It’s like when someone on TV interviews a one hundred-year-old woman. They always ask her the same thing: What’s your secret? We’re all worried about the future; we want to know what she’s done to live so long. And she never says, “Oh, I don’t know. Don’t ask me. Luck, probably. Luck or lucky genetics or something.” Instead, she describes, as though it has magical properties, her daily regimen. And this regimen usually involves something bizarre like eating two pounds of shredded wheat soaked in bacon grease for breakfast, and then skipping lunch and dinner, instead fortifying herself with small beer-and-corn-syrup smoothies throughout the day. And we in the audience take our mental notes: huge amounts of fat, salt, carbs, and alcohol. Long life. Got it. Never mind that her longevity probably has nothing to do with her daily routine—which might even kill those of us who try it for ourselves—still we’re tempted to do what she does, just to see if it’ll help us survive.
Lately, I’ve been wondering if this is how it works whenever we take advice from successful writers. As a group, we’re hungry for advice—writers often prefer hearing about writing to actually doing it—so a lot of us snap to attention whenever somebody we admire drops some wisdom. But what if these admired writers are the same as the one hundred-year-old woman? What if their writing success (both the quality of the writing and the success in publishing) is the result not of their conscious writing strategies but of luck, or rare genius, or mysterious things that they aren’t even aware of? What if the advice is basically useless or even dangerous—so much bacon grease—and the only reason we never get to hear about its uselessness is that the many not-famous people who try it out (and fail) end up remaining not famous and so are not in a position to dole out writing guidance?
I started thinking about this when I read George Saunders’s excellent Author’s Note accompanying the current edition of his first book of short stories, Civilwarland in Bad Decline. The essay chronicles his journey from unpublished writer, metaphorically “getting [his] ass kicked in an alley somewhere” by the writing life too, well, the guy who wrote the much-celebrated Civilwarland, not to mention the also-celebrated Pastoralia and, most recently, the extremely much-celebrated Tenth of December. Despite his palpable humility about the whole thing, he does have some advice: “No more imitation.” He wants us to stop aping the authors we love, and says the writer is on the right track when “he starts sounding … like himself.”
And, I mean, this seems like pretty good advice—trying to develop your own voice has got to be better than trying to sound like a lesser Toni Morrison or Ernest Hemingway (his examples), right? But, reading this, I just had the feeling that it wasn’t the whole story. The whole story is more like, Try to develop your own voice, and it would be ideal if your own voice was as smart and delightful as George Saunders’s voice. And also it would be helpful if your stories happened by chance to be read by the right magazine editors when those editors were fully awake and in a good mood and were especially looking for a voice that happened to be yours in particular. And also it would be good if your publisher then promoted you really aggressively and effectively and if your particular voice happened to be exactly what America wanted to hear at that moment. In other words, feel free to drink beer smoothies, but the actual secret is having built-in long-life genes and a lot of luck.
And that’s even when we’re talking about good advice. Certainly there’s a lot more dubious stuff out there. Kelton Reid, in an article on copyblogger.com, talks about how Edith Wharton and Marcel Proust used to write while lying down, Hemingway and Albert Camus did it standing up, David Ogilvy downs half a bottle of rum in order to get the job done, and John Cheever used to write in his underwear. Does this mean we should throw out our chairs and uncork the hooch and start looking through Cheever biographies to help us decide between boxers and briefs?
Of course, it never hurts to try out a suggestion (though it might be better to start with a shot of rum rather than half a bottle). Something might surprise you and turn out to be useful. In that sense, it’s not a bad idea to listen to writers as they describe their process, because some of it might work for you. But that’s the key part: you. Saunders says you need your own voice; well, most writers agree that you definitely need your own process. Maybe the most basic advice—write what you know, for example—will fail for you, and maybe you’ll be the only person on earth who gets inspiration from, say, writing while washing your windows. Whatever it is, you have to do what works for you, and you experiment to find out what that is.
But there’s a more sobering take-home for me: our success is, partly, out of our hands. We do our best, and sometimes we still can’t quite write the way we want to. Or we (more or less) succeed at that part and just can’t get stuff published in the best magazines because we don’t know the right people, or our stuff reaches exactly the readers who (for their peculiar, idiosyncratic reasons) are not very open to our particular style, or maybe our writing is amazing but in a style that’s no longer fashionable—or that isn’t fashionable yet.
So, what can you do with that? Well, first of all, you just keep hammering away, working on your stuff and shooting it out into the world pretty much relentlessly. The more you write and the more you send it out, the better the odds are that someday you’ll be the person recommending that writers only work under full moons or in basements or only write about cousins or without dialogue or whatever it is. We still can’t control those odds, but we hammer away. And I’m starting to think that, in the meantime, we should listen to the wisdom of famous writers with a lot of skepticism. They made it this far—great. But probably they don’t know how they got there. Probably they’re just guessing or naming things that work only for them or clutching at things that seem relevant but aren’t.
I think what I’d really like is for successful authors to admit that they’re as lost as the rest of us. I have not always been so bold myself. In various interviews and articles I’ve talked about all kinds of things: my determination to write about things that scare me, or my thoughts on how to do revision, or on being flexible about where and when you write. But I think I was at my most honest when I wrote, for the Story Prize blog, “I’m pretty sure I still have no idea what I’m doing.” (That’s the Story Prize that Saunders won for his book Tenth of December, by the way.) Because I don’t know. And I’m not sure anybody else does, either.
So we listen to the authors we love. We nod politely. But we know that there are no magic tricks, no secrets. We get back to writing.
David Harris Ebenbach's is the author of two collections of short stories---Between Camelots (winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize) and Into the Wilderness (winner of the WWPH Fiction Prize)---as well as a poetry chapbook called Autogeography and a non-fiction guide to the creative process called The Artist's Torah. David was featured in issue 294.3/4. Find more at davidebenbach.com.