Famous authors have a great deal of good advice to give to aspiring writers. It often arises from their own experience of this challenging craft. Let’s consider some familiar suggestions from well-known literati. Under what circumstances did they come up with their good counsel for posterity? How does it reflect their own lives, and their work?
“Any man who keeps working is not a failure…”
The speculative fiction author Ray Bradbury is quoted as saying, “Any man who keeps working is not a failure. He may not be a great writer, but if he applies the old-fashioned virtues of hard, constant labor, he’ll eventually make some kind of career for himself as writer.” Bradbury must have offered this comforting reassurance out of his own experience.
Born in 1923, Bradbury could never afford college, but he read daily in the local library and wrote constantly, with or without pay. He felt that he got an education from life. He personified the above quote entirely, by working from the age of 23, through his 80s. Over the decades he created short stories, books, movie and TV scripts, and even amusement ride designs and a pavilion at Disney’s Epcot Center. The Martian Chronicles introduces many youngsters to science fiction, and his short story A Sound of Thunder is in many school curricula. He accomplished all this while raising a family and maintaining a marriage. His advice seems so prosaic coming from someone whose imagination transported the reader through space, time, and memory. Another quote, “First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!” expresses the sense of excitement that Bradbury’s works spark in readers. The lucky readers of the fruits of his “hard, constant labor” often find themselves changed forever.
Prose is a “…prefabricated hen-house”
A very different perspective was provided by journalist, essayist, and novelist George Orwell. He bemoaned his observation that, “prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house”. He asserted that this kind of unclear writing was connected to unclear thought about vital issues. He had personal experience as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, and saw how populations could be manipulated into acting against their own best interests. He identified with democratic socialism but deplored Stalinism, most famously in his novel, Animal Farm. Later in Politics and the English Language, the same essay quoted above, he laid out a set of 6 questions and 6 rules to guide good writing, especially political writing. This literary legacy counsels brevity, simplicity, and originality
“The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas”
Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, researcher on the nature of the chemical bond, did not confine himself to one area of inquiry and action. Over his 93 year lifespan, he was a peace activist, and a famous proponent of micronutrients such as Vitamin C. He encountered resistance from the scientific community for some of his ideas, but he continued to write, to research, and to contribute all through his life. This inspiring approach to creative endeavor is reflected in his assertion that, “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.” To hear him speak in person in the 1970s was to witness this philosophy in action. He held forth extempore on a multiplicity of topics. His advice encourages beginning writers to remain unattached to any single notion, but to just keep churning out something new. He got a Nobel Prize for it, so it seems to have worked for him.
Publishing a book is like being with your pants down
For those who feel that writing is a risky business, the following comment from Edna St. Vincent Millay is a mixture of comfort and warning: “A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down…If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book, nothing can help him.” This modern American poetess was a vivid character, pursuing fiery affairs on both sides of the gender line and a decidedly unconventional marriage. Fortunately, she continued to produce her highly personal poetry, dismissed for decades, partly out of sexism and partly because she had the temerity to use rhyme instead of blank verse. She is now considered a national treasure.
Look to these, and other famous authors, for good advice and ideas for your own writing!