The best writing advice I ever got? How about I start with the worst I ever got, just for contrast? It came from all kinds of people, it was certainly well intentioned, and it was very, very simple: “Don’t screw around with Huckleberry Finn.”
This could be generalized, of course, to “Don’t take chances.” And any time anyone tells you that, particularly regarding a creative enterprise, you need to run the other way as fast as you can.
As for the best writing advice I ever got, it was the oldest chestnut around: “Write what you know.” Years and years back, as a beginning writer with big ideas, I rejected it as simplistic and limiting. Why on earth would I want to write about the boring life I led and the ordinary people I knew?
It turns out, though, that “write what you know” is not permission to put a thin veneer on your life story and pass it off as fiction. What it is, is an injunction to invest everything you’ve ever learned — concerning human nature, mainly, but concerning other things too, like music and fly fishing and superconductors and whatever else matters to you — into everything you write.
In FINN, it meant bringing one of literature’s most repellent characters to life by treating him with the sympathy that we reserve for real human beings. And in my upcoming KINGS OF THE EARTH, it meant setting up a panorama of different characters and points of view — kind of a choral arrangement, made of voices and personalities from my childhood — to tell a large and complex communal story that couldn’t be told any other way.
So there it is. Write what you know. Meaning write what you care about and what you’ve learned to prize. And while you’re at it, take a few big chances, too.
Author of FINN (Random House, 2007) and KINGS OF THE EARTH (Random House, July 2010)