A Humorous Look at the Writing Life from the AWP18 Conference

Because it’s Monday and I’m still recovering from a weekend of yardwork, this post is going to be about a less serious, but still relevant and useful, topic at the AWP18 conference. The discussion was titled “The Worst Writing Advice I Ever Got”.  Amazingly, bad advice is a huge part of the writing life. It’s offered freely, often by people who actually have no idea what they’re talking about! Given this, I was eager to get a few laughs in before the conference ended, but to also learn some effective strategies for dealing with the cynics and wet blankets I come into contact with.

I really enjoyed the advice that two of the panelists, writer Min Jin Lee and author Chris Abani, had to share about the counterproductive guidance and unhelpful writing tips they’d received.

Min Jin Lee immediately endeared herself to me by opening with the statement that she didn’t have an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) but had still managed to infiltrate AWP! The worst advice she received was that, if you’re a serious writer, you’re not supposed to care about marketing your work. In fact, she asserted, marketing should not be beneath our contempt. We should all strive to be “Literary Citizens”, letting readers know about what we’re writing in a variety of ways, including social media. She also wished she had understood from the start just how complicated the whole advice issue can be as she quickly discovered that the fact that writers don’t like authority, unfortunately comes into direct conflict with the fact that they need guidance in some areas.

Chris Abani had a few favorite pieces of bad advice that he’s ignored, such as “Write what you know” or “Don’t publish this book; it will end your career!”  His response is that only writing what you know is boring and that it’s best to save your particular neuroses for your personal life, rather than putting them on the page over and over again. Other bad advice he’s received comes from “career writers” who he described as vegetarians who only drink Evian water, don’t believe in the Internet, and tend towards “smoky” laughter. Writing should be like eating a pie, he elaborated. You buy it and you eat it, you don’t need to have a long conversation with it! He asserted that if you want to write you need to just do it. Don’t think about it, don’t talk about it, don’t wish and dream that you’re doing it. Many people want greatness, fame, and recognition-what they don’t want is to actually have to sit down and write the book.

Five More Tips about Good/Bad Writing Advice

  • The first seven drafts of your book are notes for the thing you’re actually trying to write.
  • Poetry has to be about proving how smart and intellectual you are.
  • Your writing is supposed to take you where you want to go, not where others think you should go (especially if they've never even spoken to you about your writing goals!).
  • “Do what you love and money will follow” should be rephrased as “Do what you love and get a job!"
  • Don’t constantly check the Amazon rankings of your book or read the reviews if it will interfere with your writing. If you do need to read them, try to learn from the negative ones. Whatever you do, don’t let them fester.

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