A Conversation Concerning Advice For Writers

how I came to think about these things

Every Friday, in a small back room at a local restaurant, I meet with a group of men to discuss issues like religion, philosophy, politics, economics, art. Et cetera, et cetera. We recently had a conversation that is, I think, especially relevant to The Worship Collective. One of my cohorts—a visual artist whose privacy I’ll respect by keeping him anonymous—began to speak about literature. This eventually developed into a discussion on the difficult bits of our respective arts. We asked ourselves why it was so difficult to give advice about how to make quality art. Though we didn’t reach a clear consensus, the discussion was intriguing. I’ve boiled down some of the conclusions at which we arrived, and I’ve added some extras of my own. This isn’t necessarily a list of Mike’s Ten Quick Steps to Make Good Art.  Instead, this article is more about the concept of giving and receiving advice on your art-making. It’s about what kind of advice to take and what kind of advice to ignore. In short: it’s kind of a window into my own personal grapplings with how to become a better writer. And so it’s all highly subjective and anyway let’s just jump in.

the experience of my visual artist friend

My friend’s most lauded painting was completed in just over an hour. On a six-foot canvas. That’s a lot of canvas to cover in one hour, which means he worked hurriedly and let the process take hold of him. He went with the flow, responded to the inner muse. However you want to slice it, he didn’t do much revision. He didn’t do much tinkering. But here’s the thing: he might have. This piece was done while my friend was still in art school, and his professor was standing over his shoulder watching him paint. At a certain point, while my friend continued to slave away at the painting, his professor put a hand on his shoulder and whispered ‘Stop.’ His professor recognized the work as being finished—even as my friend, the artist, was still adding to it. There are many lessons one might take away from this, but I think perhaps the most important one—the one that is really going to shape this particular article—is that there simply isn’t one set method for making your art. Art is subjective. There is no list of advice I can give you to make your writing a surefire piece of craftsmanship. Perhaps there is a formula to sell a lot of books, but selling something is wholly distinct from making good art. Believing in the prevailing illusion of his art school—that the quality of a work directly correlated to the amount of time spent creating it—my friend would have continued to paint, to tweak the image, and—in his own words—‘would have ruined it.’ My friend learned his second big lesson after art school, once he’d begun to meet with a group of artists at a local artist’s home. We’ll call the owner of the house ‘Zelda.’ Zelda is a brilliant portrait artist, my friend says. She can paint a portrait like no other. Beautifully grand, technically solid, absolutely stunning portraits. But when Zelda won a local contest and had her artwork displayed in a gallery, it took my friend a few passes to figure out which one was hers. Here was a portrait that had been chosen by a panel of other artists for its glory, its technical mastery, its superiority to all other works of art in that gallery. And my friend walked right past it several times. This is the lesson my friend came away with: you can work all your life to be unbelievably good at the technical side of art… and yet still make art that is utterly forgettable, art that doesn’t draw you in. You can have a brilliant understanding of what makes good art, and even have the ability to put that understanding into practice, and still make art devoid of feeling and spirit. Now, I’m not saying (and my friend wasn’t saying) that Zelda makes that kind of art—that she doesn’t pour her soul into her work. Quite the contrary. I’m sure she does. But my friend realized that he could spend his days trying to emulate Zelda, would probably never be as good at portraiture as she is, and would have wasted his life on art that doesn’t move him. So my friend combined these two lessons: 1) his best artwork was raw and unfiltered, took a short time to create; 2) portraits and artistic realism (what he calls ‘objective art’) are not moving to him in the slightest, do not represent his soul in an adequate way. The combination of those two lessons led him to the realization that abstract art is more his thing. He revels in abstraction, in getting paint to work on the canvas in such a way as to create within the viewer an emotional experience—not just to represent some object in the world. For him, these two lessons resulted in a profound revelation about his life, about his art. And, I contend, it is only when we have such a revelation that we can understand what it is we’re trying to accomplish with our art. Which leads me to

what artists get out of art-making

Don’t worry, folks. I won’t rehash the old discussion we’ve had on this blog about what art is and what it does to the human psyche. It suffices to say that we here at The Worship Collective tend to view art as, essentially, a form of communication. We tend to see artists as communicators. And so the first thing that artists get out of creating artwork is communication—a connection with the recipient of the art. But the more important product of art-making is a sense of fulfillment. What do I mean by ‘fulfillment?’ That’s a good question, and perhaps the word I’ve used is the wrong one. I like using the word ‘fulfillment’ for rhetorical reasons, but it has the sense of, well, filling something up until it is full. Which is precisely the opposite of what I mean when I talk about what artists get out of art-making. I tend to see art as a pouring-out, a spilling of oneself. A release, if you will. So the chief end of an artist is to find that which is within herself, and then to spill it out. This echoes the idea of communication, but it is a distinctly different beast. The communication occurs when one’s audience sees what one has spilled out and subsequently connects to it, recognizes in that spillage something that is also within them. Long before such communication occurs, the artist has already been fulfilled by the pouring-out of herself. This is why my friend could not feel good about painting ‘objective art,’ even had everyone around him loved his portraits. Realism is not what is within him waiting to be spilled. If he so desired, I’m sure he could learn all the technicalities and brushstrokes that lead to brilliant portraits. But he would not have spilled out the essential parts of him that drew him to art in the first place. In colloquial street slang, he would not be ‘real.’ He’d be putting on airs, putting up a front. In short, art allows us to do as Judy Garland instructed: ‘be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.’ My friend ultimately decided that, although he could certainly learn some important techniques from Zelda, he didn’t want to spend his time copying her and other artists. He wanted to make art that was supremely and uniquely his own.

 how all of this applies to me as a writer

The internet is brimming with advice for writers. Just do a google search right now and see for yourself. I’ll wait. See? So many folks out there want to write about what it takes to be a good or successful writer. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the number of actual successful writers is probably way lower than the number of people writing about what it takes to be a successful writer. Make of that what you will. Here’s the thing, though: much of the advice is contradictory. Sure, some of the advice is great and nearly universal (‘to be a writer you have to write,’ ‘shut off your inner editor while you’re drafting’). But many of the details differ from person to person—and sometimes even render each other logically incompatible. The obvious example is the feud between Hemingway and Faulkner. Faulkner famously said that ‘[Hemingway] has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.’ Hemingway’s response? ‘Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?’ Here are two renowned authors—veritable literary giants—and their views on writing could not be more opposite. Or take this example, on an admittedly much less bile-filled scale: Neal Stephenson is known to handwrite his books. That’s an insane amount of handwritten pages, by the way. He claims that it helps in the editing process. However, my friend Hugh (a successful indie author in his own right) sees it differently. For him, the tactile feel of having both hands typing away on a keyboard helps stimulate both parts of his brain. His typed work is much better than his handwritten work, from what he’s told me. Now, my conclusion about this is that the contradictory advice stems from the fact that we are all individuals. We are all of us different beasts with different inner lives. And since art is, in my view, spilling out what is inside you, obviously having different inner lives is going to result in glaringly different views about what constitutes good art—or even about how to make art in the first place. So to circle around back to the question that started all of this, What part of writing do I find the most difficult? I’d say that it is to know oneself, to know what is inside you fighting to be spilled out.

  how to go about writing, the ML Candelario way

When talking about actual writing advice, it is tempting to jump right into the specifics: how to capture the feel of real conversation in one’s dialogue, or how to make characters develop while not being too on-the-nose, or how to progress a story so that every scene follows by ‘therefores’ and ‘buts’ instead of ‘thens’ and ‘ands.’ All of these points are valid weapons in the writer’s arsenal, and I direct the reader to an essay by Film Crit Hulk that discusses much of this within the context of screenwriting. But that’s not the scope of this specific article. Here are my four key pieces of advice for the modern writer.

  1. Know Thyself {this is virtually impossible}

As the Bard once told us, ‘this above all: to thine own self be true.’ If you’re making art, you must discover what moves you. You must learn what is inside you. Further advice does not matter in the slightest until this point is made, because all subsequent advice is about how to structure your words and sentences to maximize the point you are trying to express. If you don’t know what you want—what you need—to express, it does you no good to know how to express it. You’re still left with nothing. So for now, learn from Bukowski: ‘Find what you love and let it kill you.’ Do not let the mystery stop you. The more you write, the closer you’ll get to your own soul.

  1. Learn the Rules {this is a Sisyphean task}

What do I mean by the ‘Rules?’ Learn proper grammar and syntax. Learn how the written English language is ‘supposed’ to function. This is a stuffy business, and I confess that I don’t find much pleasure in it. I’m not very diligent or particularly good at studying the Rules, but I’m getting better. I will continue to learn new facets of ‘acceptable’ writing styles until I die (hence the ‘Sisyphean’ tag on this point). But don’t limit yourself to just the rules of language. Learn about story—about character development, story progression, tropes, archetypes, etc. Study the rhythms of speech in order to improve your dialogue. Read other authors whose works inspire you. Glean from them their tricks of the trade. Continue to do this until you are buried.

  1. Break the Rules {this is dangerous}

Yeah, I know. You expected this one after Advice Number Two. But seriously, the Rules are there to be broken in surprising, story-enhancing, reader-enriching ways. I love the writing of David Foster Wallace because of how often and how well (read: how intelligently) he breaks the rules. As I said, though, this is dangerous. Danger comes at you from two directions: 1) the fact that you will be tempted, since I advised breaking the rules, not to learn them in the first place; 2) the possibility of drawing too much attention to your pretentiousness. There can be little pleasure in reading the work of a writer who clearly doesn’t intend to break the rules she breaks. One begins to feel sorry for and intellectually superior to the writer instead of seeing her as an equal worthy of connection. On the other hand,  an author who draws too much attention to her breaking of the Rules, who revels too much in her abilities as a writer (in short, who says too often ‘hey, look how smart I am’) causes the reader to feel intellectually inferior—or to think the author has too high an opinion of herself. All options result in a loss of the connection/communication that is really the whole point of art in the first place. So the writer fails.

  1. Suffer for Your Art and Do Not Be Afraid

Bare your soul. That is, after all, what is fighting to be spilled. People will dislike your work, and—in some sense vital to the artist—will dislike you. Do not apologize for your art. Paint a picture of a woman with her tits exposed. Write the word ‘tits’ and leave it in with purpose. Make your point and do it both intelligently and without shame. In short: be brutally honest with the world. You may not receive the kind of appreciation you crave. You may not be met with the reaction you desire. But I can promise you that the fulfillment will come. The spilling-out will be a release. But this release only happens if you write the things you both need to write and are scared to write. I am afraid of looking foolish. Yet here I am writing yet another piece on advice that many people will discard as nonsense or pretention. Why? Because it is what I needed to write in this moment. That’s not a very dramatic example, but this kind of fear can stop you from doing anything. Do. Not. Let. It. conclusion Perhaps none of that is very helpful. I haven’t given concrete specifics. I haven’t talked about whether or not to listen to music, whether to seclude oneself or to write in a coffee shop. But I hope that you will at least be affirmed in your pursuit of art. I hope that you will realize that none of us knows what he is doing—that all of us are on a journey, getting better (hopefully) as we strive to find the things we love (and to let them kill us). This short essay doesn’t have a satisfying conclusion because art is about being in a state of flux—simultaneously creating things that reflect what’s inside you and learning more about what remains inside you waiting to be expressed. So I’m sure at some point in the future I’ll look back on this and change my mind about the specifics. What will remain, though, is the core: to write well, know yourself and then go about making yourself known to others. Do not let defeat be a refutation of your art. Keep striving and keep evolving. The only consistent person is a dead one. All of those short sentences are trite clichés. But they’re clichés because they signal toward something important and enduring.  Being bad at art is, perhaps, the most important stepping stone to being good at art. And that’s okay.


3 thoughts on “A Conversation Concerning Advice For Writers

  1. So, because of this article. I attempted to do an “unfiltered raw” session of creativity… and I came out with a script for a short film I’m really excited about. BOOM. it works.

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