Why “Gentle Writing Advice,” Exactly?

If you follow me on Twitter (you fool), you may have seen that I have been doing a thread over there of so-called GENTLE WRITING ADVICE. (That thread is here.)

And I just wanted to talk about, for a moment, why I’m doing that.

So, an indeterminate amount of time ago — my Pandemic Brain tells me it was either a few weeks or seven-and-a-half years — some anonymous individual popped onto Twitter and pooped out some manner of self-identified HARSH WRITING ADVICE. And it was framed as much of this kind of advice often is, which is like, BOOM, FACT CHECK, IF YOU CAN’T WRITE 5000 WORDS A DAY WHILE HARBORING A VENGEFUL INTESTINAL PARASITE, YOU’LL NEVER SUCCEED. Or something. I honestly don’t remember what the advice was. (Correction: I found it. It was worse than I remembered.)

And I did a funny thread of how this advice often sounds, which is, blah blah blah, kill and eat your fellow creatives, if you use adverbs you’ll get butt cankers, whatever. But then I also started doing the opposite of that, a series of gentler, softer pieces of advice — not as a goof, but as a real thing. I thought it useful to talk about why I’m doing that, and am continuing to do it still.

A lot of writing advice is frequently prescriptive. Meaning, it is there to impose law and order onto the chaotic act of writing and art making. Creativity is a lawless land, and art/writing is the act of refining that chaos into order, and so it makes sense in a way that advice is frequently about the imposition of that structure. And artists and authors are viewed as these wifty, wispy spirits who can’t keep it together and who would starve if you didn’t press a taco into their searching hands once in a goddamn while. Certainly my own career is one made out learning that, indeed, if you wanna do this thing, then that requires work and effort, and it isn’t always pleasant, it isn’t always fun, and so it behooves writers to learn that lesson. So, writing advice tends to drift away from the chaotic, unpredictable tangle of writing and storytelling and into the “reality check” style of harsh writing advice — it is often presented as if one is doing a favor by delivering it. “Here,” says the author, “is a hard truth someone may not have told you, you’re welcome.”

I don’t think this is malicious. I even think that some part of it is designed to counter advice from charlatans and abusers who want to sell you fake empowerment or some kind of self-help advice in that direction. I think it often comes from a good place: “I learned these hard lessons, and most people won’t tell them to you.”

Here’s the current problem du jour 

These days, most people will tell them to you.

They will, in fact, mostly give advice in exactly this fashion.

I mean, how often do we endure lists from big authors where it’s TEN WRITING RULES and it’s a deeply prohibitive listicle of Dos and Don’ts, and if you violate them, you’ll never be published and your stories will suck open ass and you will die in a lightless, artless abyss as the God of Story will have turned His Sacred Gaze from you. How many times must we be told that adverbs are BAD BAD BAD (even though adverbs are a necessary part of language that includes words like “often” and “everywhere” and “after”). Or how if you use dialogue tags other than ‘said,’ you’ll get a chafing thigh rash? I mean, sure, yes, okay, if you write —

“I went to the mall!” Derek yammered hydroponically

— then you deserve the side-eye from an editor, but that’s not because of adverbs or dialogue tags, it’s because you wrote a… ennhyeah, a not-great sentence. You eschewed clarity in favor of stunt writing. Stunt writing is okay sometimes. But sacrificing clarity, probably not. But again, the problem there isn’t adverbs or dialogue tags, and assigning writing advice to tackle those specific things is not necessarily helpful. It demonizes the wrong stuff.

Think about it. How often have we been told to kill our darlings without also being told we have to learn what hills we need to die on? How often have we been told you have to sit and write 2000 words a day and not been told that some days you’ll be unable to do that, and you need to not write those words because some days are genuinely for sitting there and staring at the wall and then saying “oh fuck it” before going to look at some birds? And then, in looking at birds, you find an answer you didn’t expect to find because you were able to clear your damn head for five minutes. Some advice says we must write in short, declarative sentences — but sometimes, only a long sentence will do, and it is in some long sentences that we can both contain a world of information and metaphor while also creating rhythm and beauty in the flow of that very sentence.

My point here is that harsh writing advice is in ample supply these days.

And, frequently, it’s a very masculine style of advice, very Western, very pedagogical with a lot of stern grumpy faces and lectern-pounding.

It lends the very act of talking about writing this feeling that there are answers to how we do this thing that we do — that writing and storytelling is an equation, and as long as we adhere to the formula and plug in the proper variables, we will Properly Compose Content. And we will win awards and become bestsellers, huzzah and hooray.

Writing is a craft, and storytelling is an art, and together they form this nebulous interstice where it’s just clowns juggling medium-sized cats and those cats are juggling little cat-sized chainsaws and the whole place is on fire and did I mention the “place” is actually a blimp and it’s drifting swiftly toward a flickering lighthouse operated by orphans? All the harsh writing advice is all about how to steer out of disaster and how to not get cut by cats wielding chainsaws but it all too often fails to acknowledge the glorious chaos of the act, the strangeness of it, the unpredictability. It fails to give you advice on how to go with that chaos instead of against it — how to appease the clowns, how to become a cat, how to turn the light in the lighthouse on once more. It also fails to teach you how to crash. So much of writing and storytelling is in the crashing. So much good comes out of that part.

Too much of our advice presents for us a map, a magic incantation, an instruction manual, but those inevitably fail under rigorous testing. The map is to a forgotten world, the incantation was unique to the wizard who first spoke it, and the instruction manual is in Swedish.

Further, we are currently mired in a fucking pandemic. (In case you haven’t noticed. And going out in the world, it definitely seems like some people haven’t noticed.) Everything is harsh. Shit sucks. It’s very hard to write anything in this situation, I’ve found — the last four years in general have been pretty corrosive to creativity. So I just don’t feel like this is the best time to say, HEY HERE ARE THE HARD TRUTH RULES, YOU PIECE OF SHIT, YOU BETTER DO ‘EM OR YOU’RE GONNA DIE. Like, when our 9-year-old is having A Day, you can’t just pound your fist and growl at him and tell him to JUST GET IT DONE, whatever “it” happens to be. Sometimes you need to sit down and talk him through it, and appeal to him on a human level, a compassionate level, and allow some days to be hard. And on those days where he commits to just doing a little of whatever it is that needs doing, he often goes ahead and gets it all done anyway, because you didn’t try to force it. Some things you can’t force. Emotions are one of them. And emotions are all bound up in the creation of art and the telling of stories.

Now, I’ve also learned that this thing that we do must walk the line between self-care and ass-busting-work. It is work. It is good to acknowledge that it takes work. But we also need time to decompress, and to be kind to ourselves. While also at the same time recognizing that an overage of kindness can start to drift into the making of excuses, and if your self-care stands in the way of getting anything done ever, then it has become the opposite of self-care — it has ceased to be a way out and instead, become just another trap. Just in the same way that hard-grr-bust-your-assery can lock you up, burn you out, and do the opposite of what you needed done.

I’ve certainly been the guy who has pounded that lectern, and told you what to do and what not to do. I don’t even want to look back at old writing advice for fear of what hell I unleashed upon you. I’m sure some of it was helpful, and some of it wasn’t. And some of it may have been helpful then, and not helpful now, because context matters, and times change, and who we are as writers change, too. I mean, Christ, once upon a time I was like, DON’T BE A SNOWFLAKE, WRITERS CAN’T BE SNOWFLAKES, but…

… maybe writers are snowflakes? We’re all pretty unique. Sometimes we melt. And when we all get together, we can form an avalanche of awesome stories. I dunno. Maybe it’s okay to be a snowflake, a fingerprint, a singular being — as long as we don’t become too fragile or narcissistic about it?

All of this is a very long way of saying, I think harsh writing advice is too plentiful, and the pandemic is hard, so maybe it’s time to try the gentle stuff for a while. With the asterisk footnote that says, all writing advice is bullshit anyway, but bullshit can sometimes fertilize.

Be good to yourself.

Progress is progress.

Write on.