This piece is from my book. Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, But Enough is more-or-less a poetry book (find all the poems/videos we’ve released from it so far here), but it’s written from the perspective of various characters; sometimes, those characters do other things beyond writing and performing poems—they have conversations, get into arguments, tell stories, and participate in panel discussions. In this excerpt, the robot poet Gyre has been invited to be part of a panel discussion; Gyre doesn’t want to, though, so makes their apprentice Nary do it instead.
All Advice is Bad Advice, Including the Advice that All Advice is Bad Advice
The Library of the Road has brought together three professional wordsmiths for a panel discussion on advice for aspiring writers. The three writers, along with a moderator representing the Library, sit on stools inside a communal hall where a few dozen attendees sit on benches. The Library’s traveling collection of texts lines the sides of the hall; a few wanderers browse through the books and scrolls.
Moderator: Welcome, everyone. In the interests of promoting literacy and the arts, the Library of the Road has convened this space where beginning, aspiring, or emerging writers can get some advice from three established professionals. Joining us today: the prolific novelist Corbun Jarro, the “genre-bending word conjurer” Mullery Veks, and the acclaimed touring poet and performer Gyre.
Nary (underneath the audience’s applause): Oh hey, actually, Gyre couldn’t be here today. Or, I guess, they just didn’t want to be here. So I’m filling in. My name is Nary. I didn’t realize it’d be all men—
Moderator (ignoring Nary): So my first question to the three of you: we’ve all heard that most basic of writing directives: write what you know. Is that good advice?
Jarro: Absolutely. Writing what you know is the foundation of all writing. I have written over one hundred novels, and every single one of them is about my relationship with my father. Is it chilly at best, and sometimes outright troubled, you may ask? It is.
Veks: I’ll have to disagree on that one, OLD MAN (chuckles). That sounds BORING. See, me? I am a firm believer in the fact that so-called “personal narrative” is for babies who write in applesauce and boring old memoirists chasing after the ghosts of their broken dreams. In my compositions, I only speak from perspectives that are not my own. I only describe places I have never been. That keeps the writing sharp, MAN. Like I always say, “the only honesty is lies.”
Moderator: I see, Mr. Veks. Kind of a like you’re… a voice… for the voiceless.
Veks: (shrugs smugly)
Jarro: Yes, yes. I can relate to that! In every one of my over 100 novels, I make a point to include numerous characters who do not share my ethnic background, my gender, or my… shall we say, sophistication. In my last work, one of these characters even had a speaking role. She died, courageously, finally teaching the protagonist, me, the power of sacrifice.
Moderator: Fascinating. Our next question deals with…
Nary (interrupting): I’m sorry, but I have to say something here. I mean, yikes. I mean, I think “write what you know” is good advice in some contexts, and bad advice in other contexts.
Jarro scoffs; Veks rolls his eyes.
Nary: Look, writing about stuff we know about—ourselves, our neighborhoods, our passions—can help make our writing more specific, more concrete, and often more emotionally engaging. It can also be a great entry point for beginners: rather than try to dream up an entire universe, we can start with describing our surroundings; that process can help us build the tools we need to dream up other universes.
Writing what we know can also help us avoid the common pitfall of trying to tell other people’s stories (glares at Veks), stories that are not ours to tell. For example, rather than write about hunger from the harrowing, first-person perspective of a starving child, someone who is not a starving child could write about hunger through the lens of guilt, or complicity, or by describing the moment they finally understood that not everyone has what they have. This can still be engaging, powerful writing, and it’s important—on both an aesthetic level and an ethical level—to “write what you know” in that context, to tell your story.
All that being said, outside of that context, there’s maybe an absoluteness to “write you know” that can be poisonous. That so-called directive is really a tool. And if everyone is always using that same tool, it’s just kind of limiting. Reflecting on reality is one vital function of writing. It’s just not the only function. Writing can also be a space of visioning, of pushing ourselves to imagine a world we very much do not “know” yet.
Moderator: Sure. Next question: can you describe your process? How do you stay disciplined?
Jarro: My father is on the board of the Floating University, so I was accepted—at Gold Level—at the age of seven. And of course, Gold Levelers are taught to wake up at the same time the help wakes up. So as the cooks are preparing our breakfast, we are preparing our minds. As the maids are cleaning our bedchambers, we are cleaning out the innermost workings of the human spirit. As the gardeners and landscapers toil in the sun, we are toiling at the page, a precise 12 hours per day, free from distractions like going to carnivals, having children, or being poor. I am proud to say that I have kept this routine ever since my days at that institution, and to all the aspiring writers out there, know this: discipline is everything. If you cannot carve out at least 12 hours per day to write, you simply cannot be a writer.
Veks: Small world, FRIEND. My father is also on the board of the Floating University, but I hate him so I dropped out and began my REAL education. With nothing but my wits, a notebook, some cool knives, and my inheritance, I began traveling. Traveling the ROAD. I don’t have some routine to tell me when to write; I just wake up around noon, always hungover—but in a sexy way—and I wait for the universe to speak to me. Then I laugh at it and write something better (makes “explosion” gesture with hands).
Nary: I… I think process and discipline are for individual writers to figure out for themselves. Different people have different styles, brains, and circumstances. I try to be disciplined, but I also have to cook, and clean, and contract messengers, and design posters, and repair our packs or other tools, and a million other things.
Some days, I just don’t feel like writing, so I don’t. And that’s okay. Other days, I still don’t feel like writing, but I try anyway. Sometimes, I write something bad, and that’s also okay. Sometimes, there’s a nugget of something good buried in the bad, or the bad ends up pointing in the direction of the good. Writing is important, but I think revision ends up being the bulk of the work.
I just want to push back against the idea that writing has to be some all-or-nothing, define-your-whole-existence pursuit. But I also want to push back against the idea that writing is the completely random, magical channeling of divine inspiration. Writing is work, and for a lot of us, it’s work on top of the work we’re already doing. Some of the best writers I know are not full-time writers. It is okay to have a day job—
Veks squawks with laugher; Jarro cocks his head in confusion.
Moderator: Our third question. It has been said that writing can be therapeutic. Should people write about their trauma?
Jarro: On one hand, writing about our darkest moments can lead to critical acclaim, which can have some impact on sales and notoriety. On the other hand, everything is already so depressing, what with the bandits, the World’s silence, the unions marching around demanding this or that, the rain, ugh. My advice would be to write about things that are more uplifting. Don’t make your audience uncomfortable.
Above all, don’t be a victim. Even if you are the victim of some injustice in real life—writing gives you the power to create a happy ending for yourself! Each of my over one hundred novels ends with a powerful, tearful reconciliation between my father and me. And I like to think that’s how we would have ended up, had he not been eaten by sharks all those years ago. Additionally—
Veks (interrupting): Okay kids, I’m going to be REAL with you for a second. You MUST write about your darkest, most difficult moments. Trauma isn’t just worth writing about; it is the ONLY thing worth writing about. The true SOUL of ART is PAIN. I let my soul bleed on the page, because I’m not a COWARD. And if you haven’t had any trauma? You better go get some before you decide to enter THIS life.
Nary: No! Man, no. Art can be therapeutic. Art can be a healthy outlet to process trauma. Art can be an important step in someone’s healing process, a step that might involve speaking out about their pain in order to move on from it, or even just building community with people who have had similar experiences. But can be is doing a lot of work in all those statements.
Writing about the hardest things we’ve been through is not inherently healing. And when mentors, or peers in our writing groups, or random weirdos encourage, or demand, us to write about those things, I don’t think they have our best interests in mind. Part of being an artist is developing the capacity to be honest with yourself. Is writing that poem healthy for you? Is performing that poem in front of a bunch of strangers healthy for you? Does it feel right? There are, after all, other ways to process trauma beyond writing and performing.
What’s more: I do my best writing when I’m not, you know, running from cultists or trapped in a jail cell. That isn’t to say that we can’t create good work when we’re struggling; just that we do so in spite of these struggles, not because of them. Please don’t buy into the myth that “real art” has to come from real-life pain.
Veks (scoffs): Sure man, whatever. I can’t wait to read your next collection of poems about cookies and dollies and rainbows.
Jarro: Now, now, Mullery; I think our amateur friend here may have a point this time. I am perhaps the most comfortable person on this entire moon, and my writing certainly hasn’t suffered for it!
Moderator: What you’re describing… (the moderator has clearly forgotten Nary’s name, so instead just kind of gestures at him) …sounds a lot like censorship. Are you in favor of censorship?
Nary: I’m sorry what now?
Veks: Exactly. Some people would rather just bumble their way through life like goats, never truly living, which is to say: feeling the excruciating existential pain of knowing, when no one else knows, the true, grimacing face of nothingness. I wonder how many people in this audience are goats? How many just want to feel safe in their goat-pens, huddling together with all the other goats.
Nary: Are you trying to call us sheep?
Jarro: The best way to avoid censorship is to not write anything that anyone would want to censor.
Nary: You all are conflating two very different things here. We’re all free to write about whatever we want; all I’m saying is that it’s important to think critically about what I write, who my audience is, and what I’m leaving them with. “Censorship” is when the government decides, via policy and law, what you can and cannot write about. What I’m describing is more like basic empathy, or conscientiousness.
Veks: Oh so I suppose you’d frown upon my latest gigalinguistopiece, wherein the protagonist, SLIME, realizes the only way she can escape her loveless marriage is by throwing herself into a pit of feral chickens to be devoured, which I graphically describe for the next 40 pages?
Nary: I think you should be free to write that, and that you should choose not to because it’s terrible.
Nary: …and exploitative and dishonest and not your story to tell, and…
Moderator (interrupting): To end our panel today, please share one piece of writing advice with our audience. What pearl of wisdom has been most useful to you?
Jarro: You have to stay positive. Writing is easy! Just let it flow. Critical reviews, angry mistresses, rude Q&A participants questioning your history writing under the patronage of shadowy arms dealers—they all thrive on negativity. Tune it out. We write because we have wisdom to share; our job is simply to transmit it, not to keep learning and collecting wisdom forever. How exhausting that would be.
Veks: My advice would be to put your little pencils down and walk away, kids. This life isn’t for you. These SCARS are HEAVY.
Veks: Yes, it’s true. I write about it in my new scroll, These Scars Are Heavy, in which the protagonist, a COWARD, drowns over the course of 500 pages. I didn’t bring any copies to sell, because I doubt any of the goats here could HANDLE it.
Moderator: Wise words. Thank you all for being here, I appreciate-
Nary (interrupting): Hey! I didn’t get to answer.
Nary: Look. Advice is a genre. Whether it’s coming from a motivational speaker, a traveling salesperson, or a poet, it’s a style of writing and speaking that thrives on the illusion of universality, the idea that no matter who you are, or where you come from, “you too can succeed if you just follow these five easy steps” or whatever.
But if I tell a room of a hundred strangers to “believe in yourself,” is that good advice? It definitely sounds like good advice, and maybe is… for some of those strangers. But I don’t know you. What if some of you are aspiring tyrants, or delusional egomaniacs with way too much self-esteem? If I say “advocate for yourself,” what does that mean when some of us need to hear that, while others are already taught, since birth, to fiercely advocate for ourselves and probably need to hear something more like “spare half a thought for others?”
Part of the work of being a writer is listening to advice, finding mentors, workshopping in writing groups, and then figuring out what advice is helpful and what advice isn’t. That can be hard. You have to ignore the haters, while also acknowledging that the haters are sometimes right. You have to stay true to your style and vision, while also being open to the possibility of growth. It’s not a black-or-white thing. There’s no perfect way to do it.
If I had any useful advice to share, I think it would be this. My writing grew the most when I stopped thinking of it as a profoundly personal, individual activity. It grew the most when I tried to cultivate a more community-centered mindset: sharing it at community events, listening to feedback, attending readings by other writers, and just straight-up reading as much as I could. My writing grew the most when I stopped trying to be the “best” writer and started leaning into my own style and weirdness; when I stopped trying to dominate the conversation and started trying to contribute something to the conversation.
Moderator: Ironic last words for the person who talked the most today. That’s our time. On behalf of the Library of the Road, I would like to thank our panelists, and all of you, for attending.
(And for more advice-that-isn’t-really-advice, check out the “spoken word resource hub” here.)