Winner of the Dr. O. Marvin Lewis Essay Award
Winter 2004, Volume 21.2


Photo of David James Duncan fly fishing.

David James Duncan

My Advice on Writing Advice

David James Duncan is a father, a fly fisher, a practitioner of what he calls "direct, small-scale compassion/activism," and the author of the novels The River Why and The Brothers K, the story collection River Teeth, and the nonfiction collection My Story as Told by Water. He is the winner of many awards and honors, including a Lannan Fellowship, the 2001 Western States Book Award, and an Honorary Doctorate for Public Service from the University of Portland. With Wendell Berry, he is also the co-winner of the American Library Association's 2003 Eli Oboler Award for the Preservation of Intellectual Freedom for their jointly authored book, Citizen's Dissent. David lives with his family in Montana, where he is at work on a comedy novel about reincarnation and human folly titled Nijinsky Hosts Saturday Night Live. He is having fun.  Read an interview with David James Duncan previously published in Weber Studies.


I meet a lot of would-be book writers and unpublished-book authors. Not a few of them ask me for advice. I wouldn't dare advise a pregnant woman on how to deliver her baby. It makes equally little sense to me to advise a would-be book writer on how to deliver their book. Like giving birth, dying, and seeking God, the composing of anything as complex, idiosyncratic and mysterious as a book is something one must do almost entirely by and for oneself.

Rainer Maria Rilke, despite having apparently been named pretty closely after a woman fond of an undrinkable Northwest beer, cuts to the chase on this topic:

"To write rhythmic prose one must go deep into oneself and find the anonymous and multiple rhythm of the blood. Prose needs to be built like a cathedral. There, one is truly without a name, without ambition, without help; on scaffoldings, alone with one's consciousness."

The great Austrian novelist Heimito von Doderer also answered the writing advice question very well:

"The purposeful is the extreme opposite of the providential. We think that we are serving the first, but like it or not, we are forever manifesting the second. Our hedges of purpose can be as thick as we like: the providential will still penetrate, like a fine gas, through every least opening in the hedge. In America today a young author writes a novel and turns it over to an agent who then looks for a publisher. An arrangement as purposeful as this has all the appearance of a straight line, the shortest possible connection between two points. But there are no straight lines in life. Only curves. The question, `How do you find a publisher?' cannot be answered. Rather, its solution must be experienced."

Many would-be authors refuse to take "Experience-It-Yourself" for an answer. They think Rilke and Doderer don't know what they're talking about, and that there are straight lines in life, and nifty shortcuts, and that they themselves are, by God, going to find them and so are never going to have to do anything as scary as be "truly without a name, without ambition, without help; on scaffoldings, alone with their consciousness."

So, to my amazement, they approach me, apparently believing that I—as the author of four actual books, five or six booklike abortions, and enough articles, stories and essays to earn me the proud title of Full-Time Poverty-Line Literary Free-Lancer—must be in the possession of some invaluable secret that will make their own path to Authordom far less arduous than… well, mine.

When I am approached by one of these seekers of a booklet, or better yet comic, or better yet MTV-Style-Video titled How to Become an Author the Fun Easy Rock'n Way!, I realize Rilke and Doderer won't tilt their needles. So I paraphrase (without admitting that I am paraphrasing) the fun easy rock'n actor, Leslie Neilsen. In a volume titled The Stupid Little Golf Book, Neilsen gave some advice to duffers, which I secretly transpose for these literary duffers, thus:

"The only advice I would ever give another writer, which I would never actually give another writer because of my lifelong rule against ever giving anyone unsolicited advice, is never give another writer unsolicited advice, including the advice to never give another writer unsolicited advice."

If the would-be author shows gumption and barks back, "Come on! I'm serious!" I am sometimes moved to inspire them with this:

"My very best, most financially useful writing advice to those who show extra spirit, the way you're doing, is this: If you want a sane work life, economic viability, happy family, home, flat abs, nice ass, reliable car, health insurance, and teeth, DON'T TRY TO WRITE

That often ends the conversation, or at least moves it on to happier topics, such as viruses or STDs. Once in a rare while, though, I'll meet a humble yet determined would-be book writer who tells me, "Look. I know it's hard. I accept the inevitable poverty, daily frustration, familial humiliation, economic preposterousness, and fact that the work itself is horribly difficult. I also accept the fact that almost no one wants to read you when you're done. I understand all this. So now what's your advice?"

To these inspiringly stalwart individuals, I offer the following:

"You idiot! Come to your senses! Join a twelve-step Quit Lit program, sit down with the other junkies, and admit the terrible truth: `My name is such and such, I love Literature, and Literature KILLS!'

"You can quit writing. Others have! Here are some tips: When you get home, throw away your library. Cancel your Harper's, your New Yorker, your literary quarterlies. Subscribe to Sunset, Martha Stewart Living, O, TV Guide—and don't read even them. Oprah and Martha don't. Enjoy the pictures! Same thing in real life. Read menus and road signs if you have to—or billboards, want ads, the fine print on credit card offers—those are fine. But fill your PC's entire memory with video games. Change its fonts to Arabic, Devanagri, Mandarin Chinese and other alphabets you can't decipher. Tell yourself a thousand times before you go to sleep, another thousand when you wake up, `Hemingway committed suicide! Hemingway committed suicide!' Avoid the {C} {C}company of romantic-looking machinery such as old manual typewriters and banker's lamps. Avoid fountain pens, pencils, yellow legal pads. Avoid paper altogether, except when blowing and wiping. Watch out for temptations such as charcoal briquets near white sidewalks, car-keys near public restroom stalls, steamed-up windows upon which fingertips all too easily become pens. Stop writing sentences. Stop talking and thinking in sentences. Buy a top of the line vibrator—your cancelled Harper's advertises these in the back—and exhaust yourself with it whenever writable sentences start to form in your mind. Make famous Republicans your literary role models. Talk in fragments of received gibberish and empty adages like Trent Cheney, George Army, Dick Bush: `Not gotta. Potata. Inagaddadavida. Tomata. This is about values. This is a war against evil-doers. This is about America.' Watch TONS of TV, or better, several TVs at once. Quilt while you watch, and don't forget that vibrator. QUIT LIT! Enjoy the years you've got left. You can do it!"

Even more rarely (at age 50 I can still count them on my fingers and toes) I have met would-be book writers who've shrugged off every warning and plowed pigheadedly on for decades, still wondering where to break up the damned paragraph while the kids stand outside the study door fighting with kitchen knives; still buying Erdrich's or Moody's or DeLillo's latest instead of life insurance, IRAs and a less-than-ten-year-old car; still strolling outmoded booklined aisles instead of scrolling the Info Highway; still wondering not just with indignation but with rage how a term like "impacted" ever got turned into a verb; still shit-canning their economic lives and ruining themselves for every other kind of work till their existences become as paper-stuffed as an old tin wastebasket—still living, in other words, a Life of Literature—maybe even still creating the damned stuff. To these poor souls I might actually give a little advice—only they never ask for it. They neither need nor want it. They know they'll go on writing no matter what you or I or anyone else says. So to these freaks I merely say: "Greetings, brother! Greetings, sister! Isn't it amazing, what we've gone and done? We're word winos now. Unemployable relics! Onomonopeons!"

"How you doin'?" they answer, usually with a good-natured snort—because they already know I'm doing the same as they're doing. Varicose veins. Chronic tendinitis or carpal tunnel. And let's avoid altogether the topic of abdomens and butts. Can't see straight anymore but can't afford good glasses, so we take turns hurting different parts of our ears or nose with three different pairs from some K-Mart bin. Another day another paragraph. `Another decade another novel. Midlisted by the last publisher, which translates: can't fix the car, the wardrobe, the septic system, the marriage.

But you know what else these poor fools and I find in the midst of this strange, voluntarily pared-down, lost-on scaffolding, ink-slinging, star and naval-gazing life? After all these years, we keep having fun on paper. Of all the unassuming little outcomes! It happened for me the very first time I put pen to paper. And though I lose track of it now and then for days at a time, it keeps swooping back down to save me: Day after day I'll sit {C} {C}down with a little stack of two-dimensional dead-tree material, and in no time I am having three-dimensional fun. Might as well, I figure, since I'm too ruined by literary addiction to have fun anyway else.

Remember Nero Wolfe, the impossibly brilliant yet somehow convincing 300-pound Manhattan Island detective who seldom left his chair, never left his house, lived for nothing but orchids, great food, microbrewed beer, and an occasional solved crime? Nero's inventor, Rex Stout, once said of authoring, "If you're not having fun writing it, nobody's going to have fun reading it."

Amen, I thought, decades ago, and so I began picking up thoughts and images, then questions and narrative threads, then voices, idiosyncratic nervous tics, oral tales, full- fledged characters, and having the best damned time I could, sick bastard that I'd become. This paltry, pifflized word, "f-u-n," became my key to the door of the literary kingdom.

A couple of decades ago my simplistic credo hit a snag when Joseph Campbell came along and made famous the phrase: "Follow your bliss." I didn't mind his slogan till hordes of self-styled Campbell followers turned it into a kind of verbal Happy Face, and translated Follow Your Bliss to mean anything from having five beers for breakfast to investing in strategic war metals to changing your name from Biff to Subhutti Sedona SkyTango to stringing along three lied-to lovers at once to liquidating some of your cyanide heap-leach gold stock to fund your Wild Man Weekend to trading in the wife and kids on the aforementioned vibrator. Hence, I was repulsed into forgetting Rex Stout's advice for a while. For any long-term full-time writer, though, the Have-Fun-On-Paper Concept is too crucial to let a few bliss-followers scare it away. You dry up without the fun hidden in the paper. You thirst.

One day in the midst of my non-fun period, I was reading a 14th century work, The Cloud of Unknowing, when I encountered this:

Take just a little word, of one syllable rather than two…
Fasten this word to your heart, so that whatever happens
it will never go away. This word is to be your shield and
your spear, whether you are riding in peace or in war.
With this word you are to beat upon the cloud and the
darkness above you…

In the creation of writing of any kind I then began to ride out across the blank paper, making "f-u-n" my shield and my spear, whether in peace or in war—and this boneheaded little concept was soon working so well that I came to feel that the pursuit of fun is the only reason I should ever write anything, and is certainly the only reason I've written anything good.

Of course, some writing rises out of agony. Some words are literally written in blood. But my little word, "f-u-n," once fastened to the heart, began to account for this as its definition broadened and deepened. On some days Life, Fate or the Forces of Industrial Regress did things to me, to those I love, or to this beautiful world, that made it necessary to weep on the page. But the feeling that my grief was necessary, the feeling of deep necessity, became my deepest sense of fun. To let real sorrow, pain and joy come as they will, to open to each, then send them flowing from life into pen onto paper—this, I believe, is the truest fun in writing.

Flannery O'Connor and Franz Kafka both wrote unquestionably artful, though grisly, fictions about Southern K-Mart shoppers and de-egoed East Europeans of various shapes and sizes encountering sudden violence, violation, senseless persecution, random and obscene transformation, pain, agonized death. Ms. O'Connor and Mr. Kafka also shared a problem: both could hardly read their stories in public. Why? They found their stories hilarious, and would whoop with laughter at the very climaxes at which their audience recoiled. O'Connor and Kafka had discovered their own peculiar "f-u-n."

Some days, for incalculable reasons, I find the fun lies in being caustic or comic or cutting. Some days the mystic in me beats his head against the walls of this world, trying to make words go where no white cracker's words have gone before. Other days it's the cerebral, and still others the lyrical, in which the deep fun lies. I'm surprised, almost daily, to discover where necessity turns out to be hiding. Most days it's in a scene from a novel in progress. But sometimes it's stashed over in freeform nonfiction, or mincing around upstairs in formal essays, or wearing grubbies, down on the floor, because it's Dusting and Vacuuming Day, or outside by the creek, a tablet on its knees, scribbling blithe letters to friends. There are also days, crucial ones, when necessity demands that I appreciate words and paper by touching neither, instead dashing out the door, going walkabout in the hills or city, fishing myself into a coma, watching idiotic movies, calling long-lost or new-found pals, running up fabulous phone bills, imbibing the ten thousand things that, thank God, are not writable at all.

My rickety game-plan, at any rate, is working so far as I can tell. This quiet life, with its weird dependency on paper, keeps bequeathing me the syllable "fun." I don't know much else about writing, really. My self-advice, from the start, was: Screw Hollywood, screw TV, screw distraction, stage-fright, career strategy, artistic paranoia, awards, fame and politics; screw writer's block, praise, criticism and anyone's expectations including first and foremost my own—and have fun on paper. That's my whole Craft Ball of Wax, really, excepting the spiritual, about which I rarely speak, because if the spirit could be spoken, why flesh and blood? Why mortal bodies? Why write?

If you think, by the way, that the "Have Fun on Paper" concept is a recipe for self-indulgence, if you think I've just outlined a self-indulgent life, then your imagination is dozing, partner—because living with nothing but paper, day in and day out for years, is not easy. If you can learn to find fun all day with nothing but paper, you could probably have fun with nothing but yesterday's laundry, or with a small pile of dirt, or with the dead flies that collect on most writers' windowsills. If you can learn to find fun with nothing but paper, you might have fun with a pile of plain nothing, after you die.

How does one start, mentally? How does anyone begin to figure out what their truest, deepest on-paper fun is? It's hard to argue with the wisdom of beginning at the beginning. It is those in touch with their most pristine beginnings who we call "original," because they know {C} {C}their origin, and let us, too, see as if we've opened our eyes or mind for the first time. What your own beginning is, no one but you can say. All paper, for all writers, is empty desert in the beginning. How you should traverse that desert is your own solitary business, not because experienced writers are unwilling to help you, but because the desert walk is so long and arduous that you want nothing extra in your pack. Trust advice that lightens you. Weighty advice can kill you out there.

How does one start, physically? Some writers I respect begin the day with zazen, some with drugs, some with a ten-mile run. My knees and liver being what they are, I skip all three of the above and begin by becoming a ragdoll. This is not advice, mind you. This is idiosyncracy—a word the first four letters of which, copycats would do well to remember, coincide with the first four of "idiocy." Before writing each morning, I find the limpness, inertia and malleability of a Raggedy Ann or Andy doll so helpful that I consciously, carefully go limp, physically and mentally, sometimes flat on the floor, before typing a single word. I'm so serious about achieving this no desire/no aim/no ego state that, if I find my brain too busy and driven to reach it, I pick up a big flat rock I keep on the corner of my desk and bang myself in the forehead till that stops the busyness. I don't like pain, but I love efficiency, and a few sound head-thwacks has an amazing effect on ego dither, purposeless compulsion and brain babble. Again, a mentioned rock is not a recommended rock: I can't tell anyone precisely when to use it or how hard to whack, and without that ungivable advice my useful tool could become someone else's suicide
weapon. I'm just saying that, in a pinch, my flat rock is my combination zazen/drug/ten-mile run.

Once limp, I can reliably begin at the beginning. Once the ragdoll state is achieved it's safe to let my eyes wander over a cold sentence or image from yesterday or last month, or a question that's been tickling me since last night or last year, and if I'm lucky the words strike like a match, the sentences ignite, and I stay warm and busy in a world of No-Time till it's time to tend that old mule, the body, and see how my girls and wife and local trout streams and forests and friends are all doing.

That's a glimpse of my koan in mid-solution. Your koan and its solution are, of course, waiting for you alone to experience them. The jazz pianist, Harlem Roberts, after a life spent seeking the deepest, most necessary notes hidden beneath the white and black faux-ivories of a piano, spoke of a musical state wherein every note he played felt like the first note ever played, the only note that mattered, the most beautiful note he'd ever heard. If anyone were fool enough to ask Harlem's advice on how to hit those notes, he'd quote the impoverished Japanese poet monk, Ryokan:

In fields
where frogs sing
I pick wild roses
float them on wine.
Have all the fun you can!


Back to Top