In the first installment of THE TOILET OF ADVICE, I enjoyed the bliss of offering you the worst .02 cents about writing careers I could muster, a parody of what I see being handed out like free crack to eager first-time addicts. I now feel obligated to offer some genuine and helpful advice. And I will. But first, I want to explore an undercurrent of the advice industry that makes me queasy. How so much of it feels like a con, or a cult, or an otherwise dubious and manipulative entity.
We often require advice when we’re wounded. When something is broken. When we’re not at our best. We’re vulnerable and trying to negotiate being emotionally raw in a challenging marketplace that is far more indifferent than unforgiving towards our suffering. It’s in these moments that self-help gurus, advice mavens, and a thousand different flavors of Yoda start to shine. These beautiful people with inspiring stories and perhaps even a little science to validate their agenda seem to offer an answer, hope, a salve against whatever it was that burned us and forced us to seek advice in the first place.
Being vulnerable also means we may seek, take, and try things out of desperation. And everyone, from professionals in the health industry to creeps in cults and snakeoil salesmen, know it.
I’ll never forget during the worst year of my life, when I was unemployed, grieving for my dead mother, and contending with divorce, how much I wanted something, anything, to help me feel better. Because nothing did. Nothing. Numbness, failure, and despair burned through my waking hours with such force that I was amazed every morning that I, in fact, felt worse than yesterday. I was desperate for money, for employment, a place to live, all while holding my psyche together in the wake of my mother’s death and the end of my marriage.
In this condition I’d gone to a group grief counseling session, despite my aversion to group therapy, because I had never felt so consumed by terror. It was an awful experience, with people suffering far worse than me. But it was all I could afford, because it was free.
When I got back to the house that was no longer a home, I stared out the window. A very terrifying moment of clarity arrived. Here’s what it sounded like:
I get it now. I get why someone would just go to the bar, drink themselves into oblivion, and burnout their credit cards until someone took the reins of their life for awhile because, fuck, there seems to be absolutely no proof that things are going to change, unless it is to get worse, so why keep fighting? Why not find solace in abandonment and fuck off until you had no other choice but to look up to see bottom, because nothing I do makes a difference.
That day, I chose not to go down that road. But I also found a deeper sense of humanity for people whose lives are a mess, who feel this way and make awful choices. Who are vulnerable and making decisions in the worst circumstances.
So, what does this have to do with pithy writing advice?
When I was in that desperate period, I craved affirmation of a better tomorrow and felt the pull of those who sold a good image, a hopeful message, a system that would help you be a better person (as validated by beautiful folks straight out of central casting with bodies provided by the happy fascist at CrossFit Extreme!). The answers, ideas, and too-good-to-be-true plans, the stuff my naturally skeptical, cynical, and critical mind would not have touched, became Sirens of hope. I considered doing things and taking work that would have been heinously damaging to myself and my career, but seemed fine considering I had no other options. My ability to think rationally and honestly about who I was and what my moral core were had almost been comprised.
This is not to say there aren’t things to be done in such states that can’t be helpful. You have to find what works for you (some people love group therapy, which is a legit approach to mental health). But remember: there is an industry ready to prey upon your vulnerability with as much callus intent as the image industry that wants you to eat garbage, diet forever, and workout until you look like professional models whose sole occupation in life is to look unobtainable. They want to sell you shortcuts to daydreams. Processes to perfection. Ladders of success. And they will spend top dollar trying to convince you that you need their method, their booklets, their audible files, their workshops, their annual meetings, etc.
Which is why most advice is fit for the toilet. Especially when you’re desperate for it.
Most writing advice won’t ruin your life, of course. And buying a self-help book isn’t a death sentence. But I fear that all too often the hardships of the writing life often makes people vulnerable to bad ideas more than we want to admit.
So, here are some practical things to consider about writing advice:
- Who the hell is giving it? Look at credentials. Question credentials. Do you like their fiction? Sure, some people write advice better than fiction . . . but why listen to them about, you know, fiction? Do they demonstrate their facility of language and narrative in a way that grabs you? Are they publishing regularly now? Do they publish more about what you should do with your life than making their own stuff? Non-fiction sells better, and there’s always a bigger audience for advice than fiction, so be wary of the advice dispensary arm of many people’s writing careers. INCLUDING MINE!
- Why does this particular advice speak to you right now? Some advice can be a missing piece of the puzzle. David Morrell’s narrative form of outlining revolutionized how I saw preparing a novel. But many people will tell you things that you want to hear . . . that may not be good for you. For instance, some writers don’t need to revise much. The rest of us do better with revision, even though it’s a pain in the ass. You can make it NOT a pain the ass, which is good. But if you don’t revise because it’s a pain in the ass (and not because you’re a first-draft-wunderkid) just because someone said revisions are a waste, methinks you aren’t thinking critically enough. Don’t just listen to those telling you what you want to hear.
- This advice is not enough: whatever advice you’re given, it’s what you do with it that counts. Which is why advice is cheap and those who dispense it are never accountable (nor should they be, unless the public’s trust is invested in their expertise). You can’t sue Anthony Robbins or Oprah because you used their advice and failed. In the end, advice doesn’t mean shit. You need to find your own way. Sure, gather data, find processes that speak to you, but never be beholden to any doctrine thrown at you like a life preserver.
Which reminds me of something I read in Denny O’Neil’s great book on how to write comics. He quotes Basho, the Japanese master of the haiku. “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.”