Recommended reading #1

Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us: A (Sort Of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected
Jessica Page Morrell

There are more books on how to play chess than there are books on how to play all the other games ever invented. The first book that William Caxton ran off his printing press was the Word of God. The second book was several thousand words on chess.

I can’t make the same authoritative statement about books on how to write, but I’m willing to wager there are more writing books than there are painting books, sculpting books, sewing books, etc. Plenty of people think they know how to write and plenty of them are convinced that they should pass on that knowledge. Most of these people are wrong.

Not Jessica Page Morrell. Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us is a no-illusions guide to writing fiction (and, to a lesser extent, memoir). If you’ve been writing long enough to really get bloodied by uncooperative characters, plot holes you can’t plug, stacks of rejections, and bare-knuckle writing workshops, you’ll know most of what Morrell presents here. But you might not have stated it with her punch and pith.

“Fiction is about interesting people in a mess of trouble” is the most economical definition I’ve read, but just as William Strunk balanced his verbal frugality by repeating everything, Morrell reminds us later that “fiction is messy, a smackdown or battleground.”

Stop arguing with yourself
Morrell was inspiring for me because I’ve been slowed to a zombie-like stagger in the first draft of my novel by my need to perfect every scene. Instead of writing new chapters I keep revisiting old ones. Morrell basically told me to shut UP. “Your inner editor is clear-eyed, helpful, and sane. Your inner critic is sneaky, undermining, and nutty,” she writes, then advises us that, rather than passively listening to our inner critic, we should “engage it in a dialog.” Instead of always noticing your mistakes, focus on what you’re doing right.

Remember: “…the purpose of your first draft is to cling pitifully to life until you have the time, stamina, and insight to revise (or revive) it into a respectful rendition of itself.”

Morrell’s idea of what works in a novel can be formulaic. She doesn’t account for the success of unconventional writers such as Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, William Faulkner, etc. But like any good chess player, Morrell is playing a larger game. She wants you to learn the rules before you break the rules.

Calm down
She also wants you to take it easy on yourself and have fun. After all the advice about plot, conflict, suspense, and overarching structural issues such as the importance of basing your story on a question that must be answered, she tells us that writing is like “opening the door to friends arriving for a dinner party.” We should stop beating ourselves up because “writing is a lifelong and sometimes lonely apprenticeship.”

“Writing starts from creativity, not anxiety – it is a great joy, so splash around and don’t worry about making a mess….write smart and know what you’re doing in your story and why, but also take risks and try to create with trust and abandon. Think grade-school science experiments. Stay loose and enjoy the writer’s equivalent of mud and finger paints and clown hats.”

I took a half-day class from Morrell some years ago and it was a half-day foot-plant in the posterior. I recommend Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us to all beginners and to anyone in need of what Bruce Springsteen once called “a shot of redemption.”


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