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Writers on Writing

Writing Dos and Don'ts

Photo of Marie-Helene Bertino

Marie-Helene Bertino

Do's and Don'ts of Writing _Bertino

(I wrote some of these while I was in Paris and yes, I am bragging.)

1. Don’t brag. Be nice. Anyone worth his or her salt talent-wise is humble and kind. This is because they understand they’ve been given a gift and people who have been gifted have special responsibilities and are thankful. Keep writing. Be curious about how different people live. Talk to everyone; doormen, waiters, motorcycle guys, your grandparents. Take time to get to know yourself because the problem with you will be the problem with your writing. For the converse reason, cultivate hobbies. Run and cook and sing and play the drums and rescue a dog or cat and hug your parents and kids and sister. Keep writing. Collect stories. Other people will tell you to read to excess, but I’ll let you slack on that if you promise to ask people questions then listen to the answers. Listen to the criticism of people you respect and let it make you better. Don’t write because you think it’s cool, because if you are doing it correctly it is the least cool thing on the planet. Don’t worry about the overt rejections, from magazines, editors, agents, etc…being rejected from publications means you are a writer! It’s part of the process and anyway, there are subtler, more brutal rejections that no one talks about: when college friends ask what “you are doing these days” and you say, writing a novel, and they excuse themselves to the ham platter. These are the rejections that will ground you in the middle of an afternoon—develop calluses against them the way guitarists develop calluses on their fingertips. Don’t assume everyone has a father. Don’t worry about that talentless blowhard who shouldn’t have a career in writing—we are, all of us, carrying a heavy burden. Don’t forget to get the weather into your stories. Don’t describe the weather like everyone else describes the weather. Don’t be that jerk who complains when Aunt Barbara asks what you write about. Don’t say, “that question is impossible to answer!” If you can’t answer what you write about then you don’t know what you write about, and that’s like not knowing what color hair you have. Do this right now (now!): figure out in two sentences how to explain what you write about. Cultivate the ability to be so lost in thought that you can’t hear your own name being called. Be secretive and bold and stick up for the underdog and the little guy. Drive around America and stop in Shamrock, Texas. Backpack around Europe and watch a World Cup game. Keep writing. Think about semi-colons and punctuating dialogue for hours. Write with your heart, revise with your head. Sometimes the answer is turning off your mind and getting a beer with your best friend. Don’t worry if you hear a “rule” about writing that sounds wrong to you. There are as many different ways of being a writer as there are writers. When discouraged, don’t listen to anything besides the voice that told you were a writer in the first place; that is the voice that will be there for you when everyone and everything else goes away; it is the voice Kermit sang about that “calls the young sailors.” It’s someone that you’re supposed to be. Keep writing. If any of this sounds like a root canal; do something else.

Signed, your friend Marie-Helene

About the Author

Marie-Helene Bertino

Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut novel, 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, was a Barnes & Noble Fall ’14 Discover Great New Writers pick and an NPR Best Book of 2014, among others. Her collection of short stories Safe as Houses was the recipient of The Iowa Short Fiction Award (judged by Jim Shepard), named an Outstanding Collection by The Story Prize and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Story Prize. Awards include the O. Henry Prize (2016), a Pushcart Prize and Special Mention (2007, 2011), The Mississippi Review Story Prize (2007), and fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook Writers Colony, and NYC’s The Center for Fiction. She is an Editor-at-Large at Catapult.