Since The Days of Yore began in May 2010, we have published seventy-five interviews with writers, artists, directors, performers…you name it. Seventy-five. That is something to be darn thankful for. And we certainly are. We are so thankful for every single person we have interviewed and so thankful for every single interviewee that has agreed to participate in the future.
Know what else we are thankful for? All the incredible advice we’ve been given over the course of these seventy-five interviews. As a Thanksgiving gift, we hereby give you a compilation of some of the very best of that advice. Makes for a good read when you’re in that late-afternoon food-coma. Maybe you’ll even find something that you’ll want to share around the table.
The Days of Yore
My advice is so basic. Number one: Read. I feel like it’s amazing how many people I know who want to be writers who don’t really read. I’m not convinced someone wants to be a writer if they don’t read. I don’t think the problem is that they need to read more; I think they might need to readjust their life goals. Reading is the nourishment that lets you do interesting work. To be reading good things. I feel that you should be reading what you want to write. Nothing less.
The second thing is, I feel like getting in the habit of it is huge. I guess that was my one accomplishment of those two years [with the first failed novel]— making it a routine is a gigantic part of it.
One corollary of that— and this is probably the most important thing for me— is being willing to write really badly. It won’t hurt you to do that. I think there is this fear of writing badly, something primal about it, like: “This bad stuff is coming out of me…” Forget it! Let it float away and the good stuff follows. For me, the bad beginning is just something to build on. It’s no big deal. You have to give yourself permission to do that because you can’t expect to write regularly and always write well. That’s when people get into the habit of waiting for the good moments, and that is where I think writer’s block comes from. Like: It’s not happening. Well, maybe good writing isn’t happening, but let some bad writing happen. Let it happen!
You know, I always say that you have to keep questioning yourself; if anything makes you uncomfortable when you’re writing, if it makes you feel squeamish about yourself or about the world, that is what you have to go for. That is true, but you also always have to find ways to give yourself real pleasure as a writer. And maybe that means writing poems that aren’t very good, or writing song lyrics…it means doing things, part of the time, that you really like when you read them. You just have to find ways to amuse and please yourself and be a little random and whimsical sometimes. Because that is what keeps the suffering in proportion.
Write every day. Ignore all things related to the market, professional literary life, and the publishing world until you’ve got a sense of what interests you about your own work, and then ignore all that stuff for another few years while you make the best work you can. Despite the swirl of anxieties people can get into about how to cope in the ever changing world of literary commerce, getting published isn’t the ultimate challenge. Making good work is. The rest will take care of itself. Or it won’t. But if it doesn’t, you’ll still be an artist. Success alone won’t make you one.
Perseverance is everything. People become experts of the obstacles in front of them. “I’m not tall enough to play football,” “I’m not smart enough to write a novel”…whatever it is. And school, school shows you exactly where the minefields are and is supposed to give you a map so you go around them. What about if stepping on a mine is part of it?
You have to live the life you claim you want to have. No one will prevent you, if you only want to live your life. I think we dance around the issue of doing exactly what we want. One of the reasons we don’t talk about doing exactly what we want is to cushion the blow—“Oh I didn’t want it anyway, so it’s OK that I didn’t get it,” etc. No. Apply for the jobs that you really want, and if you don’t get them, it should hurt. Write your stories and make your paintings so that if they fail, you feel bad, you are diminished in some way. Then you have to analyze why it didn’t go right for you, correct it, and go back again.
Another thing we have to sort of come out of the closet about is that what we are doing is trying to be one of the few and not one of the many. So you have to ask yourself: how do I become one of the few? You know what the answer is. Everyone does. Do exactly what you want. And then when you fail, it has to feel really bad. It pays to understand what your goals are. If you would be happy writing copy and having your house in the Hamptons, don’t pretend to want to do something else, don’t pretend to be a poet. Don’t be ashamed.
I have never sacrificed a single thing to be a photographer, to do the work I’ve done. No sacrifice. I wanted to do all that stuff. If you say you’re sacrificing, you are doing the wrong thing. Life is a lot more interesting if you say ‘yes.’ ‘No’ leaves you exactly where you are. Nothing changes. Try to say ‘yes.’
One is just to be wary of proven paths to success, because your own path may be a variant that does not look promising. Often I think the well-trodden path is not the most conducive to originality. And particularly in writing, originality is extremely important. There is just a huge value in being able to articulate your own take on the world and to risk a bit of transgression for the sake of interest. I think there is some truth to the idea that some of the best art is made in resistance to something. And so maybe my advice to young writers is to be attentive to that which makes you want to resist and consider what form your resistance might take.
Find your peers. It takes time. And it takes effort. It is not necessarily going to be the people you went to art school with. It is an ongoing process. It is so important for me to have the core group of artists I feel comfortable having in my studio and going to theirs. Because the commercial side of the art world really fluctuates, there are going to be good years and bad years for the rest of my life. But what can be constant is this ongoing dialogue with my peers. I can feel as though I made a great painting and there are people who are going to care about that, even though I may not be in fashion that year. That is the most important thing.
The challenge of trying to write excellent work, that in itself is huge. To also figure out a way to make a living doing what you love is incredibly difficult. You have to be creative. Some writers make excellent teachers, but that is not every writer. And I don’t think it’s the best thing for our literature that all the writing come from academia. There is a real richness that comes out of life experiences. Charlie Parker said, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” So one way for young writers to think about it is: what can I do that will actually enrich the writing? I think the best writing comes out of community, out of passionate engagement, not just with your life, but with the lives of those around you.
Well, this is sort of old-fartish advice – that is, the type of advice someone who already has a tenure-track job would give—but I do mean it: I think the only defensible position is to sort of say to hell with making a living and put all your energy into making something new, that seems beautiful to you – that is, to try your best to push your work into a new/iconic place and let the chips fall where they may. Otherwise you’re putting the cart before the horse, and it’s very possible that the emphasis on making a living (or being viable, or commercial, etc etc) might cause you to miss a vital path – to be, that is, both (a) lame and (b) unpublished.
All you can do is stick with it. And enjoy the time you have now when you are relatively unknown because no one is asking you for anything specific. There is nothing hanging over you. You are in a world right now when anything can happen. Enjoy that. Once you start publishing you really have to work to recreate that open feeling, because you immediately start getting placed. And now, you’re unplaced— unplaceable even. And that is a good thing. You don’t owe anyone anything.
Be courageous. Do not wait for the right circumstances to make your best work. Make your best work with the circumstances you are in right now.
You have to do bad stuff all the time until it gets good. To plan stuff won’t make it good, the only thing that will make anything good is doing something bad first. It’s sort of like planning to write novel— that doesn’t work. You have to write. Practice doing it. Practice doing everything. Practice carrying gear. Practice playing rhythmically. Practice playing with someone else. Practice being nervous. Practice doing everything, everything. There is nothing you don’t have to practice doing.
Read. Read, read, read. That would be the thing. Because, ultimately, it’s not about having something to say. It’s what Kafka said, “I write in order to affirm and re-affirm that I have nothing to say.” Writing is not about having something to say. It’s about an intense relationship with the symbolic. Which means being completely immersed in literature, which means in other literature, but also in the world and all its mediations. So, maybe that would be the advice: Go and get immersed.
My advice is always the same: Don’t go to publishing parties, don’t think the point of being a writer is about “connections” or “networking,” just keep reading and writing and sending your stuff out. I really believe what Bob [Gottlieb] told me years ago: unless you’re good, even the best connections in the world aren’t going to help you. You might get one piece somewhere, but you’re not going to have a career if you’re a crap writer with fabulous connections. Well, actually, I guess some people have—but would you want to be one of them?