Image of young woman sitting outside writing in her notebook. Heading: the Best Writing Advice Ever. Shhh. It's a secret.

Before a presentation, I was asked: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received? 

Now, this isn’t my favorite question, because (1) it seems too obvious and (2) the answer changes depending on my mood and recent writing experiences. But there’s one piece of advice I come back to again and again.

Back in the late 1990s I was living in Des Moines and started attending a science fiction book club at the local Borders. (Remember Borders bookstores?) One of the books we read was Mind of My Mind by Octavia Butler. It was a strange, tight volume about immortals and telepaths, and part of a series. I quickly devoured the others.

Three or four of us were so enamored of Butler (and of sci-fi generally) that we decided to take a road trip to Kansas City where she would be the guest of honor at a science fiction convention. (No, no cosplay for me. But if I were to…Star Trek.)

Image of Octavia Butler at a book signing
Octavia Butler (Released under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.5 License by Nikolas Coukouma)

After her session, which sadly I can’t remember, we tagged after her like little ducklings babbling on about our love of reading and desire to be writers. (BTW she was really tall, so seriously I felt little next to her.)

She stopped. “Do you know the secret to being a writer?”

We shook our heads.

“You have to write.”

Sigh. Yes, the obvious answer, and yet somehow it had escaped me.

To this day I still have to remind myself that to be a writer I do need to write, to prioritize my own work and not just others’. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t.

This weekend I succeeded: I cranked out a little poem. Do you know how good writing feels? Or at least, having written feels good. Writing itself can be hard work and frustrating. But when you have a finished piece….ah.

“Don’t like to write, but like having written.”

–Frank Norris (with variations attributed to numerous other writers!)

I got an email last week from someone I’d been encouraging for several years to write, but it just never seemed to happen: “You may find it difficult to believe, but I have finally written something.”

Oh, I was so happy! First upon hearing the news, because writing deserves celebration, and then upon reading the piece, because it was quite engaging.

If you’ve been saying “I want to write” or “I need to finish writing my book” or “When I have time, I will write,” let me give you a piece of writing advice: If you want to be a writer, the secret is…


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