The Best Writing Advice of 2016

Highlights from 12 months of interviews with writers about their craft and the authors they love

Zak Bickel / Katie Martin / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

2016 was not an easy year to be a writer. Not just because of the constant, concentration-wrecking pull of our devices, their glowing screens beckoning with the promise of fresh horrors. I’ve spoken with many writers, in recent months, who seem to be facing a deeper, starker crisis of purpose since the election of Donald Trump. They’re asking themselves: Is making literature an acceptable pursuit in a world with such urgent, tangible needs? And if so, how should I use my words?

It’s a deeply personal line of questioning, and I can’t supply any answers here—I’m still working things out for myself. (I will recommend Bob Shacochis’s 2013 essay for this series, though, which articulates some of the key things to consider.) But I will say this: After interviewing 15 writers for “By Heart” in 2016, I’m more convinced than ever that their creative work is worthwhile. Even during chaotic times. Maybe especially then.

For the past three years (see 2013, 2014, and 2015), I’ve compiled the best writing advice from this series. In 2016, as in the past, authors shared some great insights—Alice Mattison explained how to structure a short story without a traditional plot, for instance, while Ethan Canin unpacked the art of the last line. But the bulk of the advice writers offered this year was not about “craft,” so much, as about the work of becoming a better person. In order to overcome their creative challenges, the authors I interviewed didn’t need to write prettier sentences: They needed to become more disciplined, more generous, braver. Literature seems to require these qualities of us, somehow, both in writing and in reading. So here’s a list for 2016: One that reminds us why we need new books, more than ever.

Lydia Millet, the author of Sweet Lamb of Heaven, used Dr. Seuss’s classic work The Lorax to make the case for fiction that is expressly political—for stories and novels that engage directly with the most pressing issues of the day. (Her piece was published in May but feels especially timely now.) She discussed how to write with moral authority without becoming preachy:

I rarely write a book where I’m not trying to approach some idea or set of ideas that I think is of interest in the cultural moment ... In approaching these ideas in a fictional vein I’ve had to wrestle, on the technical side, with the trickiness of balancing the aesthetics of contemporary writing (grounded in the subjective and averse to the didactic, committed to the personal and hostile to the general) with what might unfashionably be called a moral vision.

There are a few ways to know whether something I’ve written succeeds in achieving this balance, the tension of being properly subjective yet also conveying a more expansive sense of right and wrong. If I find myself repelled by the text, pulling away from something that’s meant to be read philosophically, that’s a good sign that someone else will feel that way, too. In fiction, philosophical, political, or religious ideas tend to be most convincing when they arise organically out of a character. And the only way I know how to make characters is by voice, the texture of personality inside a narrative. If you can establish a voice that can get away with being somewhat abstract, that’s part of the battle. And part of it is simple charisma.

My feeling is that the struggle to write well is also the struggle to write honestly, even when they seem to be at loggerheads. And that candor—elusive and sometimes rudely naked—shouldn’t be just the easy honesty of me but a more ambitious honesty of us. Not the sole purview of children’s books, but the purview of any book at all.

In the end, I think a bit of shamelessness is called for.

2016 has been filled with ugly reminders of how factional humans can be. This year’s writers suggested that their work demands something different: openness, plasticity of thinking, the ability to entertain and evaluate multiple points of view. Canin, the author of A Doubter’s Almanac, described how writing is a process of self-questioning, a method of backing away from what you’re most convinced you know. As he put it:

I’ve seen plenty of students come in and say, I want to write a novel about blah blah blah. But you just can’t do it. You can only write a novel about a character who does something wrong, and see what happens from there. Novels are compendiums of bad behavior, and literature is the gossip about it.

In other words, if you’re writing a piece of fiction, I’d urge you not to try to show anything—instead, try to discover something. There’s no way to write anything powerful unless your unconscious takes charge.

With characterization, you have to let go. You’ve got to release yourself from your grandiose intentions, your ambitions, your ideas about humanity, literature, and philosophy by focusing on the being-another-person aspect of it—which, by the way, is freeing, delightful, and one of the few real joys of writing. Stop worrying about writing a great novel—just become another human being.

In his discussion of Borges’s great short story “The Aleph,” Michael Chabon, the author of Moonglow, spoke at length about detail and description—the process by which he chooses the right words from a sea of possible choices. Writing a convincing character, he said, is an act that requires a kind of radical empathy:

Infinite pity, I think, is the proper attitude to have towards your characters. Not pity in the way we mostly tend to understand it—which is the condescension of a superior looking down at an inferior and feeling sorry for them ... It’s a much more self-implicating pity, where you see and understand the tragic and routine flaws people have, the ways in which your characters fall short of the marks they set for themselves—just as you fall short of the marks you set for yourself.

Maybe the key word is “self-implicating.” In an essay, Tony Tulathimutte, the author of Private Citizens, explained that he was only able to complete his first novel when he became more honest about his own worst qualities:

Once I let go of any pretense of knowing other people and any interest in concealing my flaws, I saw at once how my less desirable qualities could be leveraged—that, for instance, being the most judgmental prick on Earth suited me to satire, or that my self-centeredness offered material for farce I could never touch before, because nothing dulls comedy like respectability. I set out to write with as much love, empathy, hope, and imagination as hate, spite, pessimism, and self-indulgence. And so the book got written.

I’m not saying unsavory characters automatically make for good writing; it’s just as easy to go the other way and make Bret Easton Ellis/Chuck Palahniuk shadow puppets (dark, flat, silly). The same usually goes for attempts to look intellectual, radical, manly, “brave” (in the sense of confessional), self-deprecating, hip; in each case, the project is branding, not art. I’m saying that to try to write your characters in such a way as to avoid or shape any comparisons to you, and worse, to call this empathy, is to forfeit the honesty that readers deserve in lieu of truth.

Jonathan Lethem, the author of A Gambler’s Anatomy, made a similar point: In fiction, you can’t deny the worst parts of yourself. Nothing is sacred. Don’t safeguard and shrink from your discomfort and embarrassment and shame; pay attention to those emotions, because they are probably telling you something important:

The impulse to make the ritual safe, to put characters in play who are ultimately admirable and can be redeemed, is extremely boring and also suspect. There’s something that you’re protecting yourself from—and why bother? Damage is in the mix, and it should be...Your damage and your dismay are the best things you’ve got going, and you've got to open yourself to it.

For many, I think, a painful realization of 2016 has been how much work lies ahead, work that will often feel frustrating and pointless. In that way, it’s a little bit like writing a book. Mark Haddon, the author of The Pier Falls, demonstrated what novelists can teach us about dwelling in discomfort:

I’ve come to accept that I’m going to be bored and frustrated for long periods. I’ve come to accept that I’ll be regularly dissatisfied and that I’ll have to throw a lot of stuff away. I have to be patient and slog onward and trust that something better will come along. It’s not a kind of moral strength, I don’t think. It’s a necessary balance between grandiose self-confidence and withering self-criticism. I spend a lot of time pacing up and down getting absolutely nothing done, but it seems to pay off in the end.

I often say to people when I’m teaching, if you’re having fun it’s probably not working. And for me, the job of writing is pretty uphill most of the time. It’s like climbing a mountain—you get some fantastic views when you pause or when you get to the top, but the actual process can be tough. I’m sure there are people out there who enjoy writing, and I wish them all the best, but I’m not like that. I wish I could enjoy the process more, but I think I’ve come to accept that for it to work, I have to be uncomfortable.

But it can’t all be heavy toil. We’re better people—better citizens—when we make room for pleasure in our lives, and when we take a little time for the things that restore us. Charles Bock, the author of Alice & Oliver, revealed his personal favorite technique: When the going gets tough, take a short nap.

It’s what I still do, even now, after any failure or bad thing—when my teeth hurt, or I’m trying to figure something out, or I’m at an impasse in my work, one of the things I do is take a nap. I consider myself one of the world’s great nappers. I’ll set my alarm for ten minutes, and I’m not sure if I fall asleep or not, but I sit there thinking and relax.

Alexander Chee, the author of The Queen of the Night, made a similar point about following what gives you pleasure. A famous writing teacher warned him never to write about parties in fiction; he found himself wanting to do the opposite. In our interview, he made a case for using party scenes in fiction, even if they seem frivolous on the surface, and are challenging to write:

The qualities that make parties such a nightmare for people—and also so pleasurable—make them incredibly important inside of fiction. There’s a chaos agent quality to them: You just don’t know who’s going to be there, or why. You could run into an old enemy, an old friend, an old friend who’s become an enemy. You could run into an ex-lover, or your next lover. The stakes are all there, and that’s why they’re so fascinating.

There’s a lesson for 2016 in there, too: Question conventional wisdom, and don’t take the advice of authority figures at face value.

In 2017, so much will deserve our generosity, our money, our attention, our time. And we’ll have to learn to deal with the voices in our head, the ones that are saying that we can’t give enough—that our contributions are too small to matter. Kathryn Harrison, the author of True Crimes, had some advice about how to make progress when it feels like the perfect may become an enemy of the good:

In the early stages of a book, I deal with potential self-consciousness by literally hushing the critical voices in my head. The voices that tell you: “Oh, those aren’t the words you want,” or “you shouldn’t be working on this part now,” or “why not use the present tense?”—on and on. Anyone who’s ever written anything is familiar with that chorus.

Writing a first draft, you can become paralyzed by these thoughts. So I literally tell the voices to quiet down. I praise them for their perspicacity, and I tell them how much I need them—that I will want them later. But I cannot listen to them right now, because I am confused by them.

And I don’t sit there waiting for that perfect, beautiful sentence, because I know I’m going to sit there forever. So, as I tell students—start out by tripping, why don’t you? Then get up and fall over again. Just as long as you go.

These are words to live by, as we move forward into 2017:  You’re going to fall. Expect to. But when you do, get up, and keep going.