“Get out and see the world. It’s not going to kill you to butch it up a tad. Book passage on a tramp steamer. Rustle up some dysentery; it’s worth it for the fever dreams alone. Lose a kidney in a knife fight. You’ll be glad you did.” – Colson Whitehead
I found an old book in the garage called “How to Get Started as a Writer.” Looked it up on line and saw that when the thing came out in 1965, Kirkus hated it. I glanced through it to see why I kept it and decided that it’s still in the house because I forgot about it.
I was going to write this post about it, but it drove me nuts reading the book’s advice. I took a Xanax and now I feel better. (All serious writers need to go nuts once or twice during their lives.)
If you type the words “how to be a writer” into your favorite search engine, you’ll find –well, let’s go check–161,000,000 hits. Sure, you may stumble across the Colson Whitehead piece or Stephen King’s On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft. If so, fate has smiled upon you.
If you start reading the rest of the advice, you’re doomed. As a prospective writer, you would only be in worse shape if you stayed in school until you were 35 years old getting a B.A. in English, an MFA in creative writing, and a PhD in God only knows what. Your head’s now filled with rules and, sad to say, not much else.
None of your teachers will suggest getting dysentery because that’s crude, unpleasant and harder to control than, say, using too many adjectives.
I’ve had dysentery several times. Changed my life. Just how, is one of the most guarded secrets every writer has. Hint: you know how to see what if situations (King likes “situations” better than plots) and turn them into stories. A lot of advice sites say you have to have passion. Well, okay, but it doesn’t beat dysentery or losing a toe to frostbite. (I tried to do that but failed and I really think that failure has kept me from selling as many books as King and Rowling.)
I don’t know if either of them lost toes, but I do know neither of them studied the rules in school until they were 35 and then suddenly sold a billion copies.
Doom, is thinking you need advice. Fatal doom is taking whatever advice you find.
Doom is thinking that somebody else knows better than you how to turn your own dysentery, lost toe, going nuts or a frightful encounter with _________ (fill in the blank) into the kind of “been there, done that” raw talent that makes memorable stories happen.
It helps to trust where you’ve been and what you’ve done and how you reacted when you saw what you saw. That is you. This isn’t to say you need to become a serial killer before you can write a novel about a serial killer. TMI, as people say in chat rooms. On the other hand, if you lose your kidney in a knife fight, you’ll be more apt to write memorable prose about killers than the poor doomed soul who studied language for 35 years instead of living a life.
Reading this post will also doom you as a writer. Too late now. But there is an antidote to everything I’ve said here. Get drunk and/or stand in the snow until one or more toes fall off. Only then will you have the passion and instinct to write. If you still need more passion, eating rancid pork is better than reading another “show, don’t tell” article.
Whatever you do, you need to stay alive long enough to write your stories. But fever dreams, oh yes, those will get you on the bestseller list as long as the fever breaks long enough for you to pick up a pencil before your spirit hears a doctor saying “time of death.”