It’s a fact universally accepted among men and women, that whoever lives to be at least a hundred years old has a formula for longevity. It’s also a fact, universally accepted among men, women, and even children, that whoever migrates from being a mere writer to being published becomes an author and has a formula for success.
If you look at some of the formulas for longevity and successful authorship, you’ll see they flaunt a primitive logical principle:
Smoke a pack a day for ninety years.
Don’t ever smoke, even though you will forever be banned from village rituals.
Always plot in advance.
Never plot in advance.
Climb big mountains in the Alps twice a week.
Don’t ever climb big mountains anywhere.
Drink a bottle of wine a day.
Don’t drink at all.
Note: The last two formulas apply to both writers and centenarians.
The logical principle that these formulas flaunt is called The Principle of Contradiction--a principle that says that something can't be true and not true. One thing can't be in two places at the same time, you can't be yourself and somebody else, two plus two can't equal four and seventeen.
In most systems of logic, if you ignore the Principle of Contradiction, then anything can follow. This is called The Principle of Explosion and you can read more about it in Wikipedia. (wiki/Paraconsistent_logic)
Hence, according to the Principle of Explosion, if you should always plot in advance and should never plot in advance, elephants can give birth to trees and balloons can get drunk at Oktoberfest. But that’s the stuff of surrealism, and doesn't address why people take the advice of writers so seriously. Which is another universally accepted truth: People often hang on stories about success. Especially writers who are dying to become authors, even though most writers have X-ray vision about the foibles of human nature.
Most people are amused by the contradictory advice of centenarians. After all, they’re probably surprised by their longevity and have to make up something quickly for reporters. But the same people bow to the advice of writers-turned-authors. These authors--unlike centenarians who have just kept on living--know how quirky and singular the writing process is. They know because they've written bad drafts and done terrible imitations of writers they admire. They know because they've changed tactics in mid-stream. But memories of mistakes are short and whatever tactic they think accounts for their success becomes a law. (It's also a universal truth, usually denied by everyone, that whatever has been an antidote for one particular person quickly becomes an antidote for all people.)
I don’t deny that it’s interesting, and sometimes challenging, for writers to listen to other writers give advice--as long as one keeps in mind: (a) they're talking about the way they work (b) most stories about writing are like fishing stories because so much happens beneath the surface.
As a writer who, mostly through luck, is allowed to be an author, I have two reactions when I go to readings or read interviews and the Advice sessions begin:
1. No! That’s not the way to do it at all!
2. Wait! He/she isn’t talking about you.
I have the incipient sanity to keep these reactions to myself. And when I hear or read a writer who has the humility to say this is the way I do it because it works for me but not the way you ought to do it, I'm happy--although of course I'd like to interject a few lines about the way I do it, too.
What should one do in the onslaught of authoritative advice about something that's hard to teach and usually involves a private apprenticeship, including reading a lot of good writers and writing a lot of bad drafts? I manage to feel only mildly terrible when a key to success involves a way of working I can never possibly manage. But even I'm brought to my knees by the strict invective of an author who has made millions of dollars.
My Advice about Advice (advice given freely and recklessly in the guise of urging people not to listen to any) is: For every bit of advice you hear or read about writing, remember that what appears to be a universal statement is almost always self-referential. Then flaunt The Principle of Contradiction, which will lead to the Principle of Explosion. If you do this again and again, it will restore faith in your own techniques or deplorable lack of them.
Flaunting the Principle of Contradiction is a no-brainer--whether or not you liked logic--and anyway, you already honed it as a teen-ager. If someone says Write every day! think: Don’t write every day. If someone says Never start a novel without a plot outline, think: Never start a novel with a plot outline. This formula can be applied to every writer and storyteller from the cave days into the future when book tours will be TM’d from other solar systems.Once you apply The Principle of Contradiction The Principle of Explosion follows. For example: If one should always plot in advance and never plot in advance then you can write successfully with the help of aliens. Most of what follows in the Principle of Explosion won't be useful. But inside the infinitely regressing nonsense, is one great self-referential, non-universal and utterly tautological truth: Whenever a story or a novel or a poem or a prose poem works, you did something that worked for you. Maybe one time you plotted in advance. Maybe one time you didn't. Maybe you did a little of both. Maybe for a while you worked every day. And then you stopped. Maybe you sort-of-worked every day. Etc. If you listen carefully (and have the temerity to pretend that you're giving Advice), you will work out principles, some of which will be at least half-right and be ports in improvisational storms.
It’s great to try out an approach (or not!) whenever a writer says something about their process that interests or challenges you. But if you try something and it isn’t your cup of tea, refrain from making a universal statement about not being any good because that particular approach wasn't viable for you. Flaunt The Principle of Contradiction. Then invoke The Principle of Explosion. And keep writing.
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