by Juhi Singhal Karan
We asked five bloomers for the best, the most helpful piece of writing advice that they’d received. Here in their own words is the bit of writing wisdom that has stayed with them over the years.
About 25 years ago, when I confessed to my intense activist friend that I wanted to write stories, instead of saying “how silly” or “the world doesn’t need more fiction,” she said, “Read this:” Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande, originally published in 1934, and reclaimed from history’s dustbin in the ’80s by John Gardner. I dove in. Brande asserts that the writer needs to recognize that she has two sides: the child-like enthusiast, who is intuitive and sensitive, and the elder critic, who is discerning and knowledgeable. The enthusiast believes her ideas are fresh and exciting, that her writing is important. The elder doubts it. She points out the many problems. The two neither like nor trust one other. Keep them apart, says Brande. A writer should give full rein to the enthusiast, believing in every word she sets down, then call in the elder for revision. Again and again.
Separate these two sides of writing—this advice freed me. Wanting to retrieve Brande’s exact words, I searched my shelves, but her book is gone. I hope I passed it on to a beginning writer.
The best writing advice I ever received: 1) Writers write. 2) No surprise in the writing, no surprise in the reading. 3) On plot: Come up with a character people care about. Put that character up a tree. Set the tree on fire. 4) You should only write if you can’t not write.
In my mid-40s, I went to an artists’ colony for the first time. I was the mother of three school age children and I didn’t have much time to write. But I was becoming more serious about my fiction, and I wanted to be a writer.
I exchanged work there with a younger, accomplished writer. His short story was perfect. Later, we sat in his room. He was the teacher; I was the student.
“Brodkey says: ‘You should be on your knees, looking up at the event,’” he said to me. “I will tell you what I don’t like about your story. Other people might tell you differently. A story is as much about what to take out as what to leave in.” Then he critiqued my work.
I often return to this advice. I remind myself to look up at the events in a story as if I’m witnessing them. Is the story unfolding naturally or am I explaining too much? Am I writing a scene or just a summary?
After the rush of pleasure of composing a first draft, I assess the pages with a third eye: What do I need to leave in the story and what do I need to take out?
I attended grad school in Fairbanks, Alaska—a cold, winterdark place to hone one’s craft. Because I worked during the day as an active-duty soldier stationed at Fort Wainwright, most of my classes were at night. Though it’s been 25 years, I can still remember stumbling out of the bitter, below-zero air into those classrooms where other workshop students waited to tear apart my stories (which, in hindsight, deserved to be shredded to pieces). Once my fingers thawed and uncurled from tiny wooden claws and I was able to hold a pen upright, I started taking notes with the earnest sincerity of a young writer who knows he’s an empty vessel. Our instructor was Frank Soos (author of Unified Field Theory), a tall, thin Virginian whose soft, gentle voice could take the sting off the very worst criticisms. Frank chose his words carefully, so when he did dispense advice it came like slow drips of honey. I bent over my notebook and took down as much as I could with my half-numb writing hand. I remember one night in particular when Frank was on a roll, he gave us three things to think about that have stuck with me over the past two decades:
1. Don’t let characters off the hook in uncomfortable situations. Stay with the scene until the resolution. Keep the characters in the situation.
2. What does each character want? To what degree will he or she go to get it?
3. Each sentence should reward the reader. If nothing is happening in the sentence, if it’s just spinning its wheels, then it needs to be cut.
The best advice I ever received about writing wasn’t really advice; it was more along the lines of an observation. And maybe it wasn’t even the best anything, per se, because it is difficult to quantify these things, but whatever it was, it made a whole lot of difference to my first book. What happened was this: I had spent the summer of 2013 in Montana, radically revising The Given World, but wasn’t at all sure about the ending. I subsequently attended the Mendocino Writers Conference specifically to work with Peter Orner, whose work I love, and submitted the last chapter of my book for him to comment on. Of course this was totally unfair, as he had not read the rest of it, but he gave it a shot, and what he said was, “I think you may be trying to tell too much, to tie it up too neatly.” It was a one-on-one session, the rest of which we spent talking about other things, but two days later I went home and cut a third of that chapter, sent the manuscript to my agent, and two months later we sold it. The ending is not perfect, but it is also not “neat.” Nothing about the book is neat, and sometimes (often) less is more. Maybe always. I will not forget this, at least not for very long.