Writers on Writing #84: Dallas Woodburn
First, Please Yourself
About ten years ago I was fortunate enough to get the chance to meet Elizabeth Berg when she gave a talk at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. Afterwards, as she signed my copy of her terrific novel Durable Goods, I asked if she had any advice for a young writer like me. After a moment of thought, she wrote underneath her signature: “First, please yourself.”
I didn’t understand what she meant. That was her biggest suggestion? Those were her magic words for building a life as a writer? It seemed a little… selfish. Shouldn’t writers think about their readers and fans? Editors and agents? Parents, friends, spouses, children?
Yet, the older I get and the more I write, the deeper Berg’s advice rings true to me.
As writers, we are so focused on the response of others to our work. We join critique groups and take writing workshops. We study the market, bounce ideas off others, absorb compliments and criticism, all with the goal of making our writing better. But if we always write to please other people, we’ll never be satisfied—because we can never please everyone.
Let’s face it: there will always be people with different tastes than your own. That’s life. But if you focus on pleasing yourself first, you’ll be armed with that self-knowledge when sifting through feedback. You’ll be able to revise and grow while staying true to your own vision.
Another secret about writing to please yourself? The writing comes easier.
When we write to please ourselves, our writing has that indefinable “spark,” that breath of life, that magic shimmering between the words on the page. When was the last time you picked up a pen with joyful abandon? When was the last time you wrote, not for anyone else to read, but for the simple exhilaration of creative expression?
Throughout the years, along with the successes I have been fortunate to experience, I have also faced plenty of criticism and setbacks. I remember one writing workshop in particular that made me question my vision and voice. I sat at a table with other writers, all of whom I admired, and listened to them pick apart the short story I had been working on for months. I wrote down their suggestions: what my story needed was an alcoholic character. Better yet, drugs. I should add some cursing and grittiness to my prose.
I nodded my head, but my heart sank. What if I didn’t want to write about drugs or violence?
The low point came when of the workshop participants accused me of not being “serious” about writing because I was largely writing stories with younger protagonists. “You need to spend time observing the real human condition,” she told me.
Dejected, I left the workshop wondering if she was right. Was I a phony?
But I found myself turning back to Elizabeth Berg’s advice: First, please yourself. What I once thought of as selfish now gives me strength.
I write stories with the goal of portraying the life I know honestly and with importance. That is what makes me a “serious” writer. In my opinion, anyone who actually sits down and takes the time to write is serious about it.
I realized it doesn’t matter what boxes other people—even if they are writers I admire—try to put me in. It doesn’t matter what rules they try to enforce. I can choose not to listen. In my own writing life, I get to set my own rules.
Howard Thurman famously said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive. And go do that. Because the world needs people who’ve come alive.”
To writers I say: Don’t write what you think the world needs. Write what makes you come alive—because the world needs writers and books that have come alive. Write what makes you happy. Write to please yourself.
Dallas Woodburn, a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University, was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her writing is forthcoming inAmerican Fiction 13: The Best Unpublished Short Stories by American Writers and has appeared in Superstition Review, The Nashville Review, Louisiana Literature, Ayris, Monkeybicycle, and The Los Angeles Times, among others. Connect with her on Twitter @DallasWoodburn and learn more about her youth literary organization "Write On!" at www.writeonbooks.org.