Friday, November 21, 2014

Alden Jones's Writing Advice: "Don't Listen to My Advice"

In the 41st in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Alden Jones, author of Unaccompanied Minors (New American Press), offers some tips worth following—or not.

If you’re planning to have children, don’t use up your favorite names on your fictional characters. You want a clean slate with your brand new, real-life babies. You won’t want associations with your fictional characters. Especially because if you are writing interesting stories, your characters will be highly flawed, even problematic, people.

Rebel against the “backwards checkmark” structure of the traditional short story. Try writing stories with no plot. Write something solely to explore the postmodern concept of the Active Female Subject. Subvert the dominant ideology through form and content. Make your reader decide what actually happened in the story. But don’t do this for very long. You’ll learn a lot about narrative structure—mainly how important it is.

Write tons of sex into your book if that’s your thing. But make sure your collection has at least one story that doesn’t center on sex, because when your book comes out, your parents will invite all their friends to come hear you read at your hometown bookstore and you’ll want to have something to read.

Make sending out your work for publication part of your writing process. It’s a great way to feel productive while you’re procrastinating. And don’t be deterred by rejection. It may take you—I don’t know—fifty-four rejections before your story is accepted by some magazine you’ll be really happy about, like—I don’t know—AGNI.

Big Mistake: Get back to your desk!
Don’t fall in love with the wrong person. This one is important. When you fall in love with the wrong person, instead of writing fiction, you will write emails to this person. Instead of hollowing out a place in your consciousness for your stories and characters to unspool, your creative energy will burn almost exclusively on imagining the next time you are in bed with this person. You will think, “Who needs writing? Love is all you need!” And then, because they are the wrong person, the relationship will eventually collapse and bury you in its rubble, and for a long time you will not want to write at all because you are depressed. When that happens, give yourself a break. You’ll go back to writing when you’re ready. But boy, what a long and unnecessary distraction! (Then again, maybe all of this will be great fodder for your third book.)

Nourish the other parts of yourself. Find a good partner. Be a good parent. Or a good yogi, or a good carpenter, or whatever makes you feel like your best self. Spend fall days walking your dog in the woods. Watch television without feeling guilty about it. But don’t forget to read. A lot.

Don’t listen to advice about how to write or how to be a writer. Don’t listen to my advice. Don’t listen to anyone’s. Someone will tell you something, trying to be helpful, like: “You’re not a real writer unless you write every day,” and instead of motivating you to write every day, this declaration will plague you with insecurity over whether or not you can call yourself a writer. For years. Or you’ll hear: “The first draft is supposed to be terrible. Getting it down is the important thing.” But you know in your heart you are a writer who needs to hit the vein, to really nail something important in the first draft. And you’ll spend more than a year writing something you know is terrible because someone convinced you if it was terrible, you must be doing it right.

The only advice you need comes from that Nike copywriter who said “Just Do It.” Do it your way, but do it. You’ll make mistakes. They will be your own mistakes. In the end, after your books go out to meet the world, you’ll be amazed by the advice you will want to give the person you were when you were starting out.