You Have to Be Willing to Make a Fool Out of Yourself: Some Advice to a Young Writer

Office Worker with Mountain of Paperwork

(c)Copyright 2013 Margaret Langstaff, All Rights Reserved

I receive many emails and questions from young writers of fiction, serious novices who have literary aspirations. Many of them are well read and well educated and as a result are so in awe of the masters and their great books that they are almost crippled as beginning writers themselves. The reverence they have for these highly polished masterpieces is not informed by an understanding of the writing process because they do not yet understand the creative process; they are not aware of the ardor, angst, despair, the inevitable blunders hacked out and abandoned, the blizzard of reviled drafts that pile up, the monstrous revisions and seemingly endless re-writes required and the sometimes tedious re-sculpting/re-shaping that produce truly wonderful timeless literary books. They write two chapters of what they hope will be their first book and they want literary advice and critique! They find it difficult to continue unless and until they receive a nod of encouragement or reassurance that they are not wasting their time or moving in the wrong direction.

While I certainly do not place myself or work in any literary pantheon, no seasoned writer in his or her right mind would do that, I do indeed at this stage of my life and career understand what it takes to write books worth reading. I have interviewed for magazines and newspapers, over the years, a number of the luminaries of contemporary fiction and poetry, and I have written, I believe, enough books, both under my own name and for others, have evaluated sufficient manuscripts for publishers and read and reviewed more than enough contemporary fiction for media, in order to have somewhat of a handle on these matters.

Great books begin, to borrow Yeats’ metaphor, “in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart” and in an uncritical indulgence, initially, of the writer’s imagination. They begin as inspired messes that arise from the unconscious. The sense and sensibility that comes to inhere in them finally is achieved by revision, re-drafting, re-structuring and editing, late stage activities that require a cooler, more rational approach and another set of skills entirely.

If you try to do both activities at once, a common mistake of those with literary aspirations in their first efforts, you will hoist yourself on your own petard and not get anywhere. They are neither compatible nor simultaneous activities. They are sequential. They are stages in the process.

As I often find myself repeating more less the same thing, I thought it might be helpful to some who visit here to cut and paste the following from a note I wrote recently in reply to a few earnest, anguished questions from a young writer at the impasse I just described. We had corresponded many times previously and I had grown a bit exasperated in trying to get him to “get it.”  My reply was written quickly, could have been revised and edited and thus improved, but I have more pressing work to do, so I will just post it here as is. This is a blog post, not a book, and in that regard, tonight “I have miles to go before I sleep.” It will just have to serve as follows, if it serves at all.

[Incidentally, the recipient is in the thrall of Joyce, pen paralyzed, his imagination frozen stiff.]

 You are thinking way too hard about this and taking yourself way too seriously. You haven’t written an entire book yet, from start
to finish, have you? Until you write a few or a dozen, you have no idea what is involved, how to do it, what makes for a great one. Do you really think Joyce decided critically and analytically beforehand how to write ULYSSES or FINNEGAN’S WAKE? Or even what they would ultimately “be about?” God, no! He may have had an idea, or be following the scent of an idea, but more likely he had a person in mind, probably a composite or montage of real flesh and blood people he knew, and he heard their voices in his head, he knew the amalgamated character of the polyglot individual lives, and he tunneled in from that point, he piped into what was going on in the interior of the character, his thoughts, feelings, whims, visceral reactions and his transient thoughts and impressions. He felt it, listened, and watched. The flood of it caught him up and carried him along. He became a mimic, a recorder, a reporter of it all. He just sat down and let it happen, whatever happened. ONLY THEN, after he had, did he go back and analyze what he had written about it. ONLY THEN did he ask himself: was it an accurate representation, did it have any coherence or truth, did it mean anything organically, was it worth anyone else’s while to be bothered by it, could he present it to another reader’s eyes in a way that would connect, ring true? If not, how might it be re-shaped, recast, re-phrased, honed and improved to do this? 

You have got the cart before the horse. It may be you would be more at home writing non-fiction, an activity to which your almost reflexive insistence on rationality would be more of a help. Human behavior is largely irrational, is based on feelings and emotions. I presume you hope your fictional characters will render human experience?

As it is, you are suffocating your imagination, your best resource. Nothing is death to originality and truly inspired fiction like self-censorship, apprehension of the result, fear of failure. You are going to fall short and fail. Expect that and get over it. You are going to despise and wring your hands over, lose all hope over, much of what you write. All great writers have thousands of pages of abandoned false starts, false leads, and characters. Why do you think you will be any different? If you are unwilling to take the time and risks involved in the evolution and development of a novelist worth reading, you will never make it. You have to be willing to write reams of dreck on the remote chance you will write your way out of the morass all beginning writers start in and at last write something really good, worth notice.

You have to be willing to make a fool out of yourself. For you will sometimes, you can count on that, but you have to have the resolution and commitment to keep at it nevertheless, for if you do and you have talent, you will acquire what you need by failing, understanding and correcting the mistakes you made, making you progressively more fit and competent to write something rich, original and compelling—something that might even last.

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic and so on for many years...A consultant to publishers, providing manuscript critiques, a friend and supporter of others, admittedly a small group but my kind of people, interested in literary things and of writers who aspire to writing not just books (or poems, stories, novels, plays etc.) but literature.
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