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.