, and what it was, and what you felt like when it happened, and how it changed you in some way. Maybe you do this on your own accord because you are an arduous thinker, or maybe your therapist gave it to you as homework, either way, you are trying to create a timeline of life, to tell a linear story, and maybe you aren’t writing it down, but when you get it all worked out, you might. And when you do, it might feel like it isn’t that hard. It might feel like the words are just flowing out of you, and trust me, that is a great feeling! It is also not a common one.

Having said all that, let me share some of the bits of wisdom I have stumbled upon in my life, from writers, teachers, books, and friends that might help you pick up the pen to tell your story.

  1. Read. I know this sounds like a duh, but you’d be amazed at how easy it is not to read these days. I think most of us would rather veg out to Netflix on a rainy day, then pick up a book, but honestly, really, if you want to write, you have to read. (Bonus: Blogs count! And so do audiobooks, which is like reading, but not. What doesn’t count is Facebook statuses, anything by Fox News, and the TV guide. Do they still make those?) I myself go in book-reading stages. I will read, read, read, for three months straight, maybe nine books or so, then I won’t for a couple of months (usually because I am stressed out about something and I can’t get my brain to concentrate on the words). But even in those stressful times, I still read, just smaller pieces. I read poetry. I read flash fiction/non-fiction, lyric essays, blogs, magazines, newspapers, and literary journals/reviews. I listen to NPR or a fun podcast. I still try to see and hear the stories out there, because they are so very important.
  2. Leave your house. What? Missy, come one man. That is asking too much. I promise, I know. I get it. Geez, some days I get it more than others. But, leaving your house is SO important. Especially if you are like me and really could spend all day, every day in your own little world, at your desk, or your kitchen table, or your backyard bumbling around. You can’t. You have to go out of your little life. You have to see other people live. I’m to the point where every, single time I leave my house, whether to take Jackson to the library, or grocery shop, or grab a cup of coffee with a friend, I see something that sparks my interest. I might overhear a conversation and think, Oh, that’s a great first line to a short story. I might see a security guard picking up a piece of trash and wonder what he is thinking. Now maybe your brain doesn’t exactly work like mine, I might over-think sometimes, or be more sensitive to this sort of thing, but ultimately it is very helpful at getting the writing juices to stir. Just the other day a firetruck whizzed by me on the street while I was walking Duke, and I realized that I didn’t flinch like I normally do. Which made me remember the reason I used to be afraid of firetrucks (from the night my grandfather died) and I immediately went home and wrote about my grandfather, because that one firetruck brought up all the memories. It can happen just like that, in an instant, but you won’t know if you are always in your safe, quiet space, where nothing much happens.
  3. Seek out like-minded people. This one is Tough with a capital T. Well, maybe it is. Actually, it might not be that tough for you, but it has proven to be very tough for me. After my undergrad I never wrote. I forgot even what I was suppose to do, how to write, the whole thing. I wasn’t in any sort of writing group. I hadn’t made any friends who were out there doing it. That is when I started my first blog to combat that feeling, but with a toddler on my hands, my writing took a backseat. Then over time I started working in Tech writing, where I wanted to bang my head against the wall (it is just too structured for me) and then the move to NC, it took five years before I was like, oh yeah, I was a writer one time. Man, how I wish I could have those years back! In grad school I spent half the time studying a different concentration, Linguistics (what the hell was I thinking?) so honestly I felt like I missed out there too. You have to be proactive though. That I have realized. You have to, again, create your own opportunity. And keep trying. I gave up. Don’t give up! Don’t do as I did, do as I say, damn it! Look for writing groups, clubs, meetings, readings. And go to them! I do not. Ahem, you should. Start slowly by joining online groups if you need to, I did not, you should. Then you can begin to go and meet IRL. I did not, you should. See a trend here? See why you shouldn’t ask me for advice…
  4. Write. I feel like this is a duh, but the number one thing people tell me right after they say that they want to write is that they don’t know where to start. Then I say, it doesn’t matter. Cause it doesn’t matter. Just start writing. Remember that funny college story? Write it down. Remember that security guard at the library? Tell his story, or the one that you fabricated in your head. If you need something more concrete you can start a journal or a blog. Journaling is cool because you can write whatever you want and you won’t run the risk of having an ex-partner or an ex-boss stumble across it at 2 a.m. on a Friday night when they searched your name and the word diarrhea together. A blog, I’m learning, is a real shit-kicker, because it is this sort of public, sort of private space, where you feel brazen enough to write about your explosive diarrhea, then a week later you see an acquaintance at Harris Teeter, and you have coffee in your cart, and they are all, Hey, remember how coffee gives you the poops! Haha! And then you’re all, Oh yeah, thanks Karen, I had forgotten about that… So, there’s that.

So there you are, some tips from me to you. Let me just remind you, that I should not be giving any advice about writing. I am not an expert. Then again, Dave, the guy down at Verizon isn’t a chili cook-off expert, but I did add the extra tamales, and it made a world of difference. So…

Go write something.

M.

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