categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
The top ten pieces of advice I have received, some of it about writing, some of it about life, in no particular order:
1. My friend Melinda Macinnis said, “Always believe what people tell you about themselves when you first know them.” We were in our twenties at the time, and I think the conversation was about potential love interests. But I have found over and over again, in all kinds of relationships, that this is true. Pay particular attention to the things people tell you by accident.
2. I worked in a bookstore in Chatham with a woman who was a therapist – she’d just moved there with her husband and hadn’t decided whether she was going to set up a practice or retire. Sadly, I can’t remember her name, but I liked her enormously. Diane? Maybe it was Diane. She told me that she never read her own work at a certain time of day because that was when she was most critical and apt toward anguish. A bell went off inside my head, and now I never read my own work in the late afternoon.
3. This same woman, the therapist/bookstore clerk, counseled me when I was having issues with a person I found very daunting: “She’s just another woman.” It seems like a simple, obvious phrase, but as someone who can be intimidated by conflict I have repeated it in my head many, many times since. (Clearly, I got a lot of great, free therapy on slow days at the register).
4. Always check the backseat before getting into your car, to make sure nobody’s hiding there. My grandmother told me this when I was twenty-two and had just moved to Oakland, California. I refused to do it because it seemed so old ladyish. But because I am a naturally obedient person, every time I got into my car I was extremely away of not doing it. When the Loma Prieta earthquake struck, I was at a stoplight in downtown Oakland, and my first thought was that someone was jumping up and down in the back of my station wagon.
5. When you are just starting out as a writer, spend as much time submitting as you do writing. Send out all your stories, and send them everywhere. Simultaneously submit your best work like crazy. This was unspoken advice from my friend Mark Spitzer, who submitted – and published – like a madman. He addressed all his envelopes with a gold pen and also spray painted his sneakers gold as tribute (I did not do this last part).
6. When passing on the highway, do not move back into the right lane until you can see the other car’s headlights in your rearview mirror. My friend Jeremiah Splaine taught me this on a cross country road trip that was very harrowing for him because of my bad driving.
7. “Write a little every day without hope or despair.” I believe it was David Gessner who gave me this quote by Isak Dineson. I feel like I have already referenced it in a previous Bad Advice Wednesday, but that’s okay because it bears repeating.
8. My friend Wendy Hyde told me to talk to my child constantly, from the second she was born, and never to adjust my syntax or vocabulary. This practice really does result in very well- spoken children.
9. Ron Sukenick, who was my professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, said whenever you write something and then immediately feel the urge to delete it because it’s too embarrassing or too revealing — that’s exactly the thing you need to be writing about.
10. Do the work you love. Berke Breathed was the speaker at my college graduation, and that was the gist of his speech. Certainly he’s not the only person who’s told me this, but I do believe we don’t hear it enough, and it’s something I try to impress upon my own students. You wouldn’t marry for money. So don’t choose a career for money. Do the work you love.