by Maria Popova
Cultivating the wisdom to know when to ignore wisdom.
There’s indisputable value in turning to our greatest heroes for wisdom on everything from how to find our purpose to the balance of rationality and intuition to the key to happinessto the secret of life. But blindly following advice, even from the greatest of minds, is a recipe for disappointment since, after all, every human experience is different from every other. Gathered here are five pieces of anti-advice from literary greats — mostly on writing, but also applicable to life at large — reminding us that, sometimes, the best advice is to ignore advice.
Even though he issued six timeless tips on writing, John Steinbeckfollowed them with a sort of caveat cautioning against relying too heavily on such advice:
If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.
In 1946, George Orwell issued a similar list of six rules for writers, the last of which is a disclaimer to the rest of the list:
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
While feedback and input are a critical form of advice, they too can warp our own ideals. Stephen King puts it best:
Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.
Popular opinion is, of course, a form of feedback and, as such, implicit peer advice. Jack Kerouac — whose 30 tips on writing and life are among the most follow-worthy advice there is — cautions against it, echoing Paul Graham’s thoughts on prestige:
Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.
An essential part of advice is, in fact, knowing when to ignore it. The excellent Advice to Writers recounts the story of Charlotte Brontë, who in 1845 wrote to the British poet Robert Southey to ask whether to be a successful writer. He replied with “cool admonition”:
Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment and recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are, you will be less eager for celebrity.”
Brontë, of course, chose to ignore his advice and, along with her sisters Emily and Anne, produced a wealth of poetry under male pseudonyms before publishing Jane Eyre the following year.
Earlier this year, Vanessa O’Loughlin set up a site called Writing.ie .
It is, as she says herself, an Irish national writing resources website. It has pages filled with information for writers and readers – a writers toolbox, events calendar, writing courses, book reviews, guest blogs, competitions, interviews and more. Worth adding to your bookmarks.
This month she asked me to write a ‘Tips’ article on writing for children. This is it.
Things I have learned about writing for children and young teens.
The Butterfly Heart is my first published novel, so I feel slightly awkward about classifying what follows as a set of tips. I am surrounded in Ireland by great writers for children, young teens, young adults, old adults… middling adults. Nearly all of them more qualified than I am to be giving tips. However, the opportunity arose for me to write this – so I have called it Things I have Learned.
With the proviso: Each to their own.
- Do not patronise your readers. Ever. They will not love you for it. They have minds that are open, eager and willing to learn and absorb new facts. They have minds ready for wonder. They will always know more than you give them credit for – so write accordingly.
- Be truthful. To yourself and to your readers. It shows.
- Anything is possible. This does not contradict 2. Given the freedom with which the minds of the young roam, so too can yours. Do not restrict yourself through convention or fear.
- Be careful. Unless you are a teenager writing for teens, be very careful with e.g. the slang you use. We have all had teenage lives, we have all experienced the highs and lows of those years – and these emotions we are fully equipped to write about. Our memories in fact often intensify them. But most of us are not teenagers now – we may be observers of the culture through our own children, younger siblings or students, but we are not in it. We need to mind ourselves and get it right.
- If you can, create a world outside of your readers’ own. Not always possible and not a fast and hard rule. Just an ‘if you can’. My own book, because of my particular life experience, is set in Zambia. It has been a privilege for me to share some of this country and this continent with children reading the book. It is mostly outside of their own lives and so brings them something different, something they do not already know.
- Make your characters real. Give them an inner life, perceptions, understanding, irritations, feelings, humour (above all humour), significant others. Make them matter. And for this age group (maybe 10 upwards) do not write adults out of the script. They do not have to loom – but neither are they limited either to being invisible or awful. As in life, some will be awful – but a few might not be.
- Clean simplicity, give it a chance. When writing for any age group, the cleaner the better. Cut out the fussy bits – or as Elmore Leonard would say (in a cleaner way) ‘try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.’
- Hold their attention. In my own case, as I do not plot beforehand, I try to do this by ensuring that I hold my own attention as I write. As I do not know how the story is going to unfold it is an easy test for me – do I actually want to know what’s going to happen next? If the answer is no, I change direction. If I can’t keep myself amused how on earth can I presume that my readers will be?
- Write what you want to write. When I set out to write this story, it just ended up being put into a particular age category. I did not set out to write a story for ten to twelve year olds, (and am happy to report that I have had good feedback from people aged nine to eighty!). So, I do not believe it is the age group that should determine what you write – it is the story you are going to tell and how you tell it.
- Do not be afraid to Edit. With a capital E. We all admire our own lovely turns of phrase, our deep insights into the human condition, our subtle jokes. But sometimes they don’t work. So, do not be afraid to edit your own work, get it right. And, do not feel slighted by an editor’s interventions.