Writing Advice From Emily Gould

Dear Emily,Writing Advice From Emily Gould

I’m writing to ask you a very broad question, and I don’t quite know how to phrase it. My question is about motivation. I’ve spent most of my life looking for artistic inspiration, aspiring to make something brilliant and unprecedented — but nothing I’ve ever made has made me feel even remotely successful. Most of the time, writing makes me feel like the least-original person in the world, and reading my own work makes me think that my problems run so deep that I’d have to become a different and more interesting person to write the kind of stuff I’d like to write. Sometimes I think I just need more practice and more confidence and more discipline, and I continue to strive for those things; but after all this time, it’s getting difficult to stay motivated. I left a great relationship, years ago, because it wasn’t inspiring enough, and I just left one recently because it was affecting my self-esteem and my sense that I could make something out of myself. I’ve turned down lucrative job opportunities and scrupulously saved money for the hard times I anticipate in the future. I guess my question is when to give up. When do you have to accept non-phenomenality? Is that an absurd idea? Or am I trashing a lot of good opportunities for a decent, non-detestable life in pursuit of something I’ll never achieve? I know a bit about your history and I really admire the way you’ve been able to withstand criticism and maintain your dignity, your sense of self, and your motivation. What’s the secret? How do you motivate yourself to keep writing, keep looking for a more beautiful life, even when things look bleak?

-Bleak Geek

Dear Bleak Geek,

I recently saw a quote that directly addressed your question. It was from a poem by our new poet laureate, W.S. Merwin, and I saw it on someone’s Tumblr. It said:

I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

I think what W. S. Merwin was getting at here is that you might as well keep writing because you never know, someday something you write may end up quoted on someone’s Tumblr. Also you might get to be Poet Laureate! But there are no guarantees, and one of those things is, I guess, a bit likelier than the other, and much likelier than the confluence of both, and also you really do have to be comfortable with the possibility of “none of the above.” Writing in the hopes of phenomenality seems like an obvious sucker’s bet, like playing pickup basketball in the hopes of scoring an NBA contract. It could happen, especially if you do it every day and happen to be eight feet tall, but it might also be ok to just keep playing because you love basketball so much that you feel that you have no choice but to keep playing.

Personally I hate basketball and love writing. Even when I hate writing, I love it, you know? Based on your question it sounds like you do too. So you should keep doing it, and not try to live someone else’s supposedly non-detestable life. It’s not like you even *really* have a choice about this. Just the fact that you’re asking me this question tells me that you have secretly on some level already made up your mind. And the way you asked me the question made me feel good about your chances, because the people who are totally convinced of their own awesomeness are nearly always totally crappy writers, or if not, they’re still totally crappy people to get stuck sitting next to at a party.

One of the weird things the Internet has done has made it seem possible to just kind of be a writer — ie, you can be published, a lot of people might read your work, and yet you haven’t had to give up your secure nine to five and alienate and scare most of your friends and family in order to anonymously post your amusing comments on a blog. That little bit of attention and acclaim convinces some people that they are writers. They are not. Writing is not about acclaim. It is also not about being “successful,” in the sense of making your living as a writer. You know who are very successful writers right now, in the sense of being on the bestseller list? Both Karl Rove AND Laura Bush. Being a writer, ultimately, is about writing — writing honestly, writing something only you can write. Every time you do this, you succeed, even if no one quotes you on their Tumblr.


Emily Gould is the author of And The Heart Says Whatever

Writing Advice From Emily Gould

Photo by epcp

Emily Gould is the author of And The Heart Says Whatever ...read more


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