The Perils of Reading About Writing

I used to love reading about how to write more than I liked to write. While I longed to be a writer, writing was scary. It meant unmasking my own mind, delving into the dark complexities of my subconscious, my childhood wounds, my fears of rejection, and other traits I preferred to deny.

Chronically blocked, I was constantly looking for the how-to-write book that would catapult me into creative bliss. My book shelf was packed with inspiring glossy-covered books; however, my inspiration had mostly fizzled by the time I got around to writing.

In my quest I did come across good books I still treasure, such as Characters Make Your Story and Writing Down the Bones. Whenever I found a book I really liked, I wanted to christen the author as my personal mentor, drag her into the next writing session with me and have her tell me everything to do. Yet when I did sit down to write, all I had learned seemed to have abandoned me as I stared at the blank page.

There were other problems with reading about writing. The writers often contradicted each other and themselves. Some were “light editing” advocates who said the first drafts were always better because they were more honest, while other writers said “good writing is rewriting.” (The latter works best for me.)

Some said, “Go out and get some life experiences, then write.” This vague advice was unhelpful and confusing. What did it mean to go out and get life experiences?

The writers usually seemed to have a particular kind of experience in mind, daredevil feats or taking high risk jobs.  Did I have to join a circus or become a bar bouncer to have worthy thoughts about what it was like to be human?

The effect of this advice was to discourage me. I fretted about my “experience deficit.” It became yet another excuse for being under- confident. Besides, it took time to join a circus – time I could otherwise be using to write.

The writers generally propounded their opinions with great authority. They discussed rules of craft as if they were inflexible, universal, and definitive.

Ironically, the worst advice I have ever read ultimately taught me one of the most valuable lessons about writing. It taught me in a strange way: by discouraging me completely; by shattering my trust in advice- giving experts; by waking me up. Along with other painful writing experiences, it ultimately made me realize I had to stop looking to others for answers and trust my own mind.

The advice came from a popular writing magazine. In it, a best-selling writer declared that if you are having trouble making yourself write, writing must not be for you; you probably just like the idea of being a writer, not the act of writing itself; if that is the case, he advised, you should go do something else instead, gardening or accounting perhaps, and leave writing to the “real writers” (like him) who could not help themselves.

At the time I was blocked and teetering on the edge of despair; I was heavily sedated with mood stabilizing medication after a severe manic episode had left me in emotional tatters. I already suspected I would never enjoy writing again, yet I was trying my best to write every day anyway; however, “making myself” write under the circumstances was painful.

The advice went to the heart of my worst fear, that I was not a real writer but a dilettante, a starry-eyed poseur with no future in the one activity I longed to do more than anything.

However, I sensed something was wrong with the advice, that it was untrue. I decided to disregard it. I went even further. I stopped reading writing advice.

I remembered that as a child I had enjoyed writing, and I pinned my hopes on those early days before inhibitions had hindered me creatively. Then I did something more exciting than reading about writing:  I began writing. A lot. It was the beginning of getting past my block and learning to love writing as I had in my childhood.

I played with words; I made a big mess. I experimented recklessly. I rejoiced when something worked. I learned from what did not. I took notes.  I built confidence in my own judgment by writing what I cared about, not what I thought others would like.  Most liberating of all, I learned to refrain from judging my writing prematurely.

I avoided writing magazines for over ten years, peeking inside the covers only on very rare occasions. Breaking my hiatus usually confirmed to me that I had made the right choice by going rogue. When I peeked at writing magazines I would put them down after the first few sentences, especially if I saw that the article was about how to cater to agents or editors, and not how to write a powerful story.

I was so happy about my experiment of learning from writing rather than from other writers, I considered never again reading another book or article on writing.

But recently it occurred to me that my reasons for avoiding reading about writing no longer exist. My fear of being discouraged by bad advice is gone. I no longer take to heart anything a professional writer says. I have my own point of view, rooted in experience, and it is not fragile.

Although I feel no urgent need to read about the writing craft, I do remember there were books on writing I once treasured and even loved. Classics like Writing Down the Bones mostly encouraged rather than discouraged me. The book Characters Make Your Story fundamentally changed how I viewed the dynamics of story telling. If I am honest I have to admit that I have not discovered everything on my own. I have been influenced.

Weeks ago I wondered: Why not take advantage of insights other writers have had, whether I agree with them or not? Why not try reading about the craft again, if only to see if it feels any different after writing three novels, three story anthologies, and a book on overcoming block?

So I did something I had not done in many years. I read a book about writing. As it happened, I thoroughly enjoyed it, a fascinating study of archetypes in fiction such as mentors, heroes, and “shape-shifters,” characters who are not what they seem. The book, called The Writer’s Journey  is eye-opening and worth reading twice.

Reading about writing was an entirely different experience this time. Though interested, I never ceded my own point of view to that of the author. Sometimes I agreed and sometimes I disagreed. Both felt okay.

As I read, my imagination became engaged. The content inspired ideas about what I wanted to do with the novel I was working on, and I wrote them down.

I also picked up a few tips and insights I can use, but now I see them for what they are: tips, not rules.

My past problem was not that bad advice on writing existed, but my dependency on others telling me what to do. I was used to the teacher-student, boss-employee model of instruction.

But that was the wrong way to read writing advice. Now I view it as comparing notes between equals. I view writing principles as tools, not rules. They are meant to be useful; they should empower, not enslave writers.

I do not feel a great need books on how to write, but it is nice to be able to enjoy reading them again. A lot can be learned by the experiences of other writers, as long as in the end I return home to the true source of my art: myself.


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8 thoughts on “The Perils of Reading About Writing

  1. Excellent post! You are so right to regard them as tips, not rules.

    I too have a shelf full of books on writing, and I reached a saturation point when I realised that I wanted to just write. Somehow I think the good advice distilled into my brain and a lot of the bad advice was instinctively forgotten. I started being able to tell the difference between the two, or maybe I just held onto what resonated and rejected the rest.

    One of the most resonant bits was to “write the book that ONLY YOU can write” and that’s what I’ve done ever since. Good luck with your writing!

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Susan! I love the quote you included at the end about writing the book only you can write! Yes, exactly!! It’s an approach that makes writing more fun and frees writers to produce something truly original.

      So glad you enjoyed the post! Good luck to you as well! 🙂

  2. Great post – it’s so easy to become overwhelmed or discouraged by writing advice. I find a lot of the ‘rules’ handed out by published authors are no more than generalisations from what worked for them. Stephen King for example says you must be spending 4-6 hours every single day reading and writing. If I tried to do that on top of my full-time job, I’d burn out in no time. We all have different energy levels, health issues, social commitments, etc. so one person’s writing schedule is very unlikely to work for everyone. I’m also wary of those articles stating categorically that ‘agents and editors hate this’ and ‘agents and editors like that’. As if they are all the same person, not readers with different tastes looking for a story to fall in love with. The best advice in my opinion is that which shares personal experience and insight, but also encourages the writer to find their own path.

    • Haha, I read the advice by Stephen King you mentioned, and my reaction was exactly the same as yours! I love to read, yet when I write a lot, I end up reading less. It is almost impossible for me to do a lot of both. Plus, life makes demands as well, and it is not always possible to read or write for 4 hours.

      I also share your peeve with articles that say, “Agents and editors like this but not that.” That is usually my cue to tune out whatever follows. Heeding such advice is a quick path to block and creative misery.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! Thanks for reading! 🙂

  3. Good, post, Lisa. The get life experiences comment makes sense, @ some level. It’s harder to come up with nuanced characters, for example, when you’re not entirely sure what a nuanced character looks like. We learn that by experience. But that doesn’t mean the circus or jumping out of perfectly good aircraft. Most of us can do just fine with “life experience” by living, day to day & paying attention to how it feels to live. A lot of humans don’t. Self-awareness is not something life today seems to encourage, IMO. It seems to prefer “happy idiots.”

    And the pedantic advice to which you refer…absolutely true. As soon as someone makes a sweeping, categorical declarative, I’m out. How did the masters get to be masters, before there was a world-wide cottage industry to tell them how to do it? They lived, reflected & were present in their own lives. Just one broken-down, baggy-eyed, gray-haired old fool’s opinion.

  4. Thanks Dirk! I agree with so much that you said. I particularly enjoy your insight about self awareness. I think that is lost on a lot of people. I have met people who have had many jobs and are well-traveled yet seem to have ittle insight to give their experiences context or meaning. However, common experiences such as feeling jealous, making a friend, or losing someone you love can go a long way toward bestowing the kinds of insights that inspire ideas for writing. They are not the kind of experiences you “go out and get,” but they are universal and can be profound.

    Thanks for offering your insights! So glad you enjoyed my post! 🙂

  5. I’m late to the comment party, but I agree with everyone that this is a **great** GREAT post! I related to it so much, Lisa.

    I’ve bought a bunch of how-to books, and I subscribed to WD, the biggie writing magazine, etc., but nothing has really fired me up — in fact all that advice brought me down and cramped my writing spirit.

    The one writing book that has ever truly fired me up was written by SARK. It’s called “Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper: Gifting the World with Your Words and Stories, and Creating the Time and Energy to Actually Do It!” I think you’d like it because it doesn’t seem like a writing advice book, LOL! and more importantly, like you, she’s also an artist at heart.

    https://www.amazon.com/Juicy-Pens-Thirsty-Paper-Creating/dp/0307341704/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1497802718&sr=1-1&keywords=SARK+Juicy+Pens

    I keep in mind that good writers who lived long ago didn’t have to deal with the plethora of writing advice books & magazines haunting them online…they just wrote! I love the simplicity of that.

    • Thanks so much for your kind and thoughtful comments Dyane!!! 🙂 You’re the best!

      And I totally agree! I have had the same thoughts about how writers of the past didn’t have constant how-to-write advice thrown at them. They learned by writing, and by reading the kinds of things they wanted to read. The book you mentioned that “fired you up” intrigues me though. If I get the time, I may check it out!

      I feel lately like I have been living in a cave social-media-wise, but I am trying to peak outside it more. I finally finished my edits for “The Ghosts of Chimera” by the way. It will be the next book I publish.

      Thanks again for the awesome compliments!!! 🙂

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