Famous Writers Who Trusted Their Instincts and Made It Big

Never before in history have authors been so readily accessible. If you google “writing advice,” you land 605,000,000 results. Like all things technological, this is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the wisdom of millions of writers past and present is at your fingertips. On the other hand, it’s dangerously easy to lose yourself trying to follow the countless, and often contradictory, advice of writers who may or may not be anything like you.

What can save you from getting lost in this muddle is paying attention to how other writers have learned to trust themselves, even when who they are goes against the grain of what’s expected. For example, a fellow writer said:

I really am incapable of discipline. I write when something makes a strong claim on me. When I don’t feel like writing, I absolutely don’t feel like writing. I tried that work ethic thing a couple of times—I can’t say I exhausted its possibilities—but if there’s not something on my mind that I really want to write about, I tend to write something that I hate. And that depresses me. I don’t want to look at it. I don’t want to live through the time it takes for it to go up the chimney.

That writer is Marilynne Robinson. She published her first novel, Housekeeping, in 1980. She didn’t publish another novel for over two decades. Then, in 2004, she finally published Gilead . . . and it won the Pulitzer Prize.

Another writer said:

[An] iPad was given to me at a reading . . . It’s really the freakiest thing because I became an addict very fast. At the moment it has usurped the place of reading in my life. Part of me thinks this is dangerous; my own vocation will dissolve. Another part of me thinks this is exploratory, that if my vocation is so fragile or precarious it isn’t a vocation. After all, there were two years when I read nothing but garden catalogues, and that turned out okay—it became a book.

The writer here is Louise Gluck and the book she is referring to is The Wild Iris, a compilation of poems she wrote after two years of reading nothing but garden catalogues. It also won the Pulitzer Prize.

I’m not saying that all writers who trust their instincts will win the Pulitzer Prize. I’m also not saying that the Pulitzer Prize is the only definition of success. What I am saying is that success is capricious. Most of the time success has no rhyme or reason for dismissing one talented writer and choosing another. But if you want it badly enough, your best chance at getting it is to work hard at figuring out who you are. Louise Gluck’s personal motto is follow your enthusiasm:

When I was young I led the life I thought writers were supposed to lead, in which you repudiate the world, ostentatiously consecrating all of your energies to the task of making art. I just sat in Provincetown at a desk and it was ghastly—the more I sat there not writing the more I thought that I just hadn’t given up the world enough. After two years of that, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to be a writer. So I took a teaching job in Vermont, though I had spent my life till that point thinking that real poets don’t teach. But I took this job, and the minute I started teaching—the minute I had obligations in the world—I started to write again.

Real writing, Gluck says, will not show itself until we are living authentically:

I used to be approached in classes by women who felt they shouldn’t have any children because children were too distracting, or would eat up the vital energies from which art comes. But you have to live your life if you’re going to do original work. Your work will come out of an authentic life, and if you suppress all of your most passionate impulses in the service of an art that has not yet declared itself, you’re making a terrible mistake.

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10 thoughts on “Famous Writers Who Trusted Their Instincts and Made It Big

  1. Indeed!
    Life can be stifling, with its many constraints, demands and obligations, which is why so many writers, and especially poets, wish to forsake it, but isn’t all of this more than mere distraction from the writing processs? Isn’t it the actual weave of the process itself, feeding our imagination?
    Yes, there was a time when both my children were young, and took up much of my time, on a longer time scale even than for most women, as they are many years apart. And yes, I do have a very time-consuming job. And yes, family life, with a lazy unemployed wife-beating husband who behaved like a third child, was rather too much to cope with…
    But this, I believe, I needed to go through. During those many long years, I kept on having ideas, which I compiled, although I didn’t have the energy to write them out.
    Today, my job is just as full, my husband is an ex, the children are grown or growing, and I finally write! Often, quite a lot, though still not as much as I would like. But, hey, I’ll find time, I promise I will, without forsaking the world.
    I even have the time necessary to come read this column….and answer it!


    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment, Rebecca. I’m so glad you persisted with your writing and are finally able to really tackle it. Keep on keepin’ on!


    1. It’s great to hear from you, maisymak. I love hearing from “the regulars.” It reminds me why I started blogging to begin with: to connect with and be inspired by other writers. Hope to hear from you again soon!


  2. Absolutely awesome post, C.S. Plocher! Yes, I agree. An early writing teacher said to me once, ‘get down out of your tower and go live your life’ and boy was she right! I know that now.
    A lot of us bloggers seem to be following a similar train of thought this week. I wanted to write about the tsunami of ‘how to write’ books and posts. While compiling my post, my pal PJ Reece wrote an amazing post on ‘how to unhook from the how to’s’ over on http://www.pjreece.ca/blog/wordpress and yesterday I put out my post on http://www.yvettecarol.blogspot.com ‘are you sick of the ‘how to write’ advice?’ Ha ha. You see, we’re all thinking along the same lines!


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