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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Shut up and write

bird by birdI know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to.

When I was in college I read a lot of books about writing. I read Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees, and Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. (Bird by Bird is far and away my favorite writing book. The chapter entitled ‘Shitty First Drafts’ changed my life–she says you can write ‘So what’s it to you, Mister Poopypants?’, and no one ever has to know, and you just keep writing garbage until you get to the good stuff. The other thing I love about Anne Lamott is how completely honest she is about her writerly neuroses. We’re all neurotic, and the sooner you make peace with it, the more effective you’ll be in your work.) I read Natalie Goldberg too, even though I found her stuff a little too new-agey. Heck, I even read Ayn Rand’s The Art of Fiction (which is a pretty hilarious title coming from Ayn Rand, right?)

And I talked. Oh, how I talked. I talked about wanting to write until my boyfriend at the time finally lost patience with me and said, ‘Stop talking. Go to the library, put your butt in the chair, and do it.’

Yes. Yes, it really is that simple.

So I went to the library, wrote a page, and was proud of it even though it wasn’t a proper story and I knew I was never going to show it to anyone. I started taking notes for what would become my practice novel, started writing it, and funny thing–I didn’t really want to talk about my writing anymore.

Of course, I still love reading other people’s writing advice. The Guardian did a wonderful two-part series last year, Ten Rules for Writing Fiction (link to part two here), and there are plenty of tidbits from literary heavyweights– some of it rather clever or flip, and some bits are more philosophical than practical, but almost all of it resonates (for me anyway). It’s heartening to read that well-established writers like Helen Simpson still need a kick in the pants sometimes:

The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.”

I actually had a draft of this post sitting around for a few weeks, and what prompted me to finish it is Sugar’s latest advice column (“We Are All Savages Inside”) at The Rumpus. The letter is from an MFA grad frustrated by news of other people’s book deals, so much so that she can’t even feel happy for one of her best friends, and she asks for advice on dealing with her jealousy. Sugar provides a reality check so lyrically articulate (There isn’t a thing to eat down there in the rabbit hole of your bitterness except your own desperate heart) that you almost forget the letter-writer is getting a talking-to. In this column as well as “Write Like a Mother****er,” Sugar points out that the letter conveys a certain arrogance, a sense of entitlement. The writer’s ego is a huge part of the problem.

Like I said in my practice novel post, I first sat down to write partly because I felt like I needed to prove myself, but I had to let go of my ego before I could write good fiction. So if I can give only one piece of advice, it’s this: when you glue your butt to that chair, forget about genres and agents and book deals and inspiring other people’s envy. Tell a good story–a ‘devastatingly gorgeous’ story–and don’t worry about the rest of it. All that really matters is the story.

5 Comments to Shut up and write

  1. April 1, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Oh, darling. This is beautiful. Yes, yes, and forevermore YES.

  2. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    April 1, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    I think another appropriate quote would be something about self-pity. It seems that sometimes we get down on ourselves and almost use that as an excuse for not working (in both writing and other work).

  3. April 1, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    I read that post too, and the moral of that story can easily be transferred to a many other things besides writing.

  4. April 4, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    This is my motto. I never stop writing so that I can continue to write.
    But I will admit that after completing the shitty first draft of my novel recently, “devastatingly gorgeous” is my easy escape to just moving on (because obviously I can do better if I just start completely over again without seeing through this project to its potential) and not going through the laborious re-write process.
    I think this is my book to learn how to write a book, and I’m going to have to force myself to dive back in.

  5. June 20, 2016 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Bird by Bird was featured in Orange is the New Black Season Four, momentarily. I recognised it from reading your post today! Maybe I need to get a copy!

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.