10 Asian American writers on the best (and worst) advice they’ve ever received.
Publishing can feel like an impossible industry to break into. Actually, even the fact that we’re phrasing it like that is indicative of the problem. The gates are closed to a lot of people—notably, people of color.
On Saturday, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop is doing their part to combat this systemic issue by hosting their annual Page Turner publishing conference. In their words:
Our publishing conference will center the work and experiences of writers of color, and aims to demystify the often opaque business of publishing and writing, convening experts and authors across industries and genres to share candid insights, advice, and experiences.
There are panels on small presses, editing translation, activism in media, debuting as the world is ending—basically everything under the sun. Mark your calendars!
Ahead of the event, we’ve asked a few participating fiction writers, poets, critics, and YA novelists to share the best (and worst) writing advice they’ve ever received…
The Best: Ask yourself, What do I want to write today? And then, write that.
The Worst: You must sit at your desk for several hours every day no matter what.
Elaine Hsieh Chou
The Best: “Take lots of risks in your drafts. At least you won’t be haunted by all the risks you didn’t take.” –paraphrased from Alexander Chee’s workshop
The Worst: “Writing about a racist white man is reinforcing a stereotype because not all white men are racist.” –a white man in workshop
The Best: A good writer is a good reader. I always find that when I’m in a rut, if I take a break and just read a bunch of books, I usually find some inspiration to go back to my story.
The Worst: That there is any one way to write a novel. Some people like outlining; some people use the “head lights” method where you only know what’s coming up a short ways ahead. Some people write every day; some people only write in bursts every few weeks. I think the most important thing is to figure out what works for you and your book and do that. It may be different for each book you write! The most important thing is to figure out a way to write the whole thing, and whatever allows you to do that, is the right way.
Naheed Phiroze Patel
The Best: The best writing advice I ever received was in a fortune cookie that said: “the work teaches you how to do it.” The work, the art, whatever you wish to create, is the best teacher—an organizing intelligence begins to reveal itself only when you start writing. So get to work! The second best writing advice is Goethe’s “do not hurry; do not rest.”
The Worst: The worst writing advice for me is prescriptive writing rules like, just for example, “don’t start a story with a character waking up.” I think these rules are useful when viewed as a loose schema for beginner writers, like those flares that are shot up to help lost hikers find safety, or the path beaten by many feet. But when they are presented as workshop dogma, it makes me chafe a little under my collar. Because as we all know, the greatest, most startling literature breaks every such rule. Just think of The Metamorphosis, with one of the best opening lines ever written: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
The Best: “There is no expiration date on creation. There is no cut-off point for applying and re-applying yourself to the work you love. There is no list that will feel better than showing up for yourself and your pages, and every time you do it, you get closer to the readers who are looking for you. So keep going today. You’re right on time.” –Mira Jacob
Also: “Writing isn’t something anyone wants from you, but a thing you demand of yourself.” –Rumaan Alam
The Best: Become enamored of the process, not (only) the outcome.
The Worst: Write like your worst enemy is reading and critiquing you. (As effective as this trick can be, I think over the long term it damages the writer’s psyche and the overall culture. I prefer writing with the hope of connection.)
The Best: It’s a toss-up between “write something that only you would be able to write” and “an ending should be surprising yet inevitable.”
The Worst: From a well-meaning friend: “come up with a formula and follow it!”
The Best: Write in the smalls gaps of your day. Write on your phone when you’re on the train, waiting for a Lyft, in line at CVS. Don’t wait for the perfect 2 hour chunk of time. The perfect time does not exist. Write in the small, discounted moments. It all adds up.
The Worst: “You have to journal everyday.” This works for some people, but not all people. I think we have this idea that all accomplished literary writers keep a lush, comprehensive journal of their lives—that’s wonderful if that’s you and it works, but if it feels stilted, then don’t do it. Show up to the page as you would show up in life. You’ll grow into the form that fits you, and that’s not always a detailed, monastic journal.
The Best: A fellow writer, one much more esteemed than myself, once told me to “do as much as I can and when I can’t anymore, then stop.” She meant it in the context of promotions around a debut book, but it’s a piece that’s stayed with me even through the drafting and brainstorming of other stories I yearn to tell. The benefits of stepping away from a story consuming you or deleting social media from your phone or putting your device to Do Not Disturb when your body and soul need it are incredible. I think the thing that sticks out to me is the general idea that, as a writer, you wield the power to do or not do, so I want to do as much as I can but then fall into a state of grace when I know I cannot anymore and rest and be. It’s solid advice.
The Worst: The worst advice is when people have said “don’t ever give up!” Sometimes, it’s good to give up, it’s good to quit. It doesn’t need to be forever but there have been moments in my life where quitting in the moment and giving up on a story was absolutely the right thing to do, because it allowed me to write the story that’s now out in the world. I don’t like the narrative that you can’t ever stop whatever you set your mind to. Human minds are so volatile; whatever your mind wanted to do might’ve not been the right thing, so quitting is absolutely the way to go sometimes.
The Best: A couple years ago a student told me something which had been passed down to them, and I keep thinking about it still. It was a simple concept: that there is no poem that doesn’t have another poem preceding it. Even while we’re all trying to find our individual voices and looking for ways to make it new, we’re principally living in response to something else we’ve read and been informed by. Any poem you read has an antecedent—some other poem that the author wanted (consciously or not) to imitate and/or dethrone. I find this especially useful on mornings when I feel stalled and am trying to find a way back into writing. It is reading a poem that makes it possible to enter the mindset in which more poetry can happen. Remembering this bit of wisdom also helps me feel connected to all the ancestors, seen and unseen, who have helped bring us to the page.