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Russell Smith: On Culture

Want some writing advice? Ignore any advice Add to ...

One of the great gifts of the Web is not just the proliferation of writing but the proliferation of writing about writing.

Writers are naturally drawn to the idea of blogs – because they are told that blogging will enhance their “brand” or because they are terrible procrastinators or even because, in that rarest of all rare occurrences, they get paid for it.

And what do writers who blog most like talking about? Not truth, it seems, or how to create emotion, not international geopolitics or science or sex. They want to talk about how to be a writer. I have a feeling that if you concatenated all the blog entries from one single week in the United States on how to get published or have confidence in yourself, you would have enough words for a full-length novel. What a dull novel, though.

I have attacked this tendency before, but here are a couple of new thoughts.

Recently, I read a funny wise-guy essay on Thought Catalog titled “How to Be a Writer” by a guy called Oliver Miller, then another by a blogger called Jane Friedman, titled “You Hate Your Writing? That’s a Good Sign!” It seems someone is forwarding me one of these once a week. There are a couple of useful tips in each (Friedman, in particular, makes a useful point about the distinction between one’s taste and one’s talent), but they meld in my mind with the frequent conversations I am hearing about two other things: (1) the growth of university creative-writing degrees and their undisputed tenets (the value of workshopping and “feedback” in particular); (2) the necessity of editors and external readers for every aspiring writer (a conversation I continued here in a column about freelance editors).

These conversations seem connected, to me, to a contemporary anxiety about writing, a generalized lack of confidence that all these confidence-boosters seem only to exacerbate.

The biggest point of contention in the writing-advice industry is the question that links all this: whether to listen to others’ opinions on your work. The entire creative-writing-course industry is founded on the belief that constructive criticism and emotional reaction from a class of peers and then from an experienced instructor will help a writer improve a manuscript. This is also the belief underlying the practice of hiring freelance editors to help with unpublished manuscripts.

It may well do so. Or it may not. There is no evidence to confirm that having as many advice-giving readers as possible does, in fact, improve a text. There are just as many famous egomaniacal writers as there are successful team players.

Creative-writing programs are, of course, extremely fertile places for writers to be, because the atmosphere of constant creation is itself inspiring and because they teach working to tight deadlines. It’s productive for any artist to spend a year or two concentrating on art, in a purely intellectual environment, isolated from commerce. It’s the intense production that makes these things so valuable.

But, strangely, I know, too, that I have frustrated students by not being negative enough about their work. It’s as if a generation of writers is coming to believe that if you don’t demand that a work be completely restructured and rewritten, you are not fully engaged with it. Perhaps this is a result of the belief – one I see as fairly recent – that if you pay someone enough, that person can tell you exactly what’s wrong with your work and how to fix it, as if any of us actually knew what was going to win the Giller Prize.

The best artistic advice, according to Rainer Maria Rilke, is to ignore artistic advice. In Letters to a Young Poet, he writes, “You ask whether your verses are good.... You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself.”

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