Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Advice to would-be writers (for R. T.)

Another 2013 book tour picture--
in Cullowhee, NC with Paul and Lynn Digby--
Lynn behind the camera on this one...
 I've been trying to visit and support A Commonplace from Eastrod, the infant blog of R. T., but what a lot of events there are in Advent and before the school Christmas break! Tonight was the high school concert, where I immediately noticed that my youngest wasn't wearing his jeans under the school choir robes and that he had on some spectacular tie-dyed socks. Whee! It's hot under the lights and those big old choir robes...

R. T. aka Tim asks about advice for writers in his latest post, and that is a thing that changes each time one answers, so I thought that maybe it is time I answer that question once again; it's a question one often receives. So I'm going to muse on the e-page and find out what I think at the moment. I hope not to sound like a book-mad Mrs. Polonius. (Feel free to argue, add your own advice in the comments, etc.)

And here I am with painter Lynn Digby,
Paul behind the camera
    Come back next year and I'll probably think something different. 
  • Be a crazy, obsessed, wild reader at some time in your life, whether childhood or adulthood.
  • If you have a tragedy in childhood or a difficult family, you don't have to be happy about it, but you have grit that may become a pearl. The world may not be your oyster, but you might be your own oyster, sooner or later.
  • Don't worry about it if you are a woman and have children and can't meet the omnipresent "write every day" demand. 
  • Your challenge is to make a thing that holds life in a net of words. This is almost impossible. There is no dishonor in failing, and even a failure may be transformative.
  • Just be quiet and do the work. 
  • Better yet, don't be a writer! (If you must, you'll do it anyway. And if you don't have to be one, this advice might save the world a lot of pedestrian books and some pernicious bestsellers.)
  • And remember that worldly success is not the same thing as making something full of grace and truth. 
  • If you believe in your innocence that worldly success must come, you may be destroyed by this belief. I have seen it happen to people, and such bitter change is tragic.
  • Do not abuse the dead (particularly historical figures) in the creation of characters.
  • The world owes you nothing. Do not expect something. But if it comes, say thank you.
  • Listen to your teachers but later on show them that you can do the thing with flair that they said not (no, never!) to do.
  • If what you want is worldly success and money, do something else entirely. It's a lot quicker and more sure.
  • Read your novel/poem/story/thing-you-made aloud when you think you're done, particularly if you have what is known as a tin ear. Of course, nobody will tell you if you have a tin ear, so do it anyway.
  • Grow bigger on the inside as you go along.
  • And make your poems/narratives bigger on the inside as you go along.
  • Don't apologize for your work.
  • Forget about "finding yourself" or finding any other hard-to-pin-down quality. Just make the thing. You'll be making yourself, too.
  • If you are a woman and a writer, do not think that you simply must be a superwoman. With hard work, it will be possible for you to do two large things well. (For me, that was first teaching and writing and later on raising three children and writing with a few events now and then on the side.) Be sure you choose the right things. This choice may be costly in a worldly way. Be clear on what you are about when you choose because regret in such situations can be strong.
  • If you are a woman and choose to do more than two large things well, know that at least one of your pursuits will suffer. Make sure it is not your children, or you may be raising another generation of poets and writers. (That may happen anyway, but why tempt fate?)
  • Do things you suspect you might not be able to do. 
  • Push off the edge of the known world.


  1. Comments have to be tracked down at facebook and twitterl--they ran away! Thanks, everybody, for comments and shares and re-tweets...

    Morning, world--make it a joyful one, please (and no missed school buses?)

  2. Although it's been said many times, many ways . . . there is probably one bit of advice for all writers: take no advice. (Sorry for borrowing opening phrase from a song lyric; it is one of those days!)

    Too cynical?

    Too much like what Flannery O'Connor might have said. After all, she was a rebel in her own time. She must have been a strange but wonderful woman.

    Finally, have a great day! Now I am off to administer a final exam--the last one of this semester; I hope these students do better than my other two classes. Yikes!

    And I hope the school bus issue worked out for you.

  3. I generalize from my own writing experience even when I should know better: I'm one of those folks who trots out the "write every day" advice. Unlike Flannery O'Connor, I can't sit in front of a typewriter three hours each day; I have to cram it into my lunch break and the evening commute, otherwise I'd never write a word. But I'm aware that other people will have to find their own way.

    You supply good advice about the actual being a human part of writing, the life away from the pen. When I wrote my very first novel, I imagined fame and fortune would be mine within six months of typing "the end." That was in 1995, I think. I had a lot to learn! I just thank God that one of those lessons was to write better.

    Your final bit of advice is wonderful. I try to remember to tell people to be brave.

  4. R. T.,

    Well, some of this advice has rebellion built into it! I've given that bit of advice--don't listen to advice--before. It doesn't matter what you say, really, because everybody who writes has to work out their own book-destiny. Ideas that you hate are just as useful as ideas you adopt.


    Oh, I do think it ideal--just have not been able to manage it as a mother of three. Too many events, too much mess to clean, etc.

    We do have to learn a lot of that sort of dismaying thing! But I'm glad when it doesn't break a person because I do know some people it broke. It's a terrible sight--a person never able to let go of his resentment over lack of attention, lack of publications. It's sort of like Hawthorne's vision of Melville worrying over God or no-God, tramping over the sand dunes and eternally wrestling.

  5. Most of this good advice applies to making art as well.

    Lynn Digby

  6. I think it often works that way...

    And many of my most inspiring art-relationships are with painters (like you!)


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.