You Might Not Know What’s Good for You

This is a post about taking advice from other writers, particularly published writers. But before I get into that, I want to share a quick personal anecdote.

Recently, I started going to a fitness trainer who is trained as a functional movement specialist. After listening to my goals and then assessing my flexibility and balance, she told me that some major tension I had complained about in my upper back and shoulders was due to my right hip being slightly tilted forward. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I was sure that I had tension and pain in my upper back from sitting at a computer for hours on end and using a mouse. Nope, she said. It’s from your hips. She gave me corrective exercises to do. I was skeptical. What do my hips have to do with the tension in my neck and upper back?

It all gets down to the basic idea that we often stand in our own way. Not just in writing, but in life. We are our biggest barriers.

I did the exercises anyway. What could it hurt? And guess what? The pain in my back went away, the tension was greatly reduced. It turns out that sitting at a desk all day was (is) the culprit, but the tension was the result of inflexible quad muscles and a posteriorly rotated hip. Not from using a mouse.

The point of my little story here is that I thought I was the expert. I thought I knew my body well enough to know what the problem was. And when a stranger told me something different, I thought she was way off.

The same thing happened to me with fiction. Experts have either told me in person to make a change or I’ve read some advice in a book, and in both cases have not heeded it. Here’s a great example: After reading Ron Carlson Writes a Story, I emailed Carlson to tell him how much I appreciated his book, and then asked him if he was planning on writing another book called Ron Carlson Revises a Story because revision was a difficult area that he hadn’t addressed in the first book. After a couple of weeks, I got a reply. Here is the advice he offered regarding revision (which I reprint here with his permission):

Put the story in a drawer for ninety days. Bring it out and read it aloud with a pencil in your hand. Front load all of the great things from the last third of the story to the first third. Fix the dialogue so it doesn’t go clunk. Start the story somewhere on page two. Make one moment or two clearly imagistic (sensual) so that we taste or hear or smell it in a way that no writer has done before.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? But here’s the deal. I didn’t take his advice. I read the email and then went on with my writing, not putting the two together. A few months later, while revising a story, I thought, Hey maybe I should take Carlson’s advice. What could it hurt? I let a story sit for a couple of months, and then I read it. I front-loaded the great things from the last third of the story to the first third. That required me to rewrite new scenes and even a new ending. I worked very hard to write sensual details and fix the dialogue. And guess what? It worked. I don’t know how good the story is, but I can tell you that it’s much, much better.

Resistance is a part of every writer’s experience (as is procrastination, which is another form of resistance).

I think that for many of us traveling down the road of fiction, we don’t necessarily take the advice that’s given to us from people who know. Resistance is a part of every writer’s experience (as is procrastination, which is another form of resistance).

I think it all gets down to the basic idea that we often stand in our own way. Not just in writing, but in life. We are our biggest barriers. We think we know better. But we don’t always know what’s good for us. And granted, taking advice isn’t always easy. It means going against some deep instinct or trusting someone else with an idea that’s extremely personal. It requires taking a small leap of faith.

My takeaway: Listen to the writers you admire, to the people who have been working at this art form for awhile, to the ones who’ve been published. Take their advice. They know what’s good for your writing. And what could it hurt?

Photo: wstryder / Flickr Creative Commons

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9 Comments on “You Might Not Know What’s Good for You

  1. Hey Tracy – great post. I am really enjoying your blog, and all the great advice you’re digging up. I am also making the transition from science writing to fiction writing. It’s liberating and scary and wonderful. I’m looking forward to reading what you write!

  2. Great post. Everyone who wants to succeed in a profession needs a mentor. I don’t know why writers think that we are different. If you wanted to fly a plane, you’d better find someone who knew how to fly a plane backwards in a blizzard to teach you. I think writers sometimes try to “learn to fly” from someone who has only put together model airplanes. If you want to write a truly memorable novel, why not learn from someone who has already done that?

  3. So what were the exercises. Since my neck, shoulders, and back are constantly cramped, maybe it is my hips too. Here all this time I thought it was being hunched over the computer for hours on end.

    • Well, it’s not easy to explain over email, plus there are many exercises and they’re specific to my problem. I suggest seeing a functional movement specialist! 🙂

  4. I loved this post so much, THANKS. It remeber me of a beautiful quote:
    “Talk about being your own worst enemy” 🙂
    Totally agree with you, but I want to ask you, have you published anything? or where we can read for you?

    Thanks again for the beautiful post which true in both life and writing.

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