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Non-advice for Writers

Flickr Creative Commons: Sebastien Wiertz

Shortly after my third novel was published I started work on a fourth. I’m proud of all three of my books but I could see a steady progression of improvement in my writing—I did become a better writer with each book and I wanted this new one to be my best yet.

“Push yourself even more,” my agent said, meaning it in a good way. “Study your craft. Work on your craft. There’s always more you can learn about being a good writer.”

I took her advice to heart. I read books on how to write, from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life to Stephen King’s On Writing to Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life. I worked on the beats of my story after reading Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, and I seven-stepped my story a la John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. I studied plot, character, metamorphosis, the Hero’s Journey, conflicts, and aha moments. I drew charts and wrote on index cards and white boards.

And I got stuck. Miserably stuck. I set that novel aside and started another. This fifth novel is complicated, and when I struggled I’d turn to my how-to books again and again, and write up more scenes on index cards color-coded for each character. But I got stuck.

I’ve been taking a break from writing fiction for a little while, but I recently read an article that made me realize it’s time to go back. It was a column about “The Perils of Advice,” by Parker J. Palmer (you can read it here: https://onbeing.org/blog/the-gift-of-presence-the-perils-of-advice/ [1]). The paragraph that struck me: “Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed—to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is.”

And that is what the best writing is—a witness to the human experience, a companion that lets readers know you’re not in this alone. You’re not the only one. Love, hate, rage, failure, success, disappointment, despair, elation, fear—we’ve all been there. And sometimes, for me at least, the way forward through writing is to let all that unfold without worrying about beats and steps and aha moments, but through recording—as a witness, as a companion—the story I need to tell.

I’m not saying that writers can write and rules and advice be damned; of course not. All great books are based on a solid foundation of structure and craft even when they appear seamless. But I am saying that sometimes relying too much on advice and how-tos can distract from the main purpose of writing fiction: To tell a story that says something about human experience.

So take a day or two and practice being a witness to your own story. What is the heart of it? What would happen if you didn’t try to “fix” it but just sat with it for a few days?

About Kathleen McCleary [2]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.