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On Advice Given to Writers

When you are a young writer, or an unproven writer, you receive a great deal of well-meaning advice from people who don't write and can't understand why you persist at it. Some of the advice is helpful — most of it, probably, is helpful: keep at it; don't give up, being the most common and broadly supportive. It costs the person nursing the sobbing, recently rejected writer very little in the way of insight or effort to urge them to "keep at it," and the effect is disproportionately useful.

If truth be told, when it comes to the crunch, a writer keeps at it and a non-writer gives up. There's not as much moral courage as we would like to think about the tenacity and immortal optimism of writers, just the compulsion to do it that, following a disappointment and after a period of mourning lasting anything from hours to years, will come to the fore. The writer will keep writing, and simply "keeping at it" will almost certainly improve both their work and their odds of success.

Before my first book, The Outcast, was successfully published in 2008, I spent more than 15 years as a sporadically employed, unproduced screenwriter. I had a card on my desk, a quotation attributed to Calvin Coolidge, that I read daily.

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

I found this both encouraging and profoundly depressing, but I was also, as millions of people have been, girded by its unswerving logic.

That genius and talent are tossed aside so easily in this neat packaging of what it takes to "make it" was unsettling.That genius and talent are tossed aside so easily in this neat packaging of what it takes to "make it" was unsettling. I knew the gift of talent was out of my control and not worth agonizing over. Talent is something you can't manufacture: a lightning bolt of luck or a genetic accident that blesses a person with the possibility of excellence. It is impossible to work creatively in the firm belief that one doesn't have it, but equally inconceivable to presume its fragile and essential presence; frankly, it doesn't bear thinking about. Persistence though, there's a thing you can work on. And writers are workers. A lot of jokes are made about laziness and avoidance techniques, but scratch one and you'll find a workaholic — or an alcoholic, but that's another story.

The other adage dealt out to the struggler is more amorphous: Find your voice. There's an almost Walt Whitman quality to this one, tinged with Disney. Much is made of the "writer's voice." In publishing there is often a wave of excitement when "a new voice" is perceived to have "arrived." If I seem cynical I certainly don't mean to be. As a writer I am only too aware that when I'm not writing I feel myself to be in some profound way mute. First, as the bible has it, there was the word. And there is no better way of putting it: a writer is a voice; we hear them down the decades, the centuries, speaking to us.a writer is a voice; we hear them down the decades, the centuries, speaking to us.

In thinking about this it occurred to me that the writers I admire fall into two camps: stylists whose every book is written clearly in their particular and unmistakable voice, and the chameleons who seem reinvented with each new book but no less authentic for it. I would put Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Tom Stoppard, Hemingway, and Jane Austen in that first camp; Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch, Shakespeare, and Julian Barnes in the second. One only needs to hear one sentence of Faulkner or Joyce to know who it is — those writers are icons, easily and cheaply pastiched. To read Virginia Woolf's Orlando and then Mrs. Dalloway is, in utter contrast, to travel the broad and varied landscape of a vast psyche. Is the one kind of writer necessarily limited by having just one way of telling their stories? Is the other somehow false, hiding behind style?

Having played this game for a little while, mainly in approaching and preparing this essay, I've come to the conclusion it is a nonsense. To pin down such a vast and mysterious thing as the writer's voice in this way is banal. We can't begin to contain or describe the nature of a creative character and turn it into a parlour game. The decisions that writers make, consciously or unconsciously, from word to word and moment to moment about what will be on the page I hope to remain forever mysterious to me. Creation ought to be mysterious.

I can only talk with authority about myself as a writer, and even then I've precious little light to shed. The thing about the writer's voice that fascinates me, and that I suppose I take issue with, is the idea that it seems to presuppose I may only have one. To look ahead at books as yet unwritten and imagine them all with the same voice gives me a feeling of dread familiarity, that I might start a new story and discover with weary recognition, oh, it's you again. I prefer to think of it in terms of the book's voice; for me that is an altogether more vibrant and fascinating thing. The book itself has life, has its voice, and my job is to discover it. I am often convinced when writing that the world of the story exists effortlessly somewhere and I must use all my facility, all my energy, my persistence, in fact, to find it. I the writer cannot control the talent, but I can control the effort absolutely. Then I find it is also true that we cannot control the essential voice of a story we can only attempt to allow it to be heard.

÷ ÷ ÷

Sadie Jones is the author of the novels Small Wars and The Outcast, which won the Costa First Novel Award in the United Kingdom and was a finalist for the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. The Uninvited Guests is her third novel. Ms. Jones lives in London.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Uninvited Guests
    Used Hardcover $8.50
  2. The Outcast (P.S.)
    Used Trade Paper $3.95
  3. Orlando: A Biography Used Trade Paper $4.50
  4. Mrs. Dalloway
    Used Trade Paper $4.95

Sadie Jones is the author of The Uninvited Guests

One Response to "On Advice Given to Writers"

    Paul Lamb May 30th, 2012 at 10:39 am

    I especially like your conclusion that "Creation ought to be mysterious." I certainly don't want to know too much about the swirl of my creative self. Were I too conscious of how it worked, I fear I would slay it.

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