World’s Best Writing Advice
February 19, 2020 § 8 Comments
By Matthew Duffus
I was packing for an Easter Break trip when the phone rang. Without Caller ID—this was in 2001, the age of landlines—I had no time to prepare for the voice of my thesis advisor, Barry Hannah. Even after two-plus years, he scared the hell out of me, no less because he was then reading a draft of my entire thesis for the first time. He had cancer, and I’d hated to bother him earlier, so I waited to send him my draft, justifying procrastination as consideration for his illness.
As always, he cut to the heart of the matter. “Five of these stories need new endings,” he said, vaporizing my vacation with one sentence. The final draft was due in less than a week. I had no idea where to begin.
“Do you have any advice?” I said.
He sighed loudly enough I could almost smell cigarette smoke through the receiver. Finally, he said, “Endings are hard.” I waited for more, but that was it.
Days earlier, I’d had a dream that he’d approved my thesis. I’d awoken so relieved that thirty minutes went by before I realized the truth. Now, I went back to square one, with six days to correct mistakes that were years in the making.
Nevertheless, I wrote new endings, altering the entire trajectory of some stories, pushing others beyond the points I’d selected as conclusions in previous drafts. Barry still frowned at half the stories, while another member of the committee conveniently disapproved of the other half. Though it took me weeks to overcome the stress of my hour-long defense, I’ve discovered over the many years since then that endings are hard is exactly what I needed, and still need, to hear.
What I’ve taken away from this saying is that no silver bullet or incantation exists to help writers succeed. Similarly, bromides and prescriptive comments are of little use. Instead of searching for short cuts, we are better off putting in the work necessary to make each story, novel, poem, or essay as good as it can be.
For instance, when writing my novel, Swapping Purples for Yellows, I found the notion that a drafting writer should always be moving forward, without looking back, unhelpful. I’d done this in the past, only to end up with a draft so messy its problems overwhelmed me so much that I never found a way in for revision. This time, I wrote a chapter or two and then went back over them, even if only to line edit, before pushing on. This took longer, but when I completed the draft, I knew I had something I could work with, even if some of the line edits were for naught when scenes went by the wayside.
I internalized my take on Barry’s advice for my short-story collection as well. I wrote each of the stories in Dunbar’s Folly and Other Stories using a process specific to the demands of that individual work. One story, “The Soprano at Midlife,” appeared to me so completely that I wrote all twenty-eight pages in one eight-hour sitting. Other stories, such as “Enjoy Your Stay,” lived in my mind for more than a year before I put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. If I’d attempted to fit this story into the same drafting process I’d used for the earlier one, I’m sure the story would have come out half-baked, without the nuance and depth I hope it contains.
This pertains to my nonfiction writing as well. When an essay idea forms quickly, I try to keep up with it; when an idea needs to gestate, I try to be patient and not pin it down on paper too soon. A recent essay on a fallow period in my writing life hit me all at once, ironically, and it was all I could do to slow down long enough to complete the reading I wanted to do for background before I resumed typing. The idea for the piece you’re reading is almost twenty years in the making, but while I’ve often used the anecdote in conversation, it wasn’t until that fallow period that I was able to stop and reflect on what I’d taken from that off-hand comment.
Barry’s advice has illustrated what another mentor said about him. He told me Barry was among the most intuitive writers he’d ever met. Based on this advice alone, I see the truth in that comment. Barry didn’t believe in telling writers what to do. Even if his exacting line editing discouraged me at times, he never once declared that I should do X in revising a story. Instead, he told me what each story seemed to be about, taking on the role of engaged reader, exactly what I needed as a young, insecure writer. Nothing made me prouder than the day he announced, upon reading my latest work, “This is a story that needs to be told.” In the end, though, his vaguest piece of advice was worth the years I spent working with him. Not bad for three little words.
Matthew Duffus is the author of the novel Swapping Purples for Yellows. His poetry chapbook Problems of the Soul and Otherwise and story collection Dunbar’s Folly and Other Stories are both forthcoming. He lives in rural North Carolina, where he is an instructor of English and writing center director at Gardner-Webb University.