Ten Gallon Advice for the Eleven Gallon Head
Part of writing successfully is learning to be self-directed and self-motivated. A substantial portion of the rest of it is being stubborn and having an iron-clad self-esteem. Writing is a solitary endeavor, ultimately, no matter which online writers’ groups or communities you ascribe to. The act itself is performed alone – you and the blank screen, mano a mano. You spend a lot of time there, just you and that screen. You spend maybe even more time sending your stuff out into the world and having it rejected, over and over again. If you cannot rely on yourself to gird your loins and do it, over and over, in the face of universal rejection, you will never be a writer.
But let’s suppose, for a second, you do manage to pull it off. You get acceptances. Maybe you win an award or two. You score a book deal. You have editors sending you feedback. You’ve trusted your instincts and it got you this far.
How, then, do you take advice?
It’s a rather amazing problem, actually. You find yourself wondering where the heck was all this helpful advice when you were at rock-bottom and nobody would give you the time of day. Now everybody’s a critic, and you’re not sure what to do. You’ve spent a long time not listening to the peanut gallery since it was populated by peanuts at that point. Now there’s some fancy-pants pistachio nuts giving you a review, and you gotta wonder whether you listen or whether you stick with what you know: namely yourself.
Me, I want advice, but not just any advice. The two sentences of critique tossed off by an editorial assistant as they blaze through a slushpile certainly beats the advice you’re likely to get from your aunt, but that still doesn’t mean it’s gospel. So much of this business is opinion and taste anyway (once you get past a certain point). A metaphor about opinions and assholes comes to mind.
Then again, what kind of arrogant prick doesn’t take well-meaning advice and think about it, regardless of source? So maybe you don’t read those self-help guides and how-to books on how to write, but that doesn’t make their advice magically worthless. Maybe there’s wisdom to be had there. Maybe. Do you pass your story around for critique? Sure, I guess. Listen to what they have to say. But, then again, you have to be honest with yourself: if you don’t plan on listening to what other people think, isn’t it disingenuous to ask them for help?
For me, I usually only ask for help when I am genuinely unsure. Say I’ve written a thing and I know it can be better but I’m not sure what’s wrong – that’s when I ask for readers. If I read and am certain this is the story I wanted to write, I don’t always ask people to look it over. Perhaps this is bull-headed and foolish of me, but if there’s one thing I’ve seldom lacked in my life, it is self-confidence (for good or ill). Of course, I still need help – everybody does, after all – but where to get it and from whom to accept it isn’t always clear. When you’ve spent this long walking alone, it’s hard to evaluate new companions.
Ultimately, I come back to Aristotle, who once wrote:
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
Listen to those who are trying to help you – all of them. Ask for help when you need it, but always remember that you don’t need to listen to the advice you don’t need. The trick is being able to tell that stuff from the stuff that is absolutely essential.