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Posts Tagged ‘advice’

In the past, I have had people take advice I didn’t mean to give from this blog.

I rarely mean to give advice. When I sit down to write, I’m not thinking, “Now then, let me tell people how I think they should do x or how they should feel about y.” I’m generally talking about my own experiences, knowing very well that people are different and their concerns are different and what works and doesn’t work for me might have nothing much to do with you. I talk about things I find interesting and things I have learned, but they are all very much colored by me being me.

But advice, well, advice can be tricky. I was reminded of this fact by this post about advice, which contains many examples of two pieces of directly conflicting advice, both of which can be valid. It’s really illuminating to read so many examples back to back. I’ll give you just one here to give you a taste:

“You need to be more conscious of how your actions in social situations can make other people uncomfortable and violate their boundaries” versus “You need to overcome your social phobia by realizing that most interactions go well and that probably talking to people won’t always make them hate you and cause you to be ostracized forever.”

I know people for whom the first piece of advice is probably best, and people for whom the second piece of advice is probably best. I even know people who might benefit from both pieces of advice. So yes, advice is not simple.

Ultimately I think good advice depends a lot on context. Generalized advice is all well and good, but nothing can replace the insights of a therapist or a close friend or family member who knows the specifics about who you are and what your situation is. (This person must also be wise and experienced enough to have helpful insights.) Often situations have many factors at play, so one piece of generalized advice can easily miss a lot of nuance.

In learning how to better set boundaries, for example, I found it very useful to have people I call “sanity checkers:” people who know me and my background and who are very skilled at setting boundaries themselves, who I can get feedback from, run things by, or get help with wordings. I find I need their help less and less as I get more experience, but even so, it’s nice to know I can ask for their expertise if I need it. And sometimes I still definitely do!

The other interesting thing about advice is that you can’t force people to take it. It doesn’t matter if you do know them and their situation, if what’s going on seems really incredibly obvious to you, or how painful it is to watch them suffer. People do things on their own timeline. They’re ready when they’re ready, especially when it comes to accepting hard truths and making difficult changes. Sometimes they’re never ready.

Which means I always feel fairly wary of giving personalized advice. You have to find a way to do it that is gentle enough that it doesn’t alienate the two of you when they probably don’t take the advice. And I try not to give advice unless it’s actually been asked for. There are exceptions to this (oh, nuance!), and we all slip up at this from time to time, of course. Some people feel they need to give advice to be useful, which isn’t really true but can certainly feel true. And sometimes it can be really hard to sit and witness the suffering of someone who is simply stuck and has been for months or even years. That tends to be when I’m most likely to slip up.

Advice over milkshakes!

Advice over milkshakes!

In conclusion:

Generalized advice: can be helpful, but must be considered in context

Personalized advice: can be helpful, but must find people who are insightful and get you

Giving advice: can be helpful, but usually only if asked to give it and if not too attached to the outcome

So yes, these are my thoughts (but not advice!) about advice.

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I mentioned in my post The Dangers of Advice that among the common writing advice I don’t follow myself is the adage to write every day. Apparently, Jeff VanderMeer doesn’t write every day either, at least not to a specific word count. So you know, yet more evidence that you should studiously ignore all writing advice that doesn’t work for you.

I will add that, even if I’m not churning out word count every day, you can see from my post on Tuesday that I’m constantly engaging in what I am going to call writing mind. It’s more in the forefront these days, but even when I’m not shoulder deep in novel, it is a challenge to turn it off for any length of time. Almost everything I do, think about, read, I experience through a writer’s lens, so that being a writer suffuses my entire life, to the point that constant word count is, to a certain extent, a moot point.

Writing mind: a combination of subconscious processes and experiencing the world through the lens of a writer

In a recent interview, Robin Hobb talks about her experience, which sounds an awful lot like writing mind to me:
But even when I’m not at the keyboard, I’m still writing. I think that’s what the paper notebook taught me. My brain ‘writes’ all the time. It’s just finding the time to sit down at the keyboard and record what is store there!

Certainly one has to write to be a writer, and as a whole the writer community is very insistent on this point given the number of people who say they are writers but don’t write at all. We feel obligated to be prickly about it because there is a wide-spread misconception that writing fiction is easy. But the more I write, the more I am coming to understand that the actual writing is a critical component of the whole, but not the only one.

It is a pleasure, especially for a perfectionist like me who sometimes (often) suffers under an unforgiving work ethic, to realize that the time I spend every morning sitting in front of the fire and staring into space, or feeding my brain with various economic analyses, neuroscience findings, pop psychology, and insights about books and writing is all in service to the writing. Of course if I have a particularly busy day I have to skip right past the brain feeding phase except for a brief brainstorm in the shower and jump right into the heavy lifting, but it’s nice to realize that both parts are necessary and valuable. This insight allows me to be more fully me and to enjoy the process without quite as much of the kicking and screaming (although plenty of that still goes on; you try writing a novel dealing with the mutability of memory and see how you get on).

Being a writer encourages me to keep having interesting thoughts and doing interesting things, which is an aspect of it that I value extremely highly, especially at this time in my life when I can fully appreciate the comfort that comes from slipping into a pleasant routine and avoiding challenge in favor of the pleasures I already know I enjoy. Writing itself keeps me constantly on my toes, but it also rewards me when I decide to get more adventurous.

A few recent examples for you:

  1. I went to see President Obama speak a few weeks ago, not just because it was an amazing opportunity, but because I thought, “Hmm, I’ve never been to a political rally or heard a person with high charisma speak in public. I bet that will come in handy someday in my writing.”
  2.  We are beginning to consider our summer travel, and I provided my husband with a list of places I thought might figure into the settings of my next novel. “Which of these are you interested in?” I asked. Of course, it turned out that he was willing to go to any of them because apparently the heroine of the book has excellent travel taste.
  3. I picked up some novels recently that are not my usual fare, based on recommendations in an article by my friend Damien. Now on my to-read stack: Orlando by Virginia Woolfe, The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse, and The Magus by John Fowles. I don’t know if I’ll like them, but at the very least I’ll learn something from them.

To sum up: Jeff VanderMeer doesn’t have a daily word count goal. Robin Hobb describes writing mind well. And writing mind meshes nicely with the desire to see life as an adventure and not settle too easily into general complacency.

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I’ve been feeling all organized because last weekend I made a list of topics for my next several posts. And then this morning I read a blog post offering some misguided writing advice. (No, I’m not going to link to it. I’m sure way too many writers read it as is.) Cue complete topic derailment.

I’ve already written about writing advice in the past, but the more I think about it, the more I think this issue isn’t confined to advice about writing. It isn’t even confined to advice about artistic pursuits. Over the years I have certainly received a great deal of advice about basic life topics, some of which has thrown me for a loop and later proven to be completely wrong. (My favorite? “Oh, Amy, you just have delusions of grandeur” in response to me having big artistic dreams. Way to try to ensure they’ll never happen.)

Add to this the undeniable fact that I sometimes give what could be construed as advice right here on this blog, and I feel almost obligated to write the following.

Read, learn, listen to other people’s point of view and feedback. Think about what people say, try out various ideas. Don’t automatically assume you know the one true way to doing anything. But ultimately, DO WHAT YOU WANT TO DO. Do what you need to do (assuming that what you need to do doesn’t involve anything blatantly illegal, of course). And more than that, do what works. Advice, even the more strongly worded variety, is merely a suggestion that we can take or leave according to our own inclination. Even if it’s good advice, we might not be ready to implement it. And if it’s bad advice, we might accidentally harm ourselves or take the plunge into regret that I talked about last week.

That’s one of the really wonderful things about life. We get to choose our own adventure. Sure, we can’t control everything or even most things, but within our small scope of decision, we act as our own kings and queens.

It’s not such a leap to believe that creative types need to follow their muses and express their personal integrity and vision of the world in their art. But what if we take a step farther and consider ourselves to be art and our lifetimes to be our canvas of expression? The expressions “Follow your heart” and “Follow your gut” are close but incomplete representations of this kind of life. Follow who you are, and even more, follow who you wish to become.

Choosing to live this way can mean leaving a lot of the advice behind. The Backbone Project has really opened my eyes to this. Why do people care whether I drink alcohol or not? Why do they care (especially women!) if I self-identify as a feminist? Why do people want to change my writing process? Often I think the answer is that they don’t actually care about me personally at all. Instead they are seeking to validate their own way of life and their own choices. Instead of following who they are and finding a sense of rightness in that, they need reflection from the outside world to reassure them. Instead of deep and subtle thinking, they allow themselves to fall into the black and white thinking trap: I’m right and you’re wrong. Because this doesn’t work for me, obviously it won’t work for anybody. Something needs to be fixed; you need to be fixed. If I have a big bad problem, that means you must not have any problems at all or else you’re trying to compete with me, but it doesn’t matter because my problem must be the worst. (Or flip it around: if you have a big bad problem, that must mean my own problems aren’t important at all.)

Don’t take my advice about this, though. Think about it, and make up your own mind. Choose your own adventure. Turn your life into art with every choice you make.

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A few days ago, I read the excellent article “Writing and Mortality” by Rachel Swirsky, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.  I recommend reading it and coming back here, but since I don’t always do that myself, I’ll summarize. She talks about some advice she read about writing, how if the project you’re working on is not the project you’d be working on if you only had six weeks to live, then it’s the wrong project. Rachel calls foul on this advice, saying that if she had only six weeks, she’d be busy spending time with her loved ones. “Artists,” she says, “aren’t only real artists if they would spend their last few days creating art.” 

I agree with Rachel one hundred percent. Creating art is a high priority for me; in fact, I’ve structured my life around increasing my time to do so. But it’s not my highest priority, and that’s okay. This truth was brought home to me recently when I was suffering from root canal complications.  Mostly I was thinking, “My god, the pain, the pain, please make it stop, I’ll do whatever it takes to stop the pain.”  But when I could focus beyond the immediate suffering, what did I care about the most?  I wanted to spend time with my husband and my little dog, and I wanted to write long e-mails to my best friend.  I’m an ambitious person, but when it came down to it, I wasn’t thinking about my writing anymore.  What mattered to me was the people I love.

Taking a step back, this entire discussion was sparked from a piece of writing advice. I read a lot of writing advice every week.  I even occasionally write some writing advice.  It’s amazing how much helpful information about writing I can learn from the internet (although at this point, a lot of the advice I read is a reminder more than a revelation).

But this advice is not infallible, and it cannot be followed blindly.  Each piece of advice requires consideration, and if you find it doesn’t work well for you, that doesn’t mean you’re wrong or a bad writer or anything else.  It means that advice is not for you, full stop.

People try to give me advice all the time (and not just about writing, either).  Here are some examples of advice I do not take:

1. You should write every day. Yeah, I don’t write every day.  I usually take weekends off, and then I come back to the computer on Monday full of fresh ideas and vigor.  That’s what works for me, for now.
2. You should write what you know. Sorry, I don’t actually live in a world with working magic or a world set in the future, but I still write about them.  (Yes, this advice has deeper connotations that are more helpful, but its phrasing can be misleading.)
3. You should write x words every day. Unfortunately, only I know how many words I can write per day, and this number changes over time and depending on circumstances (like, for instance, a root canal or quitting the day job).
4. You should only submit to pro paying markets. I actually kind of follow this one, but the more I think about it, the more I think it’s silly.  Really I should submit to any markets I feel like submitting to, right?  If I’d be happy seeing my work at a certain publication, then I’ll submit.  If I won’t feel happy or I think the publication is shady in some way, then I won’t submit.  So this advice isn’t for me.
5. You should/shouldn’t outline. Um, really good writers go both ways on this one.  So I’ll do whatever I like, and experiment with both.  (For those wondering, yes, I outline for novels.  For short stories, it really depends.)

I could go on, but you get the idea.  Advice is in the eye of the beholder.  People give advice about what works for them as individuals.  But we are not cookie cutter people, and therefore some of this advice will not work for you.  The trick is to learn what you can, and then adapt that learning to fit your own lifestyle, your own priorities, your own artistic strengths and weaknesses, and your own voice.

I would love it if you would comment with some advice you have read or received (writing advice or otherwise) that doesn’t work for you.  It can even be something that I have said here on the blog (gasp). I can’t wait to see what you all come up with!

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