Advice to Writers from Award-Winning Novelists, Screenwriters, and Great Books Guest Speakers

the heightsSome Great Books campers are writers as well as readers.  We pulled together some advice from our guest speakers, both past and present, on their advice for writers and anyone going into the arts on how to get started, how to keep at it, and even a little bit about how they’ve achieved the success they have had over the year:

Julia Glass (On Starting a Writing Career):  Read like crazy, and read many different kinds of writing. (Venture outside your comfort zone.) The best writing teachers are the authors we read (though it helps to have flesh-and-blood teachers guiding us along). And if you fall in love with a writer—whether it’s Dr. Seuss or Alice Munro—go ahead and try to write in that writer’s voice. Imitation is a great learning tool.

Nathan Bransford (On How to Write a Novel): The most important thing to know about writing a novel is this: You can do it. And if you’ve already written one, you can write an even better one. Here are my secrets for creating killer plots, fleshing out your first ideas, crafting compelling characters, and staying sane in the process.

Kirven Blount (On a Career in the Arts) : My advice is conditional. I love that I’ve done all the miscellaneous things I’ve done over the years, and I wouldn’t change a thing. But… if you’re a career-minded individual, if you’re hoping for a stratospheric rise, I would advise finding one discipline and being single-minded about it. I can imagine a world where I made a better film after my first film, then another better film (as prescribed by Malcolm Gladwell) – all along the road to becoming a great filmmaker. I jumped around from theater to film to TV to music to web to acting to etc, and that kind of artistic peripateticism, though enriching, can take the lead out of one’s career pencil. I have always been very comfortable with the freedom of the untethered freelance lifestyle, but that’s not for everyone. So if you make something you love that’s not a breakout hit (and you want a breakout hit) – make another one right away. And do it while you’re still covered by your parents’ insurance.

Peter Hedge (On Becoming a Great Writer–reprinted from his blog): Years ago and in a most  miraculous way, I met the great acting teacher Sanford Meisner.  It was a fortuitous encounter in that days earlier I had retired from acting (hardly retired because I’d had no real acting career to speak of — I had gone on only a handful of auditions after graduating from drama school.)  But my chance meeting with Mr. Meisner happened in such an amazing way that it was surely a sign that I must study with him.  (I will write about this once-in-a-lifetime day in a future blog.)  Long story short I ended up going to the island of Bequia with fourteen other young actors and studying with that brilliant man for a month that summer and then in New York City for the next year.

During one of our first classes, , I was doing a simple repetition exercise with my scene partner when Mr. Meisner stopped us.  He was in his eighties, he was nearly blind and wore thick glasses.  The studio was brightly lit to help increase his visibility.  He’d had throat cancer many years earlier so he had no vocal chords.  He wore a mic on his shirt collar and spoke in a raspy, rattle of a voice.  He was a man of few words but when he spoke, it carried such weight, for he was incredibly wise.

Sensing my desire to do good work, he said, “Peter, do you want to be a good actor?”

“Yes,” I said, “But what I really want to be is a good writer.”

“Fine,” he said.  ”Do you want to be a good writer?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you want to learn how to love?  Do you want to be an Artist of Life?”

“Yes,” I said.  ”Yes, yes.”

“Twenty years,” he said.

“What?” I said.

“Twenty years.  Anything worth doing well will take you twenty years to learn.

“Really?”

He nodded, smiling slightly.  ”You may become successful, you may become rich, you may become famous, but you won’t be any good for twenty years.”

Before I could respond, he said, ”And, in your case, Peter — maybe twenty-one.”

All my life, I had been in a hurry, eager to get ahead.  Here was the great Sanford Meisner telling me that there were no shortcuts, that it would take time.  Instead of frustrating me, I felt liberated.  Something had lifted.  Suddently I didn’t have to rush.  Yes, I would need to work hard, but nothing was going to happen overnight.  It would be an up-and-down process.  I could quit or I could try to enjoy the journey.

Twenty years.  Or if you’re like me, maybe 21.

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