Guest contributor: Nina de Gramont

Bad Advice Wednesday: Just Say No

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


“Just Write” by the Haystack nonfiction workshop, 2011. [Photo Lisa Cirando]

“What is the best advice you ever received about writing?”

“Just write.”

The above is from an interview with Madeline L’Engle that I found in the back of my daughter’s copy of A Wind in the Door.   L’Engle certainly earned the right to dispense advice, however terse, having written more than forty books for which she won numerous honors, including a Newberry Medal and a National Humanities Medal.

“Just write.”  What could be simpler?  Sit down somewhere you won’t be bothered, put your hands on the keyboard (or pencil to the paper) and start composing.  Except, really.  Somewhere where you won’t be bothered?  Does such a place exist?  And no, I’m not going to go into a diatribe against the internet, because personally it’s not those five minute treks over to Facebook that do me in.  What gets in the way of my just writing are invitations.  Things that I want to do, would LOVE to do, except for the fact that I need to finish what I’m working on.  These can be work related, like invitations to write something (no, I do NOT have time to write this Bad Advice Wednesday).  Or even more insidious, social invitations, to do something fun,  with a person you really like, right in the middle of the time you carved out for yourself to work.

One problem with writing is that to the untrained eye it can look a whole lot like doing nothing.   Even my husband and I, who should know better, tend to interrupt each other during those all-important moments when fingers stop moving on the keyboard, and concentration is more necessary than ever.   Apparently it sounds like doing nothing, too, because friends who know you’re home writing will call to chat, or even worse, invite you to go out to lunch.  I have a very nice neighbor who often knocks on my door and asks if I want to walk my dog with her.

Do I sound like this annoys me?  It doesn’t at all.  In fact I’m a little bit afraid that the friends who offer invitations will read this and stop doing it.  Because I love to catch up on the phone.  And I love to go out to lunch, especially if an Indian buffet is involved.  After my neighbor finally gave up on me, sometimes I would catch a glimpse through our front window of her and another neighbor heading off with their dogs on a long, chatty walk, and it would look so companionable.  I would get a lonesome pang of rejection.  Which I realize makes no sense at all.  Finally they were doing what I’d implicitly requested, not inviting me, and instead of being pleased I felt dejected.

But the thing is, if you have a job apart from writing, not to mention a family, that means you have a limited time each day to focus on your own work, to just write.  So you have to be mercenary about your writing time.  Not with your friends (they’ll find someone else to walk or lunch with) but with yourself.  When you sit down to work and the phone buzzes, and you see it’s a friend who lives many states away whom you haven’t talked to in ages, be strong.  Don’t answer.  When your neighbor knocks on the door and your dog is looking at you soulfully, be strong.  And lunch!  Except on rare occasions, maybe when you’re between projects, or need to reward yourself for one hundred pages complete, do not go out to lunch.  When you have to pick your kid up at 2:30, lunch totally spoils your working day.

Obviously that last part was specific to me.  But the general point is, the best advice Madeline L’Engle ever received is also the best advice you’ll ever receive.  And in order to follow it, you’re going to have to be always strict, never flexible, with your writing time.  Your writing time is for writing, and nothing else.  And for any of my friends reading this, I almost never write in the evenings or on weekends.  So if anyone wants to grab dinner or Sunday brunch, I’m in.

[photo Lisa Cirando]

  1. Laura Staubs writes:


    Thanks for the advice! I’ve been having some, shall we say, creative troubles lately. I keep trying to tell myself to “just write.” I’ve been avoiding the obvious: I just don’t give myself enough time to write with. What time I do have usually goes towards thinking about how I’m not writing. No more letting myself leave my work for when I have “a little free time.” 🙂

  2. Karen writes:

    Very good advice – and good depiction of how hard it can be to follow such simple advice. I use Freedom software on my computer to deprive myself of the internet and the lure of stopping writing to “do a little research.” I have hardened myself against those pleading eyes of my dog, who always wants another walk. But I have no sure-fire technique for not being pulled for the occasional coffee with a friend. But one can keep trying…

  3. Lori Day writes:

    Nina, this is pitch-perfect. I deal with the same thing every day–a day job, a family, and a writing job on top of that. It can be so hard to carve out the time for all the reasons you state–every last one of them. Thanks for the sanity validation this morning! 🙂 ~Lori

  4. Bill writes:

    Thanks for the great Bad Advice, Nina. The images come from my nonfiction workshop last summer at the Haystack School of Crafts, a wonderful place (which I posted about when I was there). Participants picked a phrase from their own work and used the amazing tech workshop (with its equally amazing MIT grad students in attendance to help) to laser-cut them out of hand-crafted paper. “Just Write” was the title of the book they made out of these pages, a quote from my exhortations during the week, when, apparently, I was channeling Madeline L’Engle! Whom I love. (But not like I love Nina!) The book sold for over $500 at the auction to benefit the school!

  5. George de Gramont writes:

    Love this essay . Especially since you & Hadley practice what you preach. Of course as my old friend Baron John Kaiser used to say “This kind of advice is only good for people who have “FINGERSPITZENGEFUHL”. GdG.