Friday, July 6, 2012

Giving Advice--No Matter What

Writers' talks are part of the life of a published writer, and they are usually fun. After I get over the anxiety of standing (or sitting) in front of a group of strangers and trying to think of something to say, I usually relax and enjoy myself. But there is another hazard, one that comes after the panel or talk is over. And I'm not talking about selling books.

When my first mystery novel was published, in 1993, I went on a tour through North Carolina and other eastern seaboard states. I enjoyed meeting people and talking about mysteries, and shared my favorite writers. But I was never prepared for the young person who asked for advice because this young person invariably had a parent in tow who had already given said young person advice.

Writing and believing in the power and importance of the written word is part of my DNA. Wherever I go, I see the world in the form of a story taking shape, and I could no more give that up than I could take an oath and then perjure myself on the witness stand. Nor could I suddenly decide to write a different form of fiction because someone else thinks it's a good idea--I write what comes out of me. Sometimes it's good and sometimes it isn't, but it is mine. I think this has to be true for anyone who wants to write or create in any area--painting, sculpting, drama.

After a talk in 1993, a mother came up to me with her daughter who wanted to write mysteries, but the mother felt her daughter should write something else first--literary fiction--and her daughter objected. The mother wanted me to reinforce her view and tell her daughter to write literary fiction. I asked the girl what she liked to read and write. Without any hesitation, it was mysteries. She rattled off a number of names and clearly she was a mystery reader--she read some of my favorite writers. I told her simply, Write what you want to write. There's no other way to be happy as a writer.

The mother glared at me. Okay. The mother's not a writer, and if that young girl is ever going to be her own person as a writer or anything else, she's going to have to listen to her own inner voice. I probably lost one fan that day, but also gained another.

New writers look to more established ones as people who can tell them what they should do, why they're stuck in a hole, what's wrong with this story, how long will it take to succeed, where should they go from here. But those are questions all writers face, and at every stage in their writing careers. Those questions never go away. They might lie in the shadows for a while, but they always come back into the light. As writers we are bedeviled by them. And perhaps that's a good thing. We face questions about our choices day in and day out, and each time these questions come up, we are pushed back onto ourselves, forced to go deeper and find once again confirmation of our choices and commitment to sticking it out, no matter how difficult or dark the times are. Our accomplishments wouldn't mean much if they came easily, or at will.

To any young (or old) writer, my advice is not really different from Shakespeare's: To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.

That young girl's mother may have gnashed her teeth when I turned to her daughter and told her to go ahead and writer mysteries, but I can't imagine living with myself if I'd told her anything different.

Susan Oleksiw is the author of two series--Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva and the Anita Ray series featuring the Indian American photographer living in India. Her most recent book is The Wrath of Shiva: An Anita Ray Mystery, the second in the series.


Jacqueline Seewald said...


I believe you gave that girl the best possible advice. As writers, we need to express ourselves in the manner which best suits us as individuals.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thanks, Jackie. I have no regrets about the advice I give. We have to follow our own paths.

Warren Bull said...

You can't please everyone so you might as well upset people by being honest.

Anonymous said...

Great stories. Thanks.