Advice From Literary Greats on How to Take Advice

More

The importance of knowing who and what to listen to when

AP Images

There's indisputable value in turning to our greatest heroes for wisdom on everything from how to find our purpose to the balance of rationality and intuition to the key to happiness to the secret of life. But blindly following advice, even from the greatest of minds, is a recipe for disappointment since, after all, every human experience is different from every other. Gathered here are five pieces of anti-advice from literary greats—mostly on writing, but also applicable to life at large—reminding us that, sometimes, the best advice is to ignore advice.

1. John Steinbeck

john2CROP.jpg
Even though he issued six timeless tips on writing, John Steinbeck followed them with a sort of caveat cautioning against relying too heavily on such advice:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.

2. George Orwell

In 1946, George Orwell issued a similar list of six rules for writers, the last of which is a disclaimer to the rest of the list:

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

3. Stephen King

While feedback and input are a critical form of advice, they too can warp our own ideals. Stephen King puts it best:

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.

4. Jack Kerouac

jack_kerouac2.jpeg
Popular opinion is, of course, a form of feedback and, as such, implicit peer advice. Jack Kerouac—whose 30 tips on writing and life are among the most follow-worthy advice there is—cautions against it, echoing Paul Graham's thoughts on prestige:

Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.

5. Charlotte Brontë

An essential part of advice is, in fact, knowing when to ignore it. The excellent Advice to Writers recounts the story of Charlotte Brontë, who in 1845 wrote to the British poet Robert Southey to ask whether to be a successful writer. He replied with "cool admonition":

Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment and recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are, you will be less eager for celebrity.

Brontë, of course, chose to ignore his advice and, along with her sisters Emily and Anne, produced a wealth of poetry under male pseudonyms before publishing Jane Eyre the following year.

brainpickingslogo.jpg

This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

Just In