Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Becky Mandelbaum's Four Simple Pieces of Advice

In the 32nd in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Becky Mandelbaum, author of Bad Kansas (University of Georgia Press), talks about reading and writing.

Like many writers, I’ve received a great deal of advice over the course of my writing education, and yet these are the four pieces that have stuck with me. Like most good advice, each is more maddeningly simple than the last.

1.  Read more books, watch less TV 
Be prepared to lose a few friends with this one. While I, too, appreciate the appeal of burning through a season of Stranger Things in one sitting, I always remember what my first college writing professor told our workshop. “If you want to write good fiction, especially good dialogue,” she said, “stop watching television altogether. What you must do is read books. You must devour books.”
Stranger Things: Don't look now
She was not wrong. Over the years, the act of reading—such an obvious answer to the predicament of writing—has come to my aid over and over again. Whenever I’m at an impasse with my work, reading is always the solution. If it’s good writing, I think, “I’d like to write something that good.” If it’s bad writing, I think, “I can do better than that.” Either way, it leads me back to the page.

2.  Write
As an undergrad at The University of Kansas, I had the privilege of taking a workshop with Laura Moriarty, a killer novelist and teacher. When I asked her for writing advice, she told me simply, annoyingly, to write. “There are people out there who will call themselves writers,” she said, “but they don’t actually write. At the end of the day, the work is all that matters.”

So my advice is: Get your pages in. It doesn’t matter where or when or how. It also doesn’t matter if these pages are any good. I repeat: It does not matter if they’re any good. For every viable sentence I write, I probably write ten that end up in the trash. Those are frustrating numbers, but what is writing if not gratifying frustration?

3.  Revise, revise, revise
I once heard the writer Pam Houston tell a group of her students, “The very minimum number of times you should read through a manuscript is twenty-five.” Not surprisingly, a series of gasps and groans circled the room. Who wants to read her own book twenty-five times? Later, when I asked Pam about the advice, she told me, “The truth is, I usually read through a book fifty, sixty times before I’m done with it. But nobody wants to hear that. Twenty-five sounds more reasonable.”

4.  If you can do anything else and be happy, do it
In college, I had the opportunity to interview National Book Award winning poet Nikky Finney. Like most great poets, Finney emits a force field of wisdom you can feel on a cellular level when she enters the room. “If you can do anything else besides writing and be happy,” she told me, “then do that instead. This is not an easy life.”

These words have followed me ever since, appearing most often in times of self-doubt. Over the past few years, as my friends have begun to settle down in their careers, writing has sometimes felt like a dubious and even reckless life path, one that not everyone understands. Sometimes, when I’m home for the holidays, my brother will encourage me apply to law school. “I’ll pay for you to take the LSAT,” he’ll offer. “I’ll pay your application fees.” His concern is not unfounded. If there is money at all in writing, it comes in random, fitful bursts, like a row of cherries on a slot machine. I try to remember that the life of a writer is not a normal one and, as Finney promised, will by no means be easy. If I could clean teeth or crunch numbers or organize fundraisers and feel even a fraction of the satisfaction I feel after falling into the heart-swallowing extraterrestrial wormhole of a short story, I would certainly do that instead. But I can’t, and so I don’t. In exchange for all the fear and doubt and neurosis, I get to be in love with what I do.