Advice for Writers

by Helen on November 19th, 2009

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!

  1. Thanks, John!

  2. Helen,
    I posted another photo at “marjorie-digest” which I think now shows your window at 307 West 11th Street. I posted it under the first photo of the building. I hope the readers of “The Awakener” enjoy seeing the photo as much as I enjoyed finding the building and taking the photos.

    • Thanks, Marjorie! I’m pretty sure mine was the window behind the blue bag. Mine was definitely the corner room.

      Those other two windows on the top floor weren’t in our apartment. They must have lighted the stairs that Jack and Allen and Peter and Lafcadio tramped up that Sunday morning when I first laid eyes on Jack.

      Maybe some day someone will put a plaque by the door of that building reading “Jack Kerouac slept here!”

  3. Helen,
    I am loving “The Awakener.” I cannot put it down. I was motivated today to take a walking tour and visit some of the addresses in the book. I took photos, and they are posted at my blog with other photos I had taken last week.
    You can see the photos if you click on my name, You will be taken to one of my blogs called, “marjorie-digest.”
    I am just about to start part five, “changes.” You have had quite a fascinating life. I am glad you wrote the memoir.

    • Marjorie, thanks for your kind words, which were music to my ears. Music to my eyes are your beautiful photographs of the city I used to call mine. On your shot of the building at 307 West 11th Street, my window was on the lefthand side above the picture frame. It’s hard to get that window in the picture unless you’re standing at an angle, a little closer to the White Horse.

      Too bad they tore down the building at 325 West 13th Street. It was an old brick walkup and the rent on my apartment was $42.50 a month! Jack’s friend Henri Cru found me my apartment, which was on the top floor. It was the only apartment in the building that had casement windows. I looked out one of those windows the night Jack rang my bell and yelled up, “Are you Helen who wove the web of Troy?”

      Yes, I’ve had an amazing life. I’m glad I finally got it on paper!

  4. I like what you said about “barking up the wrong book”. I think that’s why I hadn’t started anything for years even though I am definitely a writer. I used to write everyday and never show it to anyone. There is something liberating about writing a blog. I can always hope it will turn into a book but the process is the great pleasure for me now. No writer’s block. You always hear “write what you know”. It’s probably the best advice for a writer. Thanks for the encouragement. I hope some of your readers will check out my blog. It’s only in the beginning stages. Linda Baker

    • Hey, Linda! Great to hear from you. Yes, a blog is a wonderful thing. When I was told I should have a blog on my website I thought: a) what an ugly word! and b) what am I ever going to write about?

      But I’ve made my peace with the word (short for “web log,” which is much nicer) and I find that I’m always thinking of things I want to write about–and hear about from my unseen friends. It’s like having a column and putting a message in a bottle at the same time.

      Please tell us the name and address of your blog, so we can all go there!

      • Here’s the link, I hope, to my blog. It’s listed in the little box above but I don’t think that came out last time:

        And I’d love to hear from anyone who can relate or whatever. The path is opening up before me and Helen, “The Awakener” has inspired me and led me more than you could know. Kerouac fans, you are in for a treat! As are fans of Ginsberg and Bruce!

        • Linda, thanks for the link to your blog! And thanks, too, for your kind words about my book. I’m glad to hear it has inspired you to write. Keep at it!

          Speaking of inspiration, the people at Kerouac Films, who just came out with a new documentary called One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac at Big Sur sent me this podcast of Jack singing, recorded some time in the late fifties. This is the voice of the Jack I knew: clear and sweet and full of fun. Check it out at:

          Hope this works! And thanks to Curt, Jim, Gloria, and Roger!

  5. I wrote a memoir, and it is in a blog. I submitted it to many literary agents and it was rejected by all. I don’t think they quite “got it.” It was written mostly with a humorous intent and would be in the same category of: “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn,” “51 Birch Street,” “Running With Scissors,” and “700 Sundays.”
    I am fine with it being rejected. I can always self-publish… but now, with the internet, it is there for all who find it to hopefully get some good laughs.

    By the way, I read that the actor, Sam Riley, has been cast as Jack in the film version of “On the Road.”

    • Marjorie, your blog/memoir looks wonderful. Your photos of Manhattan actually make me miss the city I lived in for fifteen years–and that’s MY white VW bug Sadie parked by the side of (what street?)!

      This is an amazing age in which anyone can publish. Agents (and editors) can be incredibly dense. I feel very lucky that after a year or more of submitting it, the right person “got” my book.

      Sam Riley, eh? He doesn’t look much like Jack but that’s probably not that important. The important thing is the Voice, which Johnny Depp nailed in The Source and John Ventimiglia comes very close to in the new documentary on Big Sur, One Fast Move or I’m Gone. Interesting that Riley is also a writer. That should help.

  6. Andrew Kavanagh permalink

    Exactly what I needed to hear right now. I’ve been ‘barking up the wrong book’ quite a lot lately. Thanks for posting this, Helen.

    • Andrew, you’re so welcome. And I think that even barking up the wrong book, we are still warming up our voice.

      Quite a bit of the stuff I had to take out of the Kerouac book (my tortured adolescence, etc.) I’ll be able to recycle in my next book, about my father. (He wasn’t the torturer! He was a good guy.)

      Nothing is wasted.

  7. Hello Helen!
    I got your book in the mail the other day & I read the 1st chapter, it was excellent! I can’t wait to read the rest of the book.

    One of my major discoveries in life was that writers block doesn’t exist. You are correct in that if you’re not ready to write it, it isn’t going to come out, sometimes you have to let it stew.

    All the best!
    Jim Cherry

    • Jim, thanks for your kind words. Allen was right (and Shakespeare was right): Ripeness is all. You gotta love the process.

      All the best to you, too!

  8. Thanks for this. Every bit of encouragement counts! I’m just coming to the end of a historical fiction novel which has taken me years to write. Of course I write other things as well and instruct writing classes. But to see the end of this huge project, as you know, will be a huge triumph!

    • Ruth, congratulations on seeing it through. And best of luck on presenting it to the world!