Can we trust other writers to help us to write? Can anything artistic, anything so personal, be spoken about in such general terms as to be of any use?
To misquote Mycroft, from the BBC's brilliant new Sherlock - I don't trust writers? Naturally not. They make things up for money.
But can one writer give advice to another? A writer can hardly put pen to paper on the subject of writing without contradicting, in a dozen ways, others writers and their advice. Do famous authors take precedent? If Neil Gaiman says something that goes against something Hemingway suggested, does it count? Does it work?
Does it matter?
I'm going to share some of my own EREN today, and hope any editors reading this will forgive the spoilers. It comes from a part of the book when two children are visiting a library, on a mission to understand more about stories and the power they might hold. We join them as the librarian attempts to help ...
‘Here, have a read,’ she said, pointing to a piece of text. ‘The universe is made of stories, not of atoms — Muriel Rukeyser,’ it said. The librarian sighed happily and pointed to another. ‘To be a person is to have a story to tell — Isak Dinesen,’ typed in deep black letters.
‘They’re collected from all around,’ she said, ‘and I can point you to a few of the books themselves, if you’d like. Ah, how about this one?’ She read in a soft, distant voice that made me think, somehow, or rain falling on a garden. ‘‘The truth is in the tale. The world is in the words.’’
‘They’re beautiful,’ said Em quietly. We were alone in the library, the three of us, but we were talking as if there were others to disturb. Ghosts, perhaps, I thought.
‘Yes,’ said the librarian, ‘wonderful sentiments, aren’t they? So many people write books just trying to understand the things that happen out of them.’
‘And it works?’ I asked. She looked down at me curiously.
‘It’s not quite so simple, I think. Poets and writers have tried for thousands of years to capture that spark of humanity that makes us what we are, but still… still the world turns and there are horrors and terrors. It’s like… like there is something, deeper, something truer, and if we can just tell the right fiction, we might all work it out.’
‘Here, like this,’ said Em, pointing to another of the clean-cut printouts. ‘’The shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story’ —Anthony de Mello. Is that what you mean?’
‘Hmm,’ said the librarian. ‘I suppose it is. But what did you want to know, specifically?’ she asked me. I thought hard, staring at the display in front of me.
‘What does it mean, all this?’ I asked. The old woman frowned and clicked her nails together.
‘I’m afraid I don’t quite follow…’
‘What is it, Oli?’ asked Em. I sighed, feeling them both watching me. ’I have a friend,’ I said, ‘who likes stories, a lot, I think. He needs them. And I wanted to find out what that meant. To only want stories, nothing more.’
‘Ah, bookworm!’ said the librarian, moving slightly away, keeping an eye on the desk and the entrance. ‘Oh yes, oh yes — there’s always another story to explore!’
‘What friend?’ asked Em. ‘Back home?’
‘You tell your friend from me,’ said the librarian, ‘that there’s no need to worry about the books running out. As long as there’s people, there’s tales. Always has been, and touch wood, always will be!’
The quotations I put into this piece are all, to my mind, true - though others could easily accuse them of being essentially meaningless, subjective, theoretical, and wrong. That's for us all to decide for ourselves. And that, in fact, is my point.
Advice about writing is good. In fact, it's fantastic. Yes, new writers should seek out the wisdom of ages! Yes! Why turn your back on hundreds of years of craft? If you don't know the specifically literary meaning of 'craft', by the way, go and look it up. It's important.
From advice about dialogue tags and verbs and tone and show-don't-tell, to more philosophical thoughts about what fiction is, what stories are, and what books can be, there's a lot to study before you assume the heavy title of 'writer'.
And you can ignore it all. If you want to be a writer, then at the end of the day, you have to follow your own advice. Want to use 'expounded' as a dialogue tag? Then do. It's your story, damn it. Think books should only be about making the world better? Good. Think they should only be about making money? Brilliant. As long as you know why you're writing, that's enough.
Don't ignore the thoughts and feelings of other writers who are, most likely, your betters. Most great modern writers of the last hundred years wrote, at one point or another, about writing itself. They're great. They're canonical. Don't presume that you're so brilliant as to be above a few hints and tips. But do assume you're good enough to rely on yourself, if all else fails.
What does being a writer take, then? Experience living in the world, understanding friends and family, and a rock-hard belief, underneath all your doubts and worries and fears, that you can do this, and that what you have to say matters.
As Jesus very definitely never said: Writer, advise yourself.