The post-it notes on my computer are a bundle of forget-me-knots – some are the summaries of briefs for writing projects, some are credit card or membership numbers, some are lists of possible baby names from five years ago (‘Gertrude, Selma, Bess, Biddy, Leo’) and some are part of my small but growing collection of lists of advice that apply nicely to writing.
These are the pieces of advice that are offered to people considering contributing to The Moth (‘true stories, told live’ is how they define themselves, if you don’t know of them):
The tales of how clever we were, how wise, how we won, they mostly fail. The practiced jokes and the witty one-liners all crash and burn up on a Moth stage.
Honesty matters. Vulnerability matters. Being open about who you were at a moment in time when you were in a difficult or an impossible place matters more than anything.
Having a place the story starts and a place it’s going: that’s important.
Telling your story, as honestly as you can, and leaving out the things you don’t need, that’s vital.
These also work as good, solid pieces of advice for any writer. My only slight word of caution is that ‘being open about who you were at a moment in time when you were in a difficult or an impossible place‘ is useful advice when blog writing or novel writing or writing confessional journalism – perhaps less so for writing an email to the bank or drafting a proposal. Context is all!
These are the pieces of life advice that Maria Popova, who writes Brain Pickings, came up with:
1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.
2. Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone.
3. Be generous.
4. Build pockets of stillness into your life.
5. When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously advised, believe them. Just as important, however, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them.
6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity.
7. Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.
8. Seek out what magnifies your spirit.
9. Don’t be afraid to be an idealist.
10. Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it.
(If you don’t already subscribe, it’s a wonderful blog, and she’s almost as obsessed with Ursula Le Guin as I am.)
I can’t bear a mind-change (perhaps that makes it particularly good advice for me), so I always mentally disregard the first, but most of the rest apply to writing, especially in terms of finding your own voice. Having said that, I do take money for writing (and sometimes it’s definitely just for the money) (love those projects too though, clients!) and I’ve never yet had success with emailing a client on deadline day, advising them to ‘expect anything worthwhile to take a long time’, but it’s worth a go.
I also have notes on elements of grammar that I can’t get my head around (‘whom should be used to refer to the object of a verb or preposition. When in doubt, try this simple trick: If you can replace the word with “he”’ or “’she,” use who. If you can replace it with “him” or “her,” use whom. Who should be used to refer to the subject of a sentence’ – this leaves me absolutely none the wiser, but I keep it anyway, in hope).
Last but not least – a mum I met told me that this is how she buys presents for her children each Christmas – ‘something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read’. This may be the best advice of the lot.