The other day, I was tweeting about my upcoming book of writing advice, Never Say You Can’t Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times by Making Up Stories. And I described the book as being a mixture of writing advice, personal essay… and self-help book. I’d never thought about Never Say this way before, but as soon as I wrote that, it made total sense. Because there’s a huge overlap between helping people to be creative in the midst of horribilitude, and helping people to cope with life in general.
(And before anybody disses self-help books… please don’t. Some self-help books are terrible, but there are plenty of good ones, and I don’t believe in stigmatizing a whole category of writing, unless it’s actual hate speech or something. I might do a list of my fav self-help books in another newsletter post.)
When I started doing writing advice on io9 a dozen years ago, I was kind of hesitant about wading into this area. Partly due to imposter syndrome: I wasn’t exactly known for my creative writing at the time, and I wasn’t sure anybody would think I had anything useful to say. And also partly due to my awareness that there was no shortage of people on the internet telling other people how to write.
But also… I was super leery of being prescriptive, or giving any counsel that might cramp anyone’s style. I didn’t want to fall into telling people The Rules, because writing is a totally personal thing. What works for me definitely might not work for you. And we’re all better off when everybody feels free to experiment and screw up and stumble onto happy accidents.
Basically, there are two kinds of advice, about any topic. You can sit on a pedestal and instruct people as to the One True Way, or you can give people food for thought and maybe help them to figure out the way that works for them. And in some areas, there’s definitely a right way and a wrong way, like, say, if you’re defibrillating the carburetor on your car. (I don’t know anything about cars, or automobile maintenance.) But a good advice columnist is as likely to ask questions as to give answers: I’ve learned a lot from listening to Danny Lavery give advice on the podcast that’s now known as Big Mood, Little Mood. And my therapist definitely asks me questions to help me tease out what’s going on with me, rather than just saying, “You are so full of shit,” which is what she’s probably thinking.
So if you think of defibrillating your carburetor at one end of the spectrum of advice topics, and “should I divorce two of my seven husbands” at the other end, I’d say advice about creative writing is much closer to the latter than the former.
And I’d say that learning how to write is not dissimilar to figuring out what, if anything, you need to change in your personal life. Which means that writing advice is bound to share a bit of real estate with therapy.
There’s a reason I keep using dating and romance metaphors in Never Say You Can’t Survive. Getting into a story is sort of going on a first date, and getting really sucked into writing a particular story is not unlike falling in love in some important ways. Your relationship with your own work can have as many ups and downs as a relationship with another person.
But also, coming up with a writing style, and your own personal approach to genre and so on, inevitably revolve around figuring out who you are and what sort of writer you want to be. Which means, at least somewhat, figuring out what sort of person you want to be. Are you gonna be a gloomy, bloodthirsty denizen of darkness? A light, friendly purveyor of cozy adventures? Or something else?
You can’t fully separate your identity as a person from your identity as a writer — and not just because we are all encouraged, these days, to share a lot of ourselves with (potential) readers via social media and other stuff.
And when you think about a self-help book (or seminar), it’s all about crafting narratives about your life — narratives in which you have the ability to control your own career or relationships or other stuff. And it’s not unusual to find yourself working out some of the big epistemological-anecdotal questions in your own life, in part, by creating fictionalized versions where you can see more of the angles. Even if you’re not writing thinly-veiled autobiography, your own life will inevitably seep in.
There’s a lot of other ways in which getting writing advice has an element of therapy. A big chunk of it, of course, is permission giving: letting someone know that it’s okay, you can do this. You’re allowed to do this. A writing advisor has to help people get past their imposter syndrome, or their fear that their voice isn’t valuable, or their anxiety regarding the process of putting a vulnerable piece of themselves out into the world, where people will rate it like an Uber driver.
But there’s also the fact that writing a story often, not always, requires you to get in touch with some kind of dark and upsetting parts of yourself. I talk about this some in the book, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot more since I wrote those essays. Writing fiction sometimes requires you to grapple with trauma that you’ve experienced in real life — or to confront the dark parts of yourself that you draw on to create some of your monstrous characters. This can be super fun and liberating, and a way to exorcise those parts of yourself that you wouldn’t ever want to share any other way, but it can also be kind of intense and weird.
Plus there’s a part of me that is constantly dreaming up the worst possible thing that could happen in any situation. A dark, paranoiac, ever-watchful kernel of neurosis. When I write fiction, I’m putting that part of me in the driver’s seat, at least some of the time. This can be therapeutic, but it can also be draining and a little toxic. You train this part of yourself to dream up horrible events in your made up world, and maybe sometimes it starts to do that in the real world, too. I sometimes can’t help but imagine the worst thing that could happen in a real-world situation — or the worst thing that I could possibly do — and it’s hard not to get stuck on that sometimes.
I don’t want to exaggerate here. Most of us, most of the time, can tell the difference between fiction and reality, or between our dark imaginings and what’s really going on. But there are times when I feel like in order to really get to something dark and messed up in my fiction I do have to kind of give a little bit more rein to a dark part of myself.
This is why it’s so important to invest in your characters. To some extent, your characters are the part of you that is surviving, enduring, even experiencing joy in the midst of a whole lot of poop. But that’s another way that writing advice can stray a bit into therapy: like I talk about in the book, your characters are aspects of your mind, and you can sometimes get to know yourself better by understanding what makes your characters tick. Likewise, the patterns of events that crop up often in your fiction can mirror patterns that you act out in real life, at least some of the time.
Obviously, a lot of the patterns of events in your fiction are going to be a product of your tastes in media and the stories you’ve loved in the past. You might have a lot of prison breaks because you loved reading prison-break stories. But you might also find yourself writing stories about betrayal, or about unrequited love, because those are things you obsess about in your life as well as in your work.
I was recently going through all the stories in my upcoming collection Even Greater Mistakes for the umpteenth time, and noticing just how many of those stories are about fear of the future. The knowledge that terrible, maybe unsurvivable, things are coming, and we just don’t know what or when or how. (So there’s no way to prepare.) And yep, this is something that is a thing in my real life as well, for as long as I can remember. You only have to glance at history to know that wars, plagues, disasters, political meltdowns are inevitable and appear on no predictable schedule. Everything fails at the least opportune moment possible. I feel like a lot of my best short stories are trying to grapple with the question of how we can keep going in the face of that knowledge.
So I guess I would say there are three areas where writing advice can overlap with self-help or therapy: giving permission/empowerment, helping you to confront dark parts of yourself without getting overwhelmed, and helping people to learn more about themselves by seeing the kind of stories they tell.
Pink Noise by Laura Mvula is an absolutely phenomenal album that feels like a lost mid-80s classic, but also feels totally new and fresh. Like, Mvula’s voice isn’t quite like Chaka Khan’s, but there are moments on this album that feel like a sequel to I Feel For You, Khan’s synth-funk masterpiece. And it’s just gorgeous. I’m hearing new things each time I listen to it.
I’m almost done reading A House is a Body by Shruti Swamy — I’ve been finishing it slowly because each story in this collection is a brilliant experience unto itself. I’m gonna post a review on Goodreads as soon as I’m done (just one story to go!) but for now… holy heck. Swamy creates a series of stories about people who are lost, dislocated, carried along by other people’s desires or confusions. “The Laughter Artist” is a story about someone who has studied how to convey an emotion that she can no longer really feel in any meaningful way, except at unexpected times. In “Earthly Pleasures,” an artist who is descending into alcoholism meets the god Krishna and launches a strange intense friendship. Swamy conveys the feeling of being lost but seen in a really beautiful, arresting way.
You can read the full archives of my newsletters at this link.
I’m going to be going on Instagram Live on Saturdays at noon PT, talking to authors about writing.
I was just interviewed on the Comic Years Podcast.
You can come see me hosting an in-person literary event in San Francisco on Sunday July 11, featuring Dr. Jen Gunter, Bonnie Tsui, Andrea Stewart, Juli Delgado Lopera and Julia Serano.
My next book is Never Say You Can’t Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times by Making Up Stories, out August 17. You can pre-order it now, and add it on Goodreads. It’s also on NetGalley. Booklist just gave it a starred review and said, “Anders gifts readers with digestible and motivating writing advice dipped in a satisfying coating of snark. Through her encouraging counsel and intriguing questions, she encourages writers to keep writing and continue telling stories, brainstorming, day-dreaming, listening, and to have faith in their own abilities and their heart. Anders can give both new and experienced writers questions, exercises, and encouragement that will spark ideas and keep them motivated to continue their work.”
Also out right now: my young adult space fantasy novel Victories Greater Than Death, the first book in the Unstoppable trilogy.