Writing Question #X (and Y and Z): “Can You Help Me Break In?”

I get a fair number of emails from aspiring writers asking for advice, which is why I created an advice page on my web site—and a little less directly, why I created a free online writing guide (supposedly geared to younger writers, though from the occasional thank-you note I get, I don’t think it’s just kids using the site). Some people hope I will read their work and comment on it, or give it a blurb.

I am not unmoved by these pleas, but the answer I must give is, “I’m sorry, I cannot help beyond what I’ve already tried to do.” If they ask me to read their work, I refer them to still another page I created, explaining why I can’t. Most people seem to understand, but there’s always this nagging sense that people think I can somehow help them get an in. That’s a heartbreaking illusion.

Here’s what I said, basically, to one person recently who thought I should do more:

You have a burning desire to write. I hear from a lot of people who want to write. And they all want to know the same thing: Can I help them “break in”? The truth—WITHOUT EXCEPTION, not one single exception—and I can tell just from reading their emails—is that they don’t need help “breaking in.” They need to learn to write. They need practice, they need training, they need a workshop to get feedback, they need to understand that writing is a difficult and demanding craft and it TAKES TIME AND DISCIPLINE TO LEARN. No one wants to hear that, ever. It’s not about developing contacts, or knowing the right people, though eventually those things can help.

It’s about learning to write. I can’t help everyone in the world learn to write, though I try through my course and workshops I teach at. Find people in your college, or your community, or through paid or online workshops who can help you learn the things you need to know.

People seem to feel betrayed when I say that, but it’s the truth.

My final suggestion was two books that we’re using in the workshop that I’m teaching with Craig Gardner: Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott and Stephen King’s On Writing. They both have a lot of wisdom about writing, and being a writer. (There are, of course, many other good books on writing, and some not so good books.)

Come to think of it, if any of you has a favorite book on writing, why don’t you leave a comment about it? We can compile a list.

0 Responses

  1. kEITH RAY
    | Reply

    Gerald M. Weinberg’s book “Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method” is very good, with many exercises to remove writer’s block.

    “Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process” by Peter Elbow has some very good UNDERSTANDABLE stuff about sentence structure and paragraph structure that I’ve never seen anywhere else.

  2. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Those are both new to me. Thanks, Keith!

  3. substandardTim
    | Reply

    Honestly I just wish you’d remake your writing course into book form. Even if it was just self-published through lulu.com or something. I know I’d buy it. It’s not like the free website version would have to go away, the book would just be an alternative for people.

  4. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Thing is, Tim, I haven’t even had time to finish shaping it up in its present form. And as a book…well, I’d certainly feel the need to work on it some more. The other thing is, I am hoping (maybe when this book is finished) to go through the videotapes of the TV show the course was based on, and clip out some video segments of my conversations about writing with the guest authors I had on. (People like Joe Haldeman, Jane Yolen, and others.)

    The good thing about it being on the web is that (theoretically, anyway) I can update it and add material as time permits. The problem is, time hasn’t permitted. But there’s always tomorrow.

  5. Todd Wheeler
    | Reply

    I’ll add John Gardner’s Books: “The Art of Fiction” and “On Becoming a Novelist”.

    Not that they’d be new to you, but you asked for favorites. 🙂

  6. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Thanks, Todd — To be honest, I had completely forgotten about both those books! I’m glad you reminded me.


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