On this, the last day of August, I find myself eagerly awaiting September 1. This year the date coincides with Labor Day and although I am not a toiler at physical labor except what it takes to keep my apartment relatively respectable, I’ll celebrate in honor of writers.
Writers are the toilers in the literary vineyard who find joy and satisfaction in our work along with the usual frustrations that make us sometimes believe that the Sisyphus story reads like our own biography. We push the boulder of writing up the hill only to have it roll back down at the end of the day.
In pursuit of publication – which is, let’s be honest here, the goal of nearly every person reading this – we writers are open to any and all advice. And there’s plenty of it out there.
You know the advice I mean. Articles in magazines and websites for writers including the annoying “lists”: “Ten Things Every Writer…” “Five Mistakes No Writer Should…” “Ten Ways to Make Your Characters…” et cetera, et cetera and so forth (as the King of Siam once said).
Along with these are the “success” stories like “How I Found My Agent” which tell you in great detail about the incredibly lucky thing that happened on the way to the publisher and landed the storyteller a nice three-book deal, oh and did I mention, my uncle is the chief editor for the publishing house? Surely you have an uncle in the business and can have the same great luck with your book.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy for every writer who finds an agent or gets published. And I have nothing against uncles in the business nor using whatever connections you may have to further your writing career. I have nothing against lists although I think they’re better used to remember what you need at the market or who gets what for Christmas.
What I am against is that these and a lot of other articles in writer’s magazines are misleading and prey on the hopes of those who want to get published, especially those who do all the hard work of writing and take it seriously. These articles remind me way too much of articles in women’s magazines that promise perfect bodies or skin or sex if you just do these five or six things.
They both lead to a lot of disappointment. And they shove the wonderfully creative process of writing into narrow little rule-bound boxes.
For me the best writing advice came from Peter Elbow, teacher and author, in his 1980 book, Writing with Power. He professes writing as a two-step process in which the writer first works creatively to produce one, two, more drafts and then works critically to revise the drafts into polished and finished work.
I adopted this idea and distilled it into my own Two Rules for Writing which I apply at Skylark Writing Studio. My students are always relieved to know there are only two rules. Here they are:
1. Get the words down.
2. Fix them.
Along with the two rules, I always provide students with the other great bit of writing advice provided by Ernest Hemingway in an interview by George Plimpton for The Paris Review:
“Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends, I rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.”
Use writer’s magazines for what they are – a tool. Use them to learn about grants and writing/publishing opportunities. Use them to keep up with the publishing world. Take what you can from the articles, but don’t be stymied by the lists of ten or five or eight things every writer must do – suppose you only do nine or four or seven? – or the stories of other people’s successes.
They did it their way. You’ll have to do it yours.
And in the end, getting the words down and fixing them is the only way to finally get the words right.
Happy Labor Day and a toast to all you toilers in the literary vineyard!