Aug 13, 2015

All the Writing Advice in the World Will Turn You into the Worst Writer in the World

Once when I was six I dreamed my mother wanted to eat me. She could feel her mind slipping and said, "It's awful, but I can't help myself. I'm going to have to eat you."

Everybody else succumbed to the same lunacy that struck my dream-mother. The living blush of their cheeks turned blue and their words became grunts and snarls.

The Three Incomparable Wise Men Lecture the Unruly Giant on Matters of Virtue
by John Magnet Bell

Fast-forward to this very morning. I dreamed of aliens announcing themselves to humanity by putting on a light show all over the night sky. I was alone with an old man out in a field. He was crying. I was telling him to bury his sins in a hole. I looked up and noticed there were too many stars. All the stars moved at once and formed a series of glimmering, interlocking vesicae piscis, not unlike that pattern people call "Flower of Life."

via Charles Gilchrist


Then the pattern ebbed away in a shower of golden fairy dust. And we knew in our hearts that the aliens were good. That they were our siblings in Mind. Suddenly I was flying over house and field holding my dead father's hand. He was alive again.

Santideva once wrote in the Bodhicaryavatara, "Nothing new will be said here, nor have I any skill in composition. Therefore I do not imagine that I can benefit others. I have done this to perfume my own mind."

James Altucher once wrote, "Deliver poetry and value with every word. Else, be quiet."

These two statements seem contradictory.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo wrote, "For the most part, we admire our own opinions and become fond of arguing."

So I won't offer to guide you. Won't tell you how, why, or what to write. Not today, at least.

But there are two Mothers in writing. The one that separates and devours and the one that nourishes and reunites. The first Mother lives by "do not," and the second lives by "do what you will." The first one bans and threatens and proscribes. The second one opens doors.

You will find people telling you not to use adverbs. Others will tell you not to use adjectives. Many say, "use strong verbs." What have the parts of speech done to deserve banishment? Or special recommendation, for that matter?

You will find people who read only their contemporaries. This is not a bad thing in itself. You will find people who claim to be writers but openly declare their aversion for writing that is more than a hundred years old. The fault does not lie with the works that they can't read.

March of Progress
by John Magnet Bell


It is good and human to seek advice. It is also human, but not always good, to provide guidance, especially when you are one hundred and one percent sure of yourself. I mean this only in regard to writing, which is not an exact science. You can solve a quadratic equation and demonstrate the correctness of your work. You can predict the behavior of a gas under pressure. You can build a piston engine if you follow the principles that govern the building of piston engines.

Writing is an art. Like painting and acting. Not a science. Not a business. An art. Whoever advises you on writing to sell is teaching you business practices. There is nothing wrong with this, but let's not pretend it's something else. Let's not pretend it's art. Let's not pretend it's about becoming a "better writer." Good writing sells right now. Art sells forever and its worth multiplies until it becomes the patrimony of all people for all time. Until it can't be sold anymore.

Pliny wrote that a shoemaker approached the painter Apelles of Kos and told him that he, Apelles, had painted a sandal wrong. Apelles corrected that defect in his painting. The shoemaker then began to point out all sorts of flaws in the picture, at which point Apelles told the shoemaker, "Ne supra crepidam sutor iudicaret," a shoemaker should not judge above the sandal. And out of this episode welled forth William Hazlitt's word, ultracrepidarian, which my spellchecker refuses to admit is a real word.

An ultracrepidarian — from the Latin saying, Sutor, ne ultra crepidam — likes to give opinions on matters beyond their expertise. I see many ultracrepidarians out there.  Sometimes I ultracrepidate myself.

Other times I look up at the sky and my brothers and sisters draw the vesica piscis with fire and I fly over house and field —

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