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Ask Brian: Advice for the Everyday Writer

Posted on Fri, Jun 21 2013 9:03 am by Brian Malloy

Editor's Note: Brian Malloy guest authors July/August's advice column as Esther is on maternity leave. After many years of service, including stints as Development Director and Education Director, Brian is departing the Loft to focus more on his writing. We’re really excited for him, but he will be missed around the office! Brian will remain a Loft teaching artist, so look for his upcoming classes including the fiction basics series this summer. 

How do I know if my writing is worth pursuing?

Gentle Reader,

If you’re asking me, I will tell you that there is nothing to know, that writing is inherently a worthy pursuit. If, however, you ask a financial planner, you may get a series of questions rather than an answer in response to your query, including (but not limited to), “Really?”, “Are you putting me on?”, and, of course, “Have you been drinking?”

But let’s turn our attention away from such unpleasant personalities as midlist novelists and financial planners and instead consider W.S. Merwin’s poem Berryman:

you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

If you don’t like the tough love of Berryman, here’s something a bit more hopey/changey from Natalie Goldberg:

"Don’t listen to doubt. It leads no place but to pain and negativity…Instead, have a tenderness and determination toward your writing, a sense of humor, and deep patience that you are doing the right thing…See beyond [doubt] to the vastness of life and the belief in time and practice."

There are also entire schools of literary theorists out there who can analyze your writing from a wide variety of perspectives, including aestheticism, pragmatism, deconstructionism, formalism, modernism, new criticism, new historicism, postmodernism, structuralism, etc., etc., etc.  None of them can tell you whether your writing is worth pursuing, however, because in my opinion, literary theory is a load of hooey.

But I digress.

Is your writing a worthy pursuit? By asking the question you are expressing doubt and seeking, perhaps, assurance, a guarantee of sorts that you’re not wasting your time with your poem, your novel, your memoir, your essay, your picture book. If your only criteria are riches, fame, and critical acclaim, then no, in all likelihood, your writing is not worth pursuing. Let me suggest, however, a different set of criteria beyond the National Book Award and a top spot on the New York Times bestseller list:

  • Does writing stimulate your imagination?
  • Does writing help you organize and express your thoughts?
  • Have you discovered something about yourself, others, or about the world around you as a result of your writing?
  • Does creating characters or writing about real people make you more empathetic to others?
  • Can you take risks with your writing that you cannot take in other areas of your life?
  • Does the writing make you more persuasive? Can you convince a reader that there really is a monster under their bed?
  • Does writing give you a sense of accomplishment?
  • Does writing challenge you?

If the answer to any of those questions is “yes” then your writing is worth pursuing.

Do you want to be younger? Professor John Mirowsky, author of a study on creativity conducted by the University of Texas (Austin) told Bio-Medicine that “The health advantage of being somewhat above average in creative work (in the 60th percentile) versus being somewhat below average (in the 40th percentile) is equal to being 6.7 years younger.” And, in news that may shock your financial planner, Professor Mirowsky says that this advantage is as beneficial as having fifteen times the household income or two more years of education. So really, who needs a huge book advance or an MFA?

Do you want to be smarter? As Dr. Judy Willis writes in her article The Brain-Based Benefits of Writing for Math and Science Learning, “in the past two decades, neuroscience and cognitive science research have provided increasing evidence that correlates creativity with academic, social, and emotional intelligence. Writing can help the brain to develop the logical functions required for successful math and science learning.“

Too academic for you? Consider less ivory-tower reasons why your writing is worth pursuing. Zoe Whitten, a writer of dark and weird fiction, tells us “creative writing excels in relieving stress. After all… you can kill everyone who has ever p***ed you off, and you’ll feel zero guilt the next day.”

So yes, dear reader, your writing is worth pursuing. Literature—even the literature you and I create—is part of the humanities, and as Stanford University tells us, the humanities are “the myriad ways in which people, from every period of history and from every corner of the globe, process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world.”

Understanding our world is a worthy pursuit, indeed.
Brian Malloy’s novels are The Year of Ice (St.Martin’s Press), Brendan Wolf (St. Martin’s Press), and the young adult novel Twelve Long Months (Scholastic). His books have been a Book Sense pick, a New York Times New and Notable title, and a Booklist editors’ choice for the best of 2002. Honors include grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and Jerome Foundation, the 2003 American Library Association Alex Award, and a 2009 Minnesota Book Award. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Minnesota and previously taught creative writing at Emerson College (Boston). malloywriter.com