Writing Lessons

My Best Advice

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By Bret Anthony Johnston


 

I’ve been so consistently lucky—uncannily, remarkably, shamefully lucky—in the quality of advice I’ve received over my so-called career that it’s impossible to name the best. I can remember the worst (“When you’re invited to speak somewhere, accept the invitation but don’t go. The key is mystique.”), and the strangest (“Take up an instrument, preferably the trombone.”), but not the best. So I’ll give you the most recent advice I’ve heard, advice that seems as revelatory as anything I’ve come across: when you have to choose between being trusting or being smart as a writer, choose trust.

This is Allan Gurganus’s idea, and when I heard him say it to a roomful of young writers at Harvard University, I had to stop myself from hallelujah-ing. No hyperbole intended. I genuinely felt like I was in church.

Most writers are intelligent and analytical, debilitatingly so at times, and it’s easy to lean on the crutch of intellect when a story or novel gives us trouble. The notion of thinking our way out of problems is powerfully seductive. When our fictions jettison our intentions, we feel defensive and small and scared, and we work hard to think of ways to get things back under control. That is, we try to outsmart characters who insist on disobeying us and being themselves. What we should be doing isn’t thinking, but trusting. Trust that the story will lead you rather than you leading the story. Trust that the characters are in control and trust that this is a gift, a blessing. Trust that surrendering your intelligence, that safety net of fear and logic, isn’t something to shrink from, but rather something to seek out, to cherish.

Because the goal isn’t to outwit a story or argue against characters until they bend to our superior smarts. No, the goal is to create fiction that transcends our intellects. Don’t think, feel. Don’t think, trust. There are boundaries to our intelligence, strictures on our strategies, perimeters around our powers of reason, and thus if we rely solely on those tools, our writing is necessarily and severely limited. Trust knows no such limitations, and the more we trust our fiction, as opposed to doubting and bullying it, the more that trust is rewarded with depth, breadth, and surprise.

To be clear, I’m not gunning against craft or diligence or revision, and I’m certainly not offering up excuses for sloppy prose or careless, self-indulgent stories. Rather I’m advocating for faith. Have faith in the imagination, in labor and heart, in vividly rendered worlds and characters who quicken to life and guide the reader—and writer—out of the darkness and into the light.

All of which sounds pretty preachy and ecstatic, I know. But you don’t have to trust me or Allan Gurganus or even yourself. Trust your characters, your curiosity, the words on the page ushering you forward. They’ll deliver you every time.

Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of the fiction collection Corpus Christi and the forthcoming novel Remember Me Like This. He is the director of the creative writing program at Harvard University. His website is bretanthonyjohnston.com. He can also be found at facebook.com/bajbooks.

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