what would Tsitsi do? thoughts on filtering in the age of how-to

In moments of writerly desperation, INTERN has been known to go on wretched binges of advice-seeking, looking for answers in all the wrong places: cheesy novel-writing handbooks, questionable blog posts, even more questionable collections of "tips" on character arc and theme. She clicks through tab after tab in a terrible fever, not even reading but scanning, scanning, scanning, looking for the article that will say, "hey INTERN, on page 213, your character really needs to have the opposite reaction of the one she's having now." At the end of such a session, she feels drained and sheepish and no better equipped to tackle the problem at hand than she was when she started—yet the very next time a quandary appears, it's back to the search engine and the 808.8 shelf in the library again.

We live in a culture of how-to, and INTERN has been as guilty as anyone at encouraging it. The internet has taught us that there ought to be a certain type of answer for every question—not "go for a long walk and think about it," but "do step A and then step B and then step C and your character question will be resolved." Not "study it for years and seek out true teachers," but "sign up for this two-week seminar and emerge a novel-writing wizard." This is not to say that books, blog posts, seminars, etc. don't have their place, for they certainly do. But the binge mentality that can arise from the availability of so much information is a worrisome thing, and is surely the enemy of good writing.

A few months ago, Techie Boyfriend caught INTERN in the act of one such bender—which, speaking even more to its shamefulness, INTERN was doing in secret. The tabs were lined up on the screen; the library books were in a pile on the desk.

"What are you doing?" said Techie Boyfriend.
"Go away," shrieked INTERN.
Techie Boyfriend peered at the screen. "50 Ways to Nail Your Ending? Close that thing. Let's talk."

INTERN snarled at him, defensive. Just like other kinds of binges, this one was less about nailing INTERN's novel ending, and more about dealing with anxiety by cramming it full of something else—in this case, writing advice INTERN knew in her heart she didn't need.

Eventually, INTERN allowed herself to be coaxed away from the computer.

"Who's a writer you really admire?" said Techie Boyfriend.
INTERN thought for a second. "Um. Janet Frame."
"Would Janet Frame be reading that website you were just on?"
"Noooooooo."
"Think about that."

INTERN did think about it. She thought about it for a long time. And the more INTERN thought about  it, the more she realized the writers she most admires—Rivka Galchen, Kazuo Ishiguro, Virginia Woolf—would not be caught dead reading article after article purporting to teach them how to, quote, "nail" ANYTHING.

Again, this is not to bash writing advice books, or workshops, or articles per se—but merely to question the ways in which we consume them and, at their tip-centric worst, allow them to distract us from the deeper work of learning to write.

INTERN has a new rule for how she consumes advice or instruction of any sort, and here it is: what would Janet Frame do, or David Foster Wallace, or Tsitsi Dangarembga?

Remember what kind of writer you want to be, and shoot for that.

**

Is INTERN the only one who is prone this kind of bingeing in moments of anxiety and self-doubt? Are you careful about how you consume writing-related advice? Which writers do you most want to be like? In what ways is the writing advice industry helping writers? In what ways is it hurting or distracting us? INTERN wants to know!


Comments

  1. Good, well-grounded advice. Thanks for that.



    (oh, and have you considered opening up your Tumblr for comments? i've wanted to leave a comment a few times...)

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  2. thanks, Tom! and yes, INTERN has just enabled comments on the Tumblr...

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  3. Unfortunately, the standard advice given to everyone writing on the internet is to create numbered lists and write bullet points and avoid chunks of text longer than two sentences, which can make it hard for the advice to feel complete and nuanced. Also, much of it feels like it's being regurgitated from elsewhere. But there is a lot of wonderful, useful, and thoughtful advice available, and I find it often comes from writers I admire and want to be like.

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    1. to go all Marshall McLuhan on the conversation...the media is the message. the internet lends itself to a certain type of advice—which, in the long run, might trickle down to a certain approach to novel-writing. hence the importance of filtering, looking down the road and seeing where a certain path leads. INTERN can also point to *some* online writing advice from writers she admires—just not all of it :)

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  4. You are not the only one!! My solution for the How-To hunger is hinted at in your post. I seek out an author or artist I greatly admire and just read their stuff. Then I read it again and analyze how they did what they did to all my pleasure receptors. It's much more inspiring than any how-to manual and probably more useful.

    Besides, most of those how-to thingies are geared toward the average, the mediocre writer, the emotionally crippled self-doubter. You are not that writer!!

    I tell myself to stop consuming mental junk food--or perhaps mental scam vitamin supplements--and load up on all the most nutrient-rich work I can find. Reading good literature is more exciting and inspiring and less anxiety-inducing than the how-to business.

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    1. whoa, you're right! INTERN never feels anxious or panicked after reading good literature....she feels inspired, renewed, ambitious. maybe how-to creates so much anxiety because it makes everything look so straightforward that you feel like a freak for struggling, for not getting it right the first time. and great literature does the opposite because it shows you that writing isn't so straightforward at all, and that some things are worth struggling for.

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  5. I love bingeing on writing self-help. But if I actually have a problem - long walk with my mom to talk it out. (No wonder I get more writing done at home than anywhere else).

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  6. Rather than read a how to, I read. Dean Koontz always does it for me & then some fav YA authors. I'd to write like Brenna Yovanoff. You changed my writing so much that I rewrote my wip. I'll thank you soon ;)

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    1. glad to hear your rewrites were a success, Simon! and yes, reading a favorite author is the best form of writing instruction you can get...

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  7. Intern is wise to listen to Techie Boyfriend. How-To lists are formulas, and formulas make products. Techie Boyfriend knows Intern is an artist. Art makes one see things in a new way. How-To will suck the life out of Intern's work.

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    1. thanks, Mirka! INTERN is lucky to have people like you and Techie Boyfriend around to remind her of these truths when she gets all binge-y. :)

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  8. As an author who is querying, then editing and wondering when to end all of the over-analyzing, this post was a breath of fresh air. Thank you INTERN and Techie Boyfriend.

    Frantic writing advice, brain stuffing isn't going to make your novel perfect. Trusting yourself and your writing process, will.

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  9. I do this "binging" because it is an excellent, legitimate-looking form of procrastination. "Shouldn't you be working on your book?" the boyfriend scolds. "Yes, but I AM! I HAVE to read this for research purposes!" And, though suspicious, the boyfriend will leave me alone, trusting that I am in fact doing work rather than procrastinating and dreading doing the actual writing because I might do it wrong.

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  10. I have a different take on all this. And I thank you for your post and for the comments. The way I see the discussion so far is that there are two ways being discussed to solve a 'problem' in a piece of writing (and I'll save my critique of the problem-solving approach to writing for another day). One is the looking to lists of seven highly successful habits of very famous writers. The second is to read a lot of writing by excellent writers you admire. I agree that the former can have some usefulness, and the latter is just good in general. But I've found my more than a decade of teaching writers that what people most need to do is to sound more like themselves, and both of the above approaches take us *away* from our own quirky mash of neuronal pathways, synaptic crosshatchings, genetic endowments and unexplainable life experience. In my experience, the best writing (not to mention the most satisfying experience writing) comes from accessing the subconscious mind, inviting random chance to play a role, disabling the rational-linear mindset at least temporarily and surrendering, really surrendering to the odd impulses and unpredictability of the human brain. Then, from there, pulling out the best material and letting that be your guide, both for the problem at hand, but also for your writing mind in the future.

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