Advice on Advice from Literary Greats
Cultivating the wisdom to know when to ignore wisdom.
By Maria Popova
There’s indisputable value in turning to our greatest heroes for wisdom on everything from how to find our purpose to the balance of rationality and intuition to the key to happiness to the secret of life. But blindly following advice, even from the greatest of minds, is a recipe for disappointment since, after all, every human experience is different from every other. Gathered here are five pieces of anti-advice from literary greats — mostly on writing, but also applicable to life at large — reminding us that, sometimes, the best advice is to ignore advice.
Even though he issued six timeless tips on writing, John Steinbeck followed them with a sort of caveat cautioning against relying too heavily on such advice:
If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.
In 1946, George Orwell issued a similar list of six rules for writers, the last of which is a disclaimer to the rest of the list:
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
While feedback and input are a critical form of advice, they too can warp our own ideals. Stephen King puts it best:
Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.
Popular opinion is, of course, a form of feedback and, as such, implicit peer advice. Jack Kerouac — whose 30 tips on writing and life are among the most follow-worthy advice there is — cautions against it, echoing Paul Graham’s thoughts on prestige:
Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.
An essential part of advice is, in fact, knowing when to ignore it. The excellent Advice to Writers recounts the story of Charlotte Brontë, who in 1845 wrote to the British poet Robert Southey to ask whether to be a successful writer. He replied with “cool admonition”:
Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment and recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are, you will be less eager for celebrity.”
Brontë, of course, chose to ignore his advice and, along with her sisters Emily and Anne, produced a wealth of poetry under male pseudonyms before publishing Jane Eyre the following year.
Published March 23, 2012