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My Advice to Writers Who Give Advice to Writers

Jen Hartry

I read recently this article on The Atlantic’s site, in which the writer, Noah Berlatsky, excoriates author Jeffrey Eugenide’s advice to writers. In short,  Berlatsky says that Eugenide’s encouraging  young writers “to write as if they’re dead…without regard to popularity,” is “ just bad advice.” He closes the article with the advice to “write, in short, as if you are alive, both because the alternative is cramped and stupid, and because you don’t have any other choice.”

Spats of this kind feel silly to me, and I get the same kind of feeling from them that I get from reading about how Jonathan Franzen hates Twitter. What gets me is that these writers, especially Berlatsky, seem to assume that, one, there is one way of writing that works best for everyone, and two, that their audiences are helpless and mindless enough to choose permanently one way of writing over another because a published author said so.

When I was in high school my dad bought Jimmy Webb’s book, Tunesmith, for me, which contained advice and stories about his songwriting career (which, if you don’t know, included his writing Wichita Lineman, MacArthur Park and many other big hits). I was excited by the gift, because I was just starting to write songs, and with the gift my dad, a songwriter, was showing love and encouragement. I also felt like reading it would be a step toward being a greater writer. There were a few good tips in there, like never noodle around without recording it, and other practical stuff like that. But I remember turning a page and reading something very near to this: “The amateur songwriter’s greatest single failing and one that is immediately obvious to the listener is that the writer does not know exactly where the song is going.“ Thinking on it now, I suppose that maybe he meant that an amateur songwriter might call a song complete even though it meanders more that it should. Okay, I guess, but who’s to judge that? When I read it at sixteen, though, I didn’t read it like that. What I read was that I shouldn’t start a lyric without first knowing where the lyric was going. The sentence had quite an effect on me: I slammed the book shut, threw it across the room, and never opened it up again. It was total bullshit. Back then, I started every song of mine from word one and didn’t know where it was going. Today, especially when I write alone, I write that way about 85% of the time. Sure, I was and still am an amateur in some ways, but to Webb I guess–because I don’t write his way–I’m an amateur through and through. Bullshit!

I’ve written Eugenide’s and Berlatsky’s way, successfully. And I’ve written Webb’s way successfully, too. So perhaps everyone should write all three ways like me, right? After all, I have a record deal and was a professional staff songwriter for a while, so I am an AUTHORity, right. Of course not. There ain’t one way to write. There are many.

Please, fellow writers, do continue to talk about what works for you, because I for one find it very interesting. (And don’t I find it interesting because it’s different for so many people?) But quit saying that your way is the best and only way, because it’s condescending, and so obviously untrue.