Patti Smith, Umberto Eco, and Other Celebrated Contemporary Authors Offer Their Advice to Aspiring Writers
“Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money… If you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.”
By Maria Popova
For several years, I’ve been compiling an evolving library of timeless advice on writing from more than one hundred of the craft’s greatest masters, dead and alive — authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Neil Gaiman, Joan Didion, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, and dozens more.
Now, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art’s Louisiana Chanel offers a bite-sized counterpart of advice to aspiring writers from eleven acclaimed contemporary authors from around the world: Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, Alaa Al-Aswany, Herbjørg Wassmo, Richard Ford, Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, Lars Norén, Umberto Eco, Patti Smith, Sjón, and Kjell Askildsen. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy:
Patti Smith, whose most recent memoir remains one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, on maintaining creative integrity, not compromising, and the best advice she ever got, from none other than William S. Burroughs, which stayed with her for life:
Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful — be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.
Umberto Eco, who has offered his more extensive advice to aspiring writers elsewhere, on working your way up rather than aiming straight for grandeur:
You cannot become a General if you [have not] been before a corporal, a sergeant, a lieutenant… So, go step by step.
Alaa Al-Aswany, echoing Jack Kerouac’s thoughts on whether writers are born or made, on talent and dedication:
You are talented, but you must know that the talent is not the end — it is just the beginning, and you must keep the writing as the most important thing in your life. And whenever you feel that the writing is not the most important thing in you life, you’d better stop writing — because you will never make any difference.
Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, in a sentiment reminiscent of Leonard Cohen on hard work and the creative process, on doggedness as the route to refinement:
The secret of writing is this: Write, write, write, and write again — and you will get it right.
Kjell Askildsen, with all of his 87 years’ worth of wisdom, echoes Steinbeck’s counter-advice and offers:
Don’t take any advice. Write based on who you are and what you’ve learned from the books you have enjoyed the most.
Lars Norén on letting your life speak:
If you want to become a poet, an artist — you can’t fight it. If you want to be that, you will. It’s not about desire — it’s about necessity. There’s no other way.
You have to trust your inner drive, for the disappointments and the efforts are so tough that you must have an inner conviction that this is what you want.
Sjón, calling to mind Maurice Sendak’s insistence on keeping our inner child alive, on the raw material of our individual inspiration:
My advice to a young writer would be that he or she works with he or she is made of, and by that I mean that we should not be afraid of working with the things that fascinated us when we were at our most impressionable… We are all informed by the things that fascinate us and excite us when we are quite young.
Lydia Davis, two centuries after Mendelssohn’s spirited defense of creative integrity over commercial success, on working with love:
Don’t ever cave in to the pressure of publishers or agents… Do what you want to do and don’t worry if it’s a little odd or doesn’t fit the market.
Complement with Seamus Heaney’s words of wisdom to the young, Cheryl Strayed’s no-nonsense advice to aspiring writers, Hemingway’s reading list for those starting out, and Jane Kenyon’s magnificent advice on writing, which doubles as some of the finest life-advice you’ll ever receive.
Published February 4, 2016