But I Don’t Know Nothing

baby with cowboy hat

OK, but don’t teach him how to write.

Maybe you’ve lived a good life, upright, moral, the very soul of ethical granite. I wouldn’t know about that stuff. I traded my option of going to Heaven a long time ago for a sixpack and some old Playboy magazines. Now the beer is drunk up and I lost the magazines, so I’m kind of thinking… but no, no, what’s done is done.

Since you’re a good person, you clearly have not lived your life as a writer. Thus you’ve avoided anxiously reading simplified, pretentious articles with advice on writing, signing up for creative writing courses out of the back of cheap magazines, and melancholy faraway gazing.

You’ve also missed joining writers critique groups. Within our furtive groupings, we give one another advice, and for those of you fortunate enough to have avoided literacy, I want to enrich your life with comments on three recommendations regarding writing. I mention the first while heaving a heavy sigh: “Write what you know”. Possibly this is good advice for a 13-year-old, who suddenly, at 10:00 at night, needs to have an essay for English class tomorrow morning. For adults, not quite as useful.

There is certainly some benefit to knowing what you’re writing about, but such advice is often reduced down to the stupid level (where many people keep their religion), so that in practice this advice becomes “whatever is in your head right now, that’s all you should write about”.

If you ever commit some heinous sin and end up as a writer, you may join a writing critique group, and if you wish to create the illusion of giving advice—while actually saying nothing—do this: look serious and say, “You should write what you know.” Do research? Learn new things? No thanks, I’m going to write what I know. I’m not gonna be like that stupid Shakespeare, who had to go read up on stuff.

If you still wish to extend your illusion of offering critique without actual thought, you can employ the second recommendation regarding writing: “Show, don’t tell”. Let your victim figure out what to make of such a vague generality. We might consider Charles Dickens opening a novel with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” No, no, no! That’s telling. Show someone having a bad time.

Because I’m such a positive person, as you’ve noticed, I don’t want to conclude this blog on a negative note. Therefore I’ll end with an example of good writing advice (i.e. mine), with a reference to a song made famous by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings: “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.” Paraphrasing this line, we can express the writing advice this way: “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be moody teenage poets who write love poems so leprously bad you want to gouge your own eyes out and then go wandering off like Oedipus, looking for some tragedy to take your mind off what you just read.”

Setting that to music might take some effort. We could summarize it as “Don’t let young people write love poetry.” That includes descriptions of the blissful stupid stupefaction of falling in love as well as the wails of black despair after realizing that no one anywhere ever, ever, ever suffered so badly from being mistreated, and how could you act like that when I loved you sooooo much?

I offer this good advice based on a short period when I was advisor to a college literary magazine. Because I didn’t use proper personal protective gear, I was exposed to all of the poetry submissions. However, since you’ve lived a moral life yourself, you probably haven’t read poems like that. I envy you. Just thinking about it makes me wish I still had some of that sixpack.

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2 Comments

Filed under How We Create Magic

2 responses to “But I Don’t Know Nothing

  1. It amazes me that Willie and Waylon produced such potent work when most of what passes as country music now sounds like it was written by love-struck-then love-broken teenagers.

  2. I just thank God for Pandora, where I could start a music channel with George Jones. There are contemporary country musicians, real ones, like Miranda Lambert or Kelli Willis, or of course Dwight Yoakam, but try to hear one of them amongst the incredible drivel of “country” radio stations.

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