Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Writerly Advice (Part 1)

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By Dennis McCloskey

I have always believed in the adage that advice is far more blessed to give than receive. But I have been dispensing advice in the last 5 blogs, as the January Writer in residence, so I’d like to turn the tables and tell you about some advice I received as a young writer.

In 1990 I was assigned to write an article for Books in Canada, titled “Author’s Advice.” My job was to contact well known Canadian authors and ask them one question: “What advice would you give to a person who aspires to a writing career?” I got in touch with 16 authors and, not surprisingly, some of their tips were similar--but others were quite divergent.

Hugh MacLennan, best known for his 1945 classic novel “Two Solitudes” responded to my query with this sage and practical advice: “Get a job which will support you, and write as well as you can. In time you may make a breakthrough.” Sadly, MacLennan died on November 7, 1990, two weeks after he wrote to me.

Some of the advice I received was pithy, like that from Pierre Berton, who wrote 50 books before his death on November 30, 2004. Berton’s concise and succinct counsel was in two parts: (1.) Read as much as you can and try to see how others writers did it; (2) Write as much as you can. There’s nothing like trial and error.

A majority of the authors I contacted provided similar responses. Aritha van Herk suggested reading a book a day (“a good book”), and Max Braithwaite said: “Read a lot. And write!”

Below are some of the other responses I received. Sadly, some have died since I asked for their guidance. But their words of wisdom live on. I will include the rest in another blog on another day...so stay tuned, even though not everyone welcomes advice with open arms and an open mind. Lord Chesterfield wrote in 1748: “Those who want it the most always like it the least.”

“What advice would you offer a person who aspires to a writing career?”

Robertson Davies:
“Sit down and write. You will teach yourself; nobody can teach you to write like yourself and there is no sense in writing like anybody else.”

Farley Mowat:
Stay away from writing courses and similar traps, and Read, Read, Read as if your life depends on it (as indeed your hoped-for literary life truly does.) Write like a person possessed. Keep a voluminous daily journal and don’t let a day go by without heating up your word processor to incandescence. You can’t spell? Don’t worry about it...neither can I.”

Joy Fielding:
“Don’t worry about what people might want to read. Concentrate instead on what you want to write. If something really interests you, the odds are that it will interest a lot of other people as well. Also, forget about your childhood. Chances are it’s of interest only to you and your immediate family.”

Jane Rule:
“I don’t know anything about writing as a ‘career.’ For me it’s been an obsession—a fairly expensive one for the first 20 years during which I ignored all the good advice to stop. Writers, like other people, don’t want advice. They want encouragement and there’s very little of that around until long after it’s needed.”

In my next blog, I’ll tell you about the writerly advice I received from June Callwood, Timothy Findley, Matt Cohen, Marie-Claire Blais, Jean Little, Gordon Korman, and more from Max Braithwaite.

4 comments

I have to agree, the more you read, the better you write

More excellent advice on writing! Here's another (facetious) tip from Elmore Leonard: "I try to leave out the parts that people skip."

1. Ignore all "writerly advice" 2. Listen to your spirit, feel your way, do what YOU need to do. 3. Repeat.

Spanking brand new thoughts on writing, never heard before, I promise. - A lie; of course there is no such thing. But centuries' repetition surely lends validity and substance, don't it?

1. Be patient. 2. Recognize the fresh open inspired space you write best in, vs. the tight struggle that makes writing feel like so much work, wrenching out stuff that isn't even good. 3. Recognize what it is you need to find that fresh open space (sit in quiet? sit outside? at dawn? read writers you like? none or all of the above?). 4. And do what you need to do to set up that space - make it happen. 5. Be patient! 6. Write. 7. Repeat.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dennis McCloskey

Dennis McCloskey is a journalist and editor and the author of numerous books. Several hundred of his human interest and business articles have appeared in over sixty-five newspapers, magazines and corporate newsletters in Canada, the US and Europe. His latest book, My Favorite American, is published by General Store Publishing House.

Go to Dennis McCloskey ’s Author Page