July 11, 2014

15 Bits of (Unsolicited) Advice for Writers. ~ Sara Jean Deegan

Type by Irvin Kelly

“To live is so startling, it leaves very little time for anything else.” ~ Emily Dickinson

They say that it is more important to know where you are going, than to get there quickly.

Lately I have been meditating generously on the temporal nature of life.

Life is so brisk, how can I find the time to cultivate my passions, make a living and love my job? For instance, I have so much French homework, but would rather write these words instead.

Life is a terrible balancing act, and I am as inept as a playful, little kitten with a ball of yarn.

My point is that life always happens or shit happens in the zen like sense, sometimes we have to weigh our sacrifices in order to find the middle road. Nonetheless, the quality of one’s play is essential to the production of the happiness and equanimity of one’s soul, but money is necessary for life.

Without further ado, here is my (unsolicited) advice to myself and writers:

1. Earn a degree.

The most overstated advice that I hear to young writers is “don’t get a degree, just write.”

Stephen King taught high school until he could build his career as a writer. J.K. Rowling did the same thing.

Don’t take the safe route, but find ways to safeguard your physical well being by expanding your skills.

My big brother once said, “What you love plus real skills equals dream job. Love isn’t all. Hands plus Heart equals Genius.” My brother played a role in shaping my perception of art as a form of humanitarian service rather than fame seeking or self-serving.

Meanwhile my older sister achieved her doctorate, I continued to drop out of college (a trend since high school. I have attended three different universities and one junior college in my young adult life) in order to write my beloved novel.

But this isn’t the 1950’s, perhaps I am no Hemmingway or Salinger, but this is an era when the average person serving you coffee likely has a degree.

Some people prefer the life of a struggling artist, but even my brother, the epitome of one, tells me to just “get a practical degree,” whereas “the writing will come,” and he is now earning his masters of psychology in order to teach playwriting therapy to underprivileged, troubled youths and teens from abusive backgrounds.

We could gain access to the skills essential to marketing our own dreams and forging a path, creating a safety net by pursuing pragmatic goals as well as the artistic in order to achieve self made success, rather than “waiting to be discovered” or going on auditions.

What you get your degree in doesn’t matter as much as having one. The people I know that are not using their degrees, choose not to.

Pursuing a degree offers us a variety of options. You can have your cake and eat it too. It is a hard world, speaking as a high school dropout, life in college is a life better than working five jobs and finding the time to write, practice yoga, etc. and forget about spending money on anything or one that you love.

The “struggling” artist cliche (let’s face it) is romantic and awesome if you are lucky enough to have the financial support from family, friends or a partner.

It is not fun living paycheck to paycheck for ten years, and god forbid if you are ever in a crisis and needed money for your dog’s surgery. It was fun for a few years until I turned twenty five and realized that I do not want to end up single and living at home at thirty (no offense).

I dreaded another year that slipped by where my dreams continued to deteriorate under the pressure of paying rent, flopping around like a fish out of water travelling from job to job, I think I have wasted a third of my life sitting in LA traffic.

Therefore, you might want to consider advancing towards a degree (even online) because no one wants to end up, like so many of our greatest, renowned writers, homeless and poor living in the gutter, even if you are looking up at the stars.

Henry Miller said that the world won’t let a pretty girl starve, but speaking from experience (tongue-in-cheek), that simply is untrue. It is a dog eat dog world, despite all of its beauty.

You don’t have to suffer penniless in order to write well, although it may sound like an idealistic notion, it is becoming archaic.

You cannot write by neglecting living your life, or avoiding death.

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style”. ~ Maya Angelou

2. Write by hand.

Write your first draft by hand, preferably with a parker pen and those two dollar marble notebooks. Get off the computer. With less distraction, something magical happens. Many of these habits I have unmistakably accrued from my brother.

“I think if you feel like you were born to write, then you probably were.” ~ Lena Dunham

Aurelian N.

3. Write your shit pages first thing in the morning.

Okay, this one I definitely stole from my brother. Essential to releasing toxins, but for your mind, body and soul, I feel ten pounds lighter already.

“It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

“I write one page of masterpiece to 91 pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

4. Show up to the job.

I am a creature of habit.

Apply ass to chair, I think that I read that somewhere, nevertheless it is good advice.

Write lying down if you must, like Proust, or soaking in the tub. Set your timer so that you won’t procrastinate.

I will make and eat breakfast in bed, walk my dog, watch a movie or read a book, until the timer goes off, and then I must write. If you write freelance, and get paid to work from home (lucky), developing a routine is crucial to maximizing productivity, begin by setting the habits before the paycheck arrives in the mail.

Make it your “duty” and designate that you are the boss.

Make it fun, create what you love, love your job, but remain unattached to the results, and hang on to your degree, just in case, it may come in handy one day, (or not, but gives me time to cultivate my craft until I can master it, rather than working five jobs, hoping to win the lottery or a temporary high paying gig to pay the rent.

At one point, even the life of an escort was beginning to look more attractive compared to the alternative). If I have nothing left to say, I will reflect for an hour on the meaning of nothingness in order to reinforce my routine and often discover that I write for longer.

“It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.” ~ Robert Benchley

5. Take the pressure off to write well.

If you still feel like you can’t write, ask yourself if you want to write. If not, then don’t. It is a life long journey.

“In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write?” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

6. Simplify, simplify, simplify and utilize strong verbs.

Most beautiful writing, like a butterfly, is not just born that way, just like most beautiful people.

Editing is where the magic happens, my pages evolve before my eyes. Fluidity in our writing and life requires our ability to bend like a tree in the wind, sway with the mercurial tide or edit our favorite sentence.

Sometimes the first draft is perfect, more than likely it is an ugly duckling in disguise. Most of the time it is a lot of tedious work. Cut out as many needless words as possible and utilize strong verbs to bring your work of art to life. Strong verbs compels action.

Imagine that you are floating down a stream, in a lake or body of cool water, lying on your back.

Feel the cool water gently rising beneath you, as you sink your heels and fingertips into the refreshing water, gazing up at the crystal sky, imagine that your mind is the sky and your thoughts are floating by clouds.

As you become aware of each thought, label it “thinking.” Try to remain unattached to each thought, feeling, emotion or desire as they pass. Take a deep inhale, now exhale let it go. Practice remaining unattached to the results of your practice, simplifying your thoughts in order to gain clarity in your writing.

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” ~ Stephen King

“Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.” ~ Mark Twain

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” ~ Albert Einstein

“My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”
~ Ernest Hemingway

7. Read as much as you can, read everything.

Enjoy reading with the childlike joy and curiosity of rediscovering your favorite book for the very first time. Remember why you love to write if it feels like work.

Open your heart and allow yourself to be moved to tears and laughter and do not read easy books, read to evolve as a human being in order to become kinder and more compassionate.

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.” ~ Franz Kafka

Mo Riza

8. “A writer needs a room of one’s own.”  ~ Virginia Wolfe

Meditate. Learn to enjoy your own company, flourish in solitude. One must gaze inward in order to write well. Spend quality time alone. Learn to be your own best friend. My sister once told me, “Take pride in who you are.” Blossom in opportunity and write through diversity. The pen is mightier than the sword.

“I write to discover what I know.” ~ Flannery O’Connor

9. Carpe diem and coup de foudre!

Seize the day, get hit by lighting and fall in love at first sight. No excuses, stop waiting. There is no inspiration without perspiration. Carry a pad and pen with you because inspiration might strike anywhere. You will never be ready and life is short so take a plunge, jump in, the water is fine, sink or float, or tread water. Do it now. Don’t wait to write your novel.

Cultivate creativity by scheduling a routine, pursue it with fierce determination.

Take your time, do not rush or force anything, but don’t wait for inspiration to come knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door and hit you over the head.

A garden grows when you reap what you sow, perform your action, water your garden and then patiently wait for your seeds to gestate. Similar to a lotus flower rising from darkness or even the tiniest, smallest and most delicate bud, which summons the mightiest force in order to penetrate cracked concrete, overcoming adversity, believe that your vision will manifest to fruition, burgeoning like the flaming phoenix from its own ashes or rising sun.

But, don’t count on it, release your expectations and keep trying, no matter how many times you fail, never quit. Even if you have to tie your poems up with ribbon on your deathbed like Emily Dickinson. I am writing to save my life and you can call me melodramatic, but do not wait to write your novel.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” ~ Samuel Beckett

“Any man who keeps working is not a failure. He may not be a great writer, but if he applies the old-fashioned virtues of hard, constant labor, he’ll eventually make some kind of career for himself as writer.” ~ Ray Bradbury

10. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.

Experience life in its fullest glory.

Feel things deep in the marrow of your bones, break your own goddamn heart, fall in love, become sensitive to the feelings of others and self aware, have a one night stand, if it feels right, travel with the wind in your hair and no agenda.

Believe in yourself.

Maintain your conviction, dedication, discipline and virtue by opening to the possibility of surprising even yourself, creating something greater than you possibly could have imagined.

Do not let your dreams deferred wither up and dry, pursue your passion with gusto, even if you must scribble an infinite shitty pages in order to write well.

I do not want to settle for less than my best, I’ll make peace with my regrets. I write because I believe that I have something to say. I write because I believe that my voice and every voice matters. I am a writer because I feel things and want to make other people feel things, too.

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” ~ Robert Frost
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?”
~ Langston Hughes, A Dream Deferred

A National Acrobat

11. Grab the slogan and bull by the balls, take life on your own terms and seek new opportunities, but even the best laid schemes of mice and men go aft astray.

Grab life by the knickers, pull up your bootstraps, kick up your heels or crawl if you have to, baby steps permitted.

If I had it my way, I would have written my masterpiece at nineteen like Mary Shelley, but it might have been all downhill from there, like the popular kids in high school. It has taken many authors ten years to write their first novel, I know because I googled their biographies.

Take risks, be willing to make a fool out of yourself, pick yourself up and try again. The best writers are broken and have refused to succumb to hopeless despair, the path of the warrior requires discipline before passion.

Refuse no for an answer (and I am very good at getting my way, except in love. My mother and sister said that I should become a lawyer because I could argue with a brick wall and win).

Hang your rejection letters on the wall like Sylvia Plath. You may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but that does not mean that you lack talent or drive.

“What if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring of into space like when you were a kid?”

It’s going to break your heart.

Don’t let this happen.

Repent just means to change direction—and not to be said by someone who is wagging their forefinger at you. Repentance is a blessing. Pick a new direction, one you wouldn’t mind ending up at, and aim for that.

Shoot the moon.

Here’s how to break through the perfectionism: make a lot of mistakes. Fall on your butt more often. Waste more paper, printing out your shitty first drafts, and maybe send a check to the Sierra Club.

Celebrate messes—these are where the goods are.

Put something on the calendar that you know you’ll be terrible at, like dance lessons, or a meditation retreat, or boot camp.

Find a writing partner, who will help you with your work, by reading it for you, and telling you the truth about it, with respect, to help you make it better and better; for whom you will do the same thing.

Find someone who wants to steal his or her life back, too.



One wild and crazy thing: wears shorts out in public if it is hot, even if your legs are milky white or heavy. Go to a poetry slam. Go to open mike, and read the story you wrote about the hilariously god awful family reunion, with a trusted friend, even though it could be better, and would hurt Uncle Ed’s feelings if he read it, which he isn’t going to.

Change his name and hair color—he won’t even recognize himself. At work, you begin to fulfill your artistic destiny.

Wow! A reviewer may hate your style, or newspapers may neglect you, or 500 people may tell you that you are bitter, delusional and boring.

Let me ask you this: in the big juicy Zorba scheme of things, who fucking cares?” ~ Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

12. Writing a novel is a dark night of the soul.

Do not glorify the writer.

Writing is a painfully deliberating task. I don’t buy the bullshit that writing your novel was the best experience of your life.

The results emerge organically when we are ready to reap the harvest of our sow, but only after a harsh, frigid Fargo winter and Blazing hot, fucking dry desert Arizona summer. Nothing good comes to exist without struggle, like the diamond and the rock, like giving birth, good art requires very uncomfortable, painful contractions. Friction breeds creation. Great struggles breeds great art, it is scientifically proven.

“So don’t wish for an easy life, but an inspired one. Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one” ~ Bruce Lee

“Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.” ~ Flannery O’Connor

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” ~ George Orwell

13. Read your work out loud, and revise it over and over again.

This is self explanatory.

14. Write for the fans, not the critics.

That is all.

15. Keep a beginner’s mind.

“We all need a teacher or a guide to lead the way out of moments of unclarity. No matter how “advanced” you are keeping a beginners mind allows you to be open to receiving the wisdom available in every moment.” ~ Kino MacGregor (arguably the best ashtangi of our time).

In conclusion, the artist achieves creative licenses to improve upon society, rather than acting as a pawn in a fashion spread magazine, which is mostly a detriment to society by perpetuating unrealistic standards of beauty and uninspired, corporate funded “advertisements” at the expense of our soul and happiness.

Maximize efficiency, as well as reinforce the skills daily, pursue multiple ventures and don’t make it somebody else’s responsibility to discover your talent at the mall.

Avidly seek honest self expression through your work, and pragmatic goals to market your skills rather than wait for a role in somebody else’s dream.



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Apprentice Editor: Carrie Marzo / Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photos: Irvin Kelly/Pixoto, Aurelien N./Pixoto, Mo Riza/Pixoto, A National Acrobat/Flickr

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