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One Writer's Ravings:
A Logophile's Blog
for Language Lovers

Some Crusty Advice for Aspiring Writers

Like many who make the mistake of getting published instead of getting a real job, I often find myself in the unenviable position of trying to answer a question all professional wordslingers dread: "What advice do you have for aspiring writers?"

Whenever I am asked this question, it never fails to elicit a sad smile and a deep sigh. I usually quote Jacques Barzun: "Writing is at the mercy of the largest number of amateurs—almost the entire population," and then tell the offending inquisitor, "My best advice is to get out while you still have a fighting chance."

If I'm feeling especially impecunious at the moment, I quote Samuel Johnson: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." Or, if I'm in the mood for a bit of levity, I paraphrase Mark Twain's quip about exercise: "Whenever you feel the urge to write, my friend, lie down until it goes away."

Mark Twain once gave an aspiring writer an elaborated version of Johnson's terse sentiment: "Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years the candidate may look upon his circumstance with the most explicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for."

And Dr. Johnson once famously responded to a young writer who had given him a manuscript to evaluate: "Sir, your writing is both original and good. Unfortunately, the parts that are original are not good, and the parts that are good are not original." I think that assessment also applies to at least nine-tenths of the writing on the Internet.

Perhaps the cleverest answer to the aspiring-writer-advice question that I've ever heard came from the journalist and racetrack novelist William Murray, who spent his last years living in San Diego (where I live, so I got to know him a bit). After Murray gave a talk on his work and life, a young aspirant popped the inevitable question. Without so much as a beat Murray answered, "Marry well." At another point during the Q and A someone asked him how he stays motivated to write, and Murray said, "I just check my bank balance."

I have no idea why so many people think writing is a glamorous job. And I am baffled by how many people think they could be successful writers if only they had some connections and more spare time. I continually meet people who think that's all you need to be a writer. Curiously, I never meet people who think they could be sculptors or harpists or trapeze artists if they only had more free time.

When I was a callow youth, stuffed with more dreams than sense, I showed one of my stories to a wise old woman who had many years of professional writing and editing under her belt. She read it, made a few gentle suggestions, and then asked me if I was serious about being a writer. "Yes," I answered, tentatively. "Well, just remember this," she said. "There are lots of people who want to be writers, but precious few of them want to write."

When F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 15-year-old nephew, Andrew, told his uncle that he was trying to build his knowledge of words, the novelist wrote back with this unusual piece of advice: "Upon mature consideration I advise you to go no further with your vocabulary. If you have a lot of words they will become like some muscle you have developed that you are compelled to use, and you must use this one in expressing yourself or in criticizing others. It is hard to say who will punish you the most for this, the dumb people who don’t know what you are talking about or the learned ones who do. But wallop you they will and you will be forced to confine yourself to pen and paper. Then you will be a writer and may God have mercy on your soul!"

I leave you with perhaps the crustiest advice for aspiring writers that I have so far come across. In a 1991 letter to his friend Horace Davenport, the Canadian novelist and essayist Robertson Davies, remarking on the lectures on reading and writing that he was about to deliver at Yale, had these dark words for the aspiring writer:

"Everybody writes, but that is not what Shakespeare and Shaw did, and no amount of Creative Writing Courses will produce talent where it has not existed before, and if it has existed before, Creative Writing Courses may be left to wistful aspirants, because to a real writer the only Creative Writing Course is life itself and it goes on for 24 hours a day. As I grow old I get sick of the bullshit that insists that everybody has an immense amount of Creativity which must be unleashed by striking off the fetters of technique. People who can write, do, and those who can't should shut up."

If only all the bad bloggers out there would heed Davies's advice!

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