Take my advice – no, don’t

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Aspiring writers, are you bemused, befuddled, begloomed by all the conflicting advice given by the pros?  Take John Barth’s advice instead:

You shouldn’t pay very much attention to anything writers say. They don’t know why they do what they do. They’re like good tennis players or good painters, who are just full of nonsense, pompous and embarrassing, or merely mistaken, when they open their mouths.

George Plimpton, The Writer’s Chapbook, 304

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11 thoughts on “Take my advice – no, don’t

  1. John Barth seems like a good person to take advice from. If you ask someone in the middle of an MFA program, they might think to give you an earnest answer about what they’ve been told that they are learning (for the tuition that they are paying), but bottom line, Barth is likely to be correct.

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  2. I think he’s really talking about that underlying question, which is “How can I get to be you?” Short answer, you can’t and the writer doesn’t know himself how he got to be himself. I’m sure you can learn a lot from an MFA or a really good teacher, as we both know! But John Barth can’t tell you how to be John Barth.

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  3. Many years ago, I was taking a creative writing class and a very earnest young man stood up and asked the lecturer where poets go to live. I give her credit for keeping a straight face and/or not belittling him.

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  4. This is slightly off the topic, but Guy’s comments made me think about the aura that can surround places where famous writers have lived. This has a personal application for me, since I’m involved in a play about the time Henry Handel Richardson (real name Ethel) spent in Queenscliff as a young girl. It was only a couple of years, but they were formative (and sad) ones for her. I’m not a superstitious person, but I can’t go past the house without shivering. And all over the world, people undertake literary pilgrimages hoping that something will rub off…

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  5. Do we create that aura, do you think, or is it there? I love to go and see the places writers lived and where they hung out (I planned an entire trip to Paris around that) but for me it’s more about imagining them going up those stairs, opening that door, sitting at that table in the cafe. I don’t really know why. Nothing about inspiration rubbing off.

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  6. Perhaps aura is the wrong word – a bit new age? And your question is spot on – we never do know whether the places are special in themselves, or only because of what we, as literary pilgrims, bring to them. My favourite story along these lines is about a tour of Moscow that includes the seat the devil sat on when he visited the city. The devil visited Moscow in ‘The Master and Margherita’, but apparently people pay to go see (and sit on) that special seat. Now that’s aura for you…

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