What do you tell writers who ask for advice?

At the request of Campus Activities I agreed to participate in what is called “Storm Talks.”  It seems the goal of the project is to initiate conversation between students and professors.  I talked briefly on video and invited students to tell me about their writing before, during, and after the first year writing course.  The video was published via YouTube and Facebook.  Questions came in.  Here’s one of them:   “Any advice for a young writer?”

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I usually answer that question by saying that the writer should read and write a lot.  I suppose it’s a philosophy–PRACTICE– that I used back when I was eighteen years old and cared about my free throw percentage. Okay, I still care about how many I’d make out of 100 if I were to go shoot tomorrow morning, but what I’m getting at is that in order to shoot free throws well, part of that process was that I shot a lot of them.  I remember in Donald Murray’s book, Write to Learn, he quotes writer (and Google fighter) Ursula Le Guin about this notion of practice:

“If you want to be a tuba player you get a tuba, and some tuba music…And you probably get a tuba teacher, because there are a lot of rules and techniques to both written music and to tuba performance.  And then you sit down and you play the tuba, every day, every week, every month, year after year, until you are good at playing the tuba; until you can–if you desire–play the truth on the tuba.”

Right after I suggest reading and writing to the person who has asked for advice (who am I really to give it?) I say that the writer needs to learn how to read.  People often laugh and think I’m joking, but I’m not.   As a student at Georgia College in Milledgeville, a generous faculty helped me to begin to read like a writer.  I learned to see that when Flannery O’Connor wrote “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” she made a choice for conflict in her first sentence:  “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.”  O’Connor had many choices when it came to the beginning of her story.  She could have delivered dialogue, oriented readers to the setting, or perhaps written images for the purpose of developing character.  As I began to read in this way, all of the texts that surround me became my potential teachers, and I can read for lessons connected to dialogue, structure, endings, word choice, and many, many more.

So when asked to give advice I say to read and write a lot, and I say to learn how to read.  That feels like a pretty “DUH” thing for me to write.  Do you think so?  If you’re in position to ever be asks the question, how do you answer it?

Click Here to See Storm Talk Video

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