A 1/2 Dozen with William Lychack
who has some brutal writerly advice
5 Anti-Rules for Handling Criticism
and some blackbelt wisdom on
mystery of why we keep showing up
to the writing desk
as well as to our own lives.
What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?
All right. How about I turn this over to my wife, Betty, as she’s the long-suffering soul who has fallen in love with, borne the brunt of me and my writerly self:
“Run for the hills!! You’re crazy!! They’re too difficult!! Too self-absorbed!! Too selfish!! Seriously, think twice if you can! And, if you can’t, then have a strong sense of yourself. In order to stay with a writer (or anyone, really), you need real personal strength, your own set of occupational or professional passions, as well as a vision for how to balance family and work and finances and all the rest of it. Bill and I have been married more than 15 years, and there’s not a day I don’t curse him for some reason, just as there’s not a day I don’t enjoy the ride and privilege of being with someone who is passionate about what he does, who strives to listen to the quiet internal voices, and who battles the war between loving what he does and being consumed by it. ”
Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.
Writing Tip #2 for Aspiring Writers: STOP ASPIRING. Seriously, enough with the aspiring, just start being a writer and stop worrying about everything concerning your own anxious vanity. Learn that it’s all about caring. You need to care so much that you don’t care if anyone else cares. Which might make them care. Or might make you secretly care if they care. And might make you do everything in your power to get them to care. The writer and editor William Maxwell once gave me the following advice: “Try to listen to your feelings as you would to the sound in a sea shell, and then put them down on paper.” That seems the kind of perfect, direct, and useful counsel that an aspiring writer (such as myself) might ignore for a good decade. And one ignores it for good reason—it’s difficult work—but your real job is to care enough to say what you feel about the world.
Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.
Quit. Nobody wants your stories. Everything you ever write will be rejected. (They don’t call it a submission for nothing.) So, really, just give up now. Go be a “normal” person. Make a living helping people or doing something useful in the world. I mean it, if you can quit right now you should quit. If there’s anything anyone can say that steers you away from writing, listen and let yourself be steered away. But if writing is the way that helps you make sense of the world, if you find a kind of well-being in trying to touch bottom with emotions and feelings and thoughts, then stop feeling sorry for yourself and trust the process and get out of your own way, get a good night of sleep, start again in the morning.
Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?
I care about criticism on an economic, practical, why-can’t-I-be-loved-by-everyone level, but I truly don’t follow book reviews the way I used to. So little of it feels necessary or mission-critical to me. But, since you asked, I’d like to share five anti-rules or coping mechanisms for criticism:
1) Invoke The Dude from The Big Lebowski. Remind yourself that you’re just a dude trying to get along in the world. And should you stumble across some dismissive or snarky or half-assed review of your book, you might be well served to invoke The Dude and say, “Yeah, well, you know, that's just like your opinion, man.”
2) Remember what Charles Baxter once told me after I mentioned a bad review of my novel to him, “Well, Bill, you put your face out there it’s gonna get slapped.”
3) Call your friends. Pity the poor reviewer. Mock his or her intelligence. Give them a name. (This is particularly effective for those consistently vapid reviews at PW.) Say things like, “Gosh, Mildred at Publishers' Weekly sure did hate my book, didn’t she?! Can’t dislike a book more than she disliked mine, can you?!” Or, “Jeepers, I really seemed to piss off old Earl, didn’t I? Lots of malice there, it seemed, but I still think it might’ve helped if he actually read and responded to the book I wrote, rather than the book he wishes I wrote, don’t you think?” As you can guess, this sort of talking can go on for a while, though you probably get the gist of it by now.
4) Anticipate the worst. I mean, the reviews that tend to sting are the ones that say things you already suspect about your own work. Truly, you sense all the weaknesses of your book better than anyone, so write the bad reviews in your mind before the book is published. And if those things hurt enough, do something about it before the bugger appears in really real reality.
5) Finally, go have a drink, or play with your kids in the yard, or look at the trees and the sky and the way spring seems to have returned overnight. Go have a full life in which writing is one part. In short, get over yourself. Know that you did your best, that you’d not change anything in your book even if you could, and that it’s a subjective business. Stop trying to please everyone. Stop worrying.
People always talk about the writers they aspired to emulate. I’d love to know the writers you most hated as you were coming up and how those tastes shaped you.
I simply don’t finish books I hate, so it’s hard to say who I hate most. Life’s too short to soldier through books that don’t speak to one’s condition or situation. That said, I can’t say I want to spend much time with writers who are glib or overly clever, who are all about irony and post-modern cool, who don’t seem to break a sweat over their pages. I believe I’m always looking for writers who are trying to offer something of great importance to them, authors who are handing over something of great value and urgency. The pyrotechnics of writing don’t speak to me anymore, and I admire writers who bow their heads to the yoke of story and plow.
What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?
Among other things, I’ve been an editor, a ghostwriter, a speechwriter, a construction worker, a bartender, a lifeguard, a janitor, a high school teacher, a tree service guy, a house-painter, a camp counselor, a warehouse worker, a Mister Softee Ice Cream Man… But my time as a judo instructor (and judo player) helped shape me as a writer more than any other job. Not only did the philosophy and physicality of martial arts engage me, but I learned about the entire world in that small windowless basement of a dojo in New York City. I played a lot of martial arts—and the key to judo is balance—the idea, in Japanese, of kozush. I’d venture to say that Judo is nothing but kozush. Overcommit in one direction, and you’re vulnerable to the opposite. Every strength becomes a weakness. Every weakness a kind of secret strength. Every throw includes and implies its counter throw. And you learn to throw by being thrown. At any rate, it took eight years for me to earn my shodan, my blackbelt. Eight years, five days a week, and a lot of luck not to get seriously injured. Luck to have other players in the dojo to train with. Luck to have a sensei with his constant nudges and scowls and occasional beams of praise. It’s not unlike writing a book. And like a book, no one can promise you a blackbelt if you go to the dojo for ten years. But they can guarantee you will not get your shodan unless you keep showing up somehow. And maybe I’m crazy, but the real mystery becomes how—or, better yet, why—why you keep showing up at the dojo or the desk or the marriage or the church or the classroom or any of the countless passions that drive your days.
William Lychack is the author of a novel, The Wasp Eater, and a collection of stories, The Architect of Flowers. His work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, and on public radio’s This American Life. The Architect of Flowers has been selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Summer 2011 season.