The Gross National Debt

Monday, December 13, 2010

Some advice you are free to ignore

If you will permit me a moment of hubris, how monumental depends entirely on your perspective, I am a word slinger of moderate talent, a paragraph architect of middling design and a sentence construction crew of fair proportions.

I am a writer, in other words. I’m fair at the task. Not great, not bad, except for moments of occasional brilliance and occasional moments where I’d be better off pumping septic tanks.

Every so often someone comes to me and asks for writing advice.

This takes 2 forms. One is straight writing advice. T’other is journalism advice.

In my years of assembling letters into semi-coherent fashion, I have driven a few people out of the writing business. More specifically out of journalism.

I say it was for their own good. Journalism and writing for mass consumption is NOT a pleasant place. It is not easy. It is not simple. Arrogance is rewarded. Timidity is crushed ‘neath the wheels of monster trucks driven by the competition.

The two people I ran out of journalism were, bluntly put, idiots and wimps blindly searching for a creative muse who would gently guide them to a path of excellence. I have encountered other people over the years who would have benefited from this advice. They pursued a career in journalism, investing 4 years of their life in college and a bit more time trying to be a journalist.

They failed. Spectacularly. They entered another career field disillusioned and disappointed.

They should have come to me in high school.

Yassee, journalism advice is easy.

Go get the information. Write the story. Keep yourself out of it. Your deadline is _______.

Journalism’s muse is a cigar-chomping, green eyeshade wearing, bull-necked, incredibly cynical and immensely wise 55 year old curmudgeon with three stiff belts of That Old Janx Spirit under his belt for lunch who doesn’t give a damn about your opinion, your views or what you may think of the subject matter, provided you turn in 15 inches of typo-free copy 30 minutes before deadline and you get both sides quoted.

Now writing advice, straight writing, that is a horse of a different planet. Journalism and writing, excepting the case of Hunter S. Thompson and Gonzo journalism, only share parts of a language.

So when someone asks me for writing advice, I un-knot my guts, defrost my brain and re-engage voluntary muscle control and tell them.

“My opinion doesn’t matter. Your opinion is the only one that matters. Go ye forth and write.”

S’truth. Absolute 100 percent truth.

Over the years I have been given 4 pieces of writing advice which have stuck with me.

Two pieces, I shall not share and I shall hope to carry these two bits of advice to my grave where they will moulder and decay to never again haunt the brain of a writer. The people who gave me these two pieces of advice, if there is any justice in the world, are dead themselves and so cannot inflict themselves on any other unsuspecting greenhorn writer. If they still yet live and I come across them … it will not be pretty.

Not even Reba McEntire could convince me to divulge those two items, so obnoxious I find them.

The other two items, I gladly share.

Kurt Vonnegut in his first speech as a successful writer told the college crowd (I paraphrase) “Why are you doing sitting here listening to me? Go! Write!”

The other bit of advice came from a full time freelance. He’d just turned down a request from a magazine to rewrite a piece to fit the editor’s requirements. He said it was the best feeling he ever had, to say “no” to an editor. His advice is “Write for yourself.”

So if you ask me for writing advice, I say, “Go and write for yourself.”

And that is literally all you need to know and do.

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