Books

Advice for writers: Work hard, write to win

My plan was to scout the Internet and look through a few books for New Year’s resolutions for the writers among you, cull the best and pass them along.

So I did.

But many of the resolutions started arguments in my head.

For instance, one warned: Do not compare yourself to other writers.

I say, Do compare yourself to other writers. For instance, do you write as many hours per week as your friend whose work is getting published? Do you read as widely as the guy who is always recommending new writers? Do you re-write as much as that pal you snidely call obsessive?

Another resolution insists: Call yourself a writer. It’s fine, even for a beginner, to call oneself a writer. But only to oneself. To announce to anyone but your parents or your best friend that you’re a writer when you haven’t yet finished one short story feels phony to me.

This one gives me hives: Read the book everyone’s talking about. To be fair, the writer meant, “Don’t knock the book everyone’s talking about unless you’ve read it yourself.” I’d rather you read the book no one’s talking about: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack Up,” the writer’s musings on life and fame and heartbreak. Or Delmore Schwartz’s short story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibility,” which catapulted the poet to fame at age 21.

One resolution advises: Complete an unfinished work. Why? If the work still interests you, OK, finish it. But if the work is unfinished because it bores you, toss it. Tossing a piece of boring work sends a positive message to the unconscious. It says, “It’s OK to waste. There’s more and better stuff where that came from.”

I’ve been such a contrarian, I guess it’s time to offer advice I do consider sound. Here are a few gems I’ve gathered over the years of interviewing some of the masters.

Reynolds Price: Establish a time, a place, a quota.

Fred Chappell: Most young writers like to try writing like other people. The sooner they learn not to write against their own grain, the sooner they’ll develop their own strengths.

James Dickey: If you watch students playing tennis, you’ll notice most are playing not to lose. So it is with writers. Most are writing not to lose. The trick is to write as if you’re writing to win.

Walker Percy: It’s a matter of letting go. You have to work hard. You have to punch the clock. You have to put in your time. But somehow there’s a trick of letting go for the best writing to take place.

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