Great advice for writers: never, ever hoard ideas

June 20, 2008 | Uncategorized | 14 comments

Kind of a random topic, but I just had to share. I think it’s great advice for anyone who writes, whether it’s professionally, for a blog, or just in a personal journal.

I’ve been thinking about the subject of writing, writer’s block in particular, ever since Alice of Finslippy brought it up the other day. Then I came across this great post at Love Well, which has an excellent quote from Annie Dillard:

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes. [read the rest here]

Honestly, I think that might be the best advice on writing I’ve ever heard.

Every time I fall into the mentality of hoarding ideas, thinking along the lines of “this is actually a good idea — unlike most of my other lame ideas — so I’d better save this one for later!”, it dissipates. Indeed, I open my safe and find ashes. Over and over again I’ve found that the more freely I share my thoughts (even when I’m sure that this is my last decent idea and I’ll never have another one again), the less I deal with writer’s block.

Anyone else have any good tips for writers?

14 Comments

  1. SuburbanCorrespondent

    I enjoyed that post at Love Well also. It’s true, we can’t hoard ideas: what is freely given to us, we must distribute freely to others.

  2. Karen E.

    *Love* Annie Dillard. She has another great quote about how we have to be ready to knock a “bearing wall” down in our writing, about how the very thing we thought was at the core of the writing has to go. Great stuff.

  3. Ginkgo100

    That’s great advice. I’ve found that ideas don’t subtract, they multiply: the more you have, share and express, the more new ones you get.

    More advice for writers: Write. This is the oldest and most annoying advice I have ever heard for writing. Do it every day, every chance you get. I started my first blog mainly for that very reason, to give me an outlet to write regularly instead of sitting around thinking that someday I would like to write. And you know what? Like ideas, writing multiplies. The more you do it, the more you have the urge to do it, and the better you are at it, and the more you have to say.

    Some other advice for writers… I would say read a lot, and always read critically. Try to analyze why the writing in one book is so compelling and why the writing in another seems so weak. Try to notice the words other writers use and remember them for some day. (That’s how I had the word “compelling” in my mind so I could put it in the previous sentence!)

    One other bit of advice I have heard that is really good — all good writing is re-writing. Re-read everything and edit as necessary before you send it off or hit “publish”. Sometimes when I fail to do this (and I often do), I wince later when I read the result and wish I could re-write it. (Like my posts on aliens and Catholicism: I didn’t mean for that to end up a diatribe against fundamentalist Protestants! I wish I had re-read it so I could tone that down!)

  4. Shelly W

    Thank you for sharing that. I really need those kinds of reminders.

    The only advice I have is what I once heard someone on the radio say, and the advice is pretty simple: in order to really write, you have to have an iron butt.

  5. Chaotic Joy

    This is wonderful advice and something I am hindered from following more freely by the constraints of time. So often I find myself mentally composing what I think will be a wonderful topic only to have to put it off until I have time to devote to it. And when that time finally comes, poof, the well is dry and I cannot imagine what excited me about that topic in the first place.

    And you are right, the more I stop and put those thoughts down at that moment, the easier they come to me in the future.

  6. amy

    I agree with you. If it’s really good, it’s coming from God, anyway, so who are we to hoard it? I used to be afraid to put my poetry on my blog, that I should “copyright” it, that if it was actually any good, someone might “steal” it. Then I decided, it came from God, and if someone wants it, they can have it. I most likely never would try to get it published anyway, so what does it matter? Poets certainly aren’t in it for the money.

    Did I just call myself a poet? Hee hee. Don’t think I’ve ever done that before (not “out loud” anyway). Maybe I should have business cards printed…

    My only advice would be to put it out there (if not on a blog, to publishers, to friends in an email (or in an actual letter–remember those? who doesn’t like getting something other than bills and junk in the mail?). If it isn’t good, big deal, and if it is good, it’s meant to be shared. Plus, it’s a good exercise in overcoming fear.

    Peace to all; I think I’ll go put some more poetry up on my blog…

    And Jen, I got your response to my email (“venting”), and yes, what you said helped. It’s good of you to take time to try to help so many people. Thank you!

  7. Sta

    That’s great advice, advice I could stand to remember. As a journalist on a competitive beat, I often get an idea and want to hold onto it, save it for a day when I’ll have more space or more time to really work the angle. Then inevitably, some other reporter asks the questions I was going to ask and writes it up himself.

    I love reading about how to write well, and I can recommend a few good books. The Creative Call is fantastic for Christians who recognize the Holy Spirit as their muse. Stephen King’s On Writing is a great read with solid advice packed in. The Gotham Writer’s Workshop — Writing Fiction is the best book by far on fiction writing I’ve ever read. Of course, nothing can impart grammar wisdom like The Element’s of Style.

    And one of the best pieces of advice I try to remember is, “Kill your darlings.” Meaning, in the editing process, don’t cling to phrases or passages that for whatever reason just sing to your ear if they don’t fit, aren’t necessary or for whatever reason just don’t work. Kill ’em!

  8. Lucia Rosa

    I’ve been thinking of writing something about a very similar subject, but I was “saving it for later”! Actually I wanted to write about the just proportion between writing and reading, if there is one. Maybe I will.

  9. razzler

    Absolutely! Every time I’ve had an idea for the blog and say, “I’ll write about that tomorrow”, it disappears by the time “tomorrow” arrives.

    I have to write as soon as the idea hits me. It’s a bit unfortunate when the idea hits me at 3am…

  10. Leticia

    Great post, Jen, this discussion is right on target.
    My writing has vastly improved since I began blogging and got lots of practice. The next phase of growth was when I learned to re-write and “kill my darlings”.

    Now, I have to go over and blog some of those ideas I’ve been saving. . .

  11. Jane @ What About Mom?

    I love Annie Dillard too, only her latest, The Maytrees sounds SO unappealing to me. Do not do well with the adultery/divorce themes.

    Anyway, I think this is fantastic advice, and it’s almost a Christian bent to — the more you spend your ideas, the more ideas you get reminds me of “lose yourself to find yourself,” and that sort of thing.

    I’ve been thinking of other Christian aspects or metaphors on writing. E.g. Christ is called the “author” of our salvation. (at least in our church, and I’ve always assumed this is a broad “doctrine”).

    The Hebrew for “I am” means “I create,” and writers often create whole worlds, much less just creating something that wasn’t there before.

    In more general writing terms, I can certainly attest that the more I write, the more I have to write about.

  12. amy

    jane,

    You mentioned Jesus as the author of our salvation… my favorite is Jesus as the “Word”…

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God John 1.1

    As someone who loves words, loves playing with words, that really appeals to me. What a Word! God’s extravagance should be an example for our own attitude toward words.

  13. Dean

    Jennifer,
    Please edit or do whatever with all the comments from Dean in Wisconsin. I did not see the message at the top of the screen that the comments had been received and so thought I had to rewrite them. sorry for the several editions. BUt thank you for your excellent site. A real help.
    Dean in wisconsin

  14. Rob

    I’d agree with those, too. The best writing advice I’ve ever gotten is that the foundation of writing well is knowing your subject–not just in non-fiction, but also in fiction. (If you don’t know your characters well enough to know how they’ll think and how they’ll react, and if you don’t know their world well enough to know what they’re reacting to, that’s when you end up resorting to clichés to move the story forward.)

    BTW, by way of introduction: I first ran across your blog through The Thinklings, and my wife is Sara of Coffee Randoms.

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