Some Thoughts on Writing Advice

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I’ve been thinking about a quote I posted last week by
Katherine Anne Porter. The quote speaks about the idea of “being ready,” of
waiting until one’s work is mature enough before beginning to pursue
publication. Porter says, “I think it is the most curious lack of judgment to
publish before you are ready. If there are echoes of other people in your work,
you’re not ready. If anybody has to help you rewrite your story, you’re not
ready. A story should be a finished work before it is shown.”

As an MFA student, one of the greatest benefits of the
program is the workshop environment. While work-shopping, other students offer
constructive criticism, suggestions, and advice on how to make your story or
novel better. I mean, there is a LOT of advice given. You almost can’t escape a
workshop without echoes of other people in your work. Not only do fellow peers
offer suggestions, but work is also shaped by the teachers in the program. Perhaps,
during this learning curve, while advice is being offered, we’re not yet ready
for the publishing world? I’m not sure. After all, beyond the MFA many people
hold their “first readers” near and dear and often rely on them for advice and feedback.
Does incorporating this feedback mean one is not ready?

This issue becomes even more complicated. Let’s just say
advice is beneficial… Well, therein rests another conflict: which advice and whose
advice is beneficial? Some people believe peer workshops can be hindering. They
say it’s a case of the blind leading the blind. How can newbie amateurs help
others in the same boat? Here’s a
possible flip side: we can learn from
others mistakes. We can learn from what isn’t working in a story. We learn how
to construct stories by picking them apart, analyzing them. No matter— in the
workshop environment much time is spent writing and thinking about fiction (or
non-fiction or poetry). This in itself helps one grow as a writer.

And what about a teacher’s advice? A mentor’s advice? Does
taking a more accomplished writer’s feedback suggest our work is not prepared to
go out into the world? Sometimes a trained, experienced eye can see things we
can not. However, and I’ve been running into this a lot lately—advice often
varies from teacher to teacher. One teacher suggests you cut two pages of your
story while the other recommends adding four. One will love the fantastical
elements in the story while another will strongly suggest you pull the story
in, grounding it in reality. All this is proof of how wildly subjective this writing
thing really is.

So. There are some potential hazards here, some questions
to consider. First— are we really not ready, as Porter suggests, if we take
others’ opinions and fold them into our writing? Secondly—how does one sift
through all the advice to decide what will benefit their singular piece of work? What
does one do when caught between two vastly different hard pressed pieces of
advice? Which road do you take? If any?

I’m posing a lot of questions in this post. Advice, advice,
advice. We all give it and take it. Some believe we may not even need it. In
life, my husband is big on asking as little advice as possible. Occasionally he
asks a trusted confidant what they’re recommendation would be, but rarely does
he question the masses. Me. Well. That’s a different story. I’m quite the
advice hog, if you will… I’m always calling not one person, but three, four,
and upwards from there. What do you
I say. What would you do?But this person said that, what do you think
of their advice?
I get lost in advice, muddled by it. This is unhealthy, I
know. I need to learn to trust my own judgment especially when it comes to my writing
because, at the end of the day, it is my
vision that I am releasing into the world.

One thing I know is this: when someone offers me advice and
I feel that little tug on my heart, that little voice that says yes, yes, I know it’s feedback I should
seriously consider. Just the other day I was contemplating the end of one of my
stories and I began to feel that the character needed more strength and resolve.
seems to have backtracked
, a writer friend told me days later after reading
it. We need to know she is going to be
All along I knew this, too. I just needed that little push, that
nudge, that reassurance. In the end, we do know what’s best for our stories and
we need to be true to that. Only when we’re true, when we stay committed to our
vision, do we create work that is unique and authentic. And then it becomes something we can bet on,
because authentic work seems to always find its way in the world. It always
seems to find an audience, a home.

can give you wiser advice than yourself.”