As we’ve been doing all month long, we posed the question, “What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever given or received?” to one of our Unbridled authors, Colin Dickey. His best advice? Well, as often happens with Colin…he’s completely spun convention on its head… .
“The worst piece of writing advice I ever received was from an august, semi-famous writer who came to my small-time university and was a guest in our penny-ante creative writing class, in which he waxed luxuriously about “getting it right,” by which he meant closely observed detail, a fidelity to fact, the telling small moments that would convey to a reader that the author had “done his homework” (this guy, it should be said, seemed to presume that most writers of consequence were men). Writing, he seemed to believe, was about recreating reality as closely and accurately as possible.
After the class was over, I asked if that was the best we as writers could look forward to, to accurately recreating the world that was already out there. He put his palms out and brought his hands together in a V, suggesting the bed of a river, and told me that if I kept at it, eventually I would “overflow the banks.” That was his advice: keep working on a perfect recreation of what’s already out there, and eventually, when you get really good at it, you’ll somehow transcend that.
This is terrible advice. A writer is not a camera, a writer’s job is to do more than just recreate what already exists. Painters gave this up over a century ago; writers should also have long given it up by now. This is a safe approach, the kind for those without ambition. But who wants to read a book without ambition? Spectacular failures are always far more fascinating than successful mediocrities.
Brecht said art is not a mirror held up to the world but a hammer with which to shape it; slightly more elegant, I think, is Kafka’s formulation: art is a clock that runs too fast. The interesting thing for me about good writing is not where it matches up with the world we already know, but where it diverges—and, even more important, the space between these two realities.”
Colin Dickey is the author of Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius as well last Summer’s Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, Cabinet, The Believer, TriQuarterly, and The Santa Monica Review. He is also co-editor (with Nicole Antebi and Robby Herbst) of Failure! Experiments in Aesthetic and Social Practices. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, he now lives in Los Angeles.