The best writing advice I’ve received, scattered over twelve years, was from three people, none of them a writer.
I was 20, and struggling to make my writing work. I thought I just had to produce more. More words. More stories.
A friend and I were moon-gazing. She remarked that meditating helped clear her mind of words. Naively I asked, “Why would you want to do that?”
She told me how, when confronting an experience – cloud-shards clawing the full moon, your friend dying – if you allow words to come prematurely, then words shrink and distort the experience to fit themselves. As storm-clouds obscure the moon, so words obscure the experience itself.
I shrugged. “I don’t mind that. All I need is words. Some words, any words, about some experience. Something that can pass for a story.”
So I hurtled, from word to word. Until, retrospecting years later, I was ready to heed this first piece of the lesson: Pause. Absorb your experience. Words premature, salad-tossed together, are ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’
At 26, to my chagrin, I fell in love. I’d seen what love did to my peers – obsessive love, the only kind available in our shared situation of an interminable PhD, with a frustrating lack of structure, in a dead-dull town. Reluctant to admit my love, I flooded my beloved with rambling emails. To avoid saying three words, I buried him under thousands.
‘This isn’t actual writing,’ I told myself, ‘Just emails.’ As if I could simultaneously write shoddy emails and well-crafted fiction. As if mental discipline could be compartmentalised.
Sensing my circumlocution, he told me about a Jewish wedding ritual:
“The bride and groom sit together. Either one may speak, but only when s/he feels compelled to. Sometimes, hours pass in silence… In my own life – whether it’s writing a paper, or emailing you – I do nothing until I feel compelled to.”
The second piece of the lesson: Whether in conversation or at your writing-desk, let your ideas develop before you succumb to words.
At 32, I met a younger student: a high achiever, but laidback. He set no deadlines, and enjoyed both work and fun. I, plagued simultaneously by time-anxiety and a feeling of worthlessness, was intrigued. This juxtaposition of calmness and achievement was, to me, paradoxical.
Later, in a shared marijuana high, my preconceived notions about success suspended, I felt ready for advice. I confided my problem: I loved writing, but my compulsion – to write more, write better, finish things both quickly and perfectly – made writing often the last thing I wanted to do.
“You have talent,” he said. “Just relax. Trust yourself: to do what you need to do, when you need to do it. Don’t push yourself. When you’re tired, take a nap. When you’re restless, take a walk… When you wake up tomorrow, when you come back next week – you’ll be ready to write. To love writing again.”
Words of advice are bottles of wine in the cellar of your soul. But it’s you who must mature before you’re ready to uncork an old bottle, savour a sip, and be better for it.
The best writing advice I’ve received was: Take your time.
Take your time to absorb an experience. Let this moment exist for you. Don’t rush to manufacture it into a product for other people.
Take your time to hear yourself. Often, what you really want to say can be said in a few words. All those other words are you deferring, with the hollow comfort of word-floods, the one moment of clear, simple meaning.
Take your time to write. Attend to your other needs, animal and human. When you’re ready, you’ll find yourself writing. And loving it.