Advice for Writers
Recently I did an interview with Rick Dale, author of The Beat Handbook: A Hundred Days of Kerouactions. Rick asked me a couple of questions about writing–how to overcome “writer’s block,” and any other advice for aspiring writers.
At first I thought I wouldn’t have anything to say. Having just published a book that I sat on for nineteen years, I look like a serious case of writer’s block. But maybe that makes me an expert on overcoming it!
Anyway, I found I had a lot to say about being a writer, so I thought I’d share it, and Rick kindly gave me permission to use parts of our interview on my blog. (For the whole interview, go to Rick’s blog at:
What I told Rick was, I’m not sure that what I had–off and on during the nineteen years the Kerouac book was in the works–was writer’s block or not. I think I was just plain not ready to write it. As Allen Ginsberg said (quoting the Bard), “ripeness is all.”
Back in 1970 I began work on a book–I thought it was a novel–which I eventually had to abandon. At the time, the subject was very controversial: the whole May-December thing from the point of view of a woman who falls in love with a teenage boy. I sat down and read it one day and said, This doesn’t work! and put it in my files. I still haven’t given up on that book; it just wasn’t the right time, and not because it was controversial: I wasn’t ready.
So what I think is, if you’re stuck, if you can’t write it, there’s probably a good reason. You’re probably barking up the wrong book, or the wrong genre. So write something else. Write letters, write in your journal, write down your dreams. Warm up your voice.
At the end of the interview, Rick asked if I had any advice for aspiring writers.
My answer was: Read constantly. Read the classics, read detective stories, read about wizards and vampires and dragons, but read! Harry Potter and Marcel Proust coexist peacefully on my fiction shelf, just waiting for the next time through.
I don’t know anything about writing fiction, but if memoir is your bag, take notes on your life. Don’t assume that a subject that has already been written about–say, addiction–is no longer of interest. Every life is different. Every voice is different! Your authentic voice is unlike anyone else’s, as is your experience.
If you have a dark and guilty secret, explore it. Respect obsession: it’s the foundation of art.
The life really is in the details. The weirder your experience, the more idiosyncratic, the more personal the stuff you put out there, oddly enough, the more universal will be its appeal. And, of course, the worse the experience, the better the copy.
When writing, if you come to a place where you can’t decide between two ways of saying something, put them both down and decide later which one to use. As Yogi Berra put it: When you come to a fork in the road–take it!
Above all, keep writing. If you’re a writer, you don’t need to be told to write. You have no choice. You’re in good company. Enjoy the process!