Normally to get Chris Lynch’s expert writing advice, you’d have to apply for the Creative Writing M.F.A. program in which he teaches—but we got Chris to share some of his best advice just for you!
Dear Aspiring Writers:
Singe me. Tell me things that will burn off both of my ears and water my eyes till they run right down my face.
This is essentially what I have to say whenever I get to speak to aspiring writers. Start by being perspiring writers. Work. Work ferociously, holding nothing back. Kill it. Hurt your readers whenever necessary, whenever possible.
Sure, this is the language of pain and destruction. But the act of writing is a sort of creation-by-cataclysm operation. Much of the time we are writing about things that hurt. So, if it’s done right, the composition of it should hurt, and the reading of it should hurt. My work, for instance, often involves close up examination of violence, why it persists in an ostensibly civil society, between adversaries, friends, family, and all too often between people who love each other painfully. Love each other to death, even. It is a privilege to have this job and all the opportunities it presents, to dissect lives and acts and open up discussions about them.
So if I just make umbrella statements like violence is bad, sexual violence is particularly abhorrent, hazing is not fun but in fact fairly sinister, who’s going to argue? Few. At the same time I will have achieved nothing. That’s why, if somebody takes a beating in my book you might see skin open up to reveal muscle, pulp, bone. If you see hazing you might see what a great lark it is for a kid to have his head held under water for such a long time that even reading it should make it hard to breathe. Because that one guy every few years who dies in one of these pranks becomes the responsibility of the newspaperman as town crier. The thousands who just barely escape are the responsibility of the crying fiction writer, all the time. Ours is the one consistent platform, where the artist can take the time to detail the lives that no other format is built for.
So. We cannot waste people’s time being safe and careful. Whatever it is you are setting out to do, do it hard. Be visceral with it so as to reach right into your reader’s chest cavity and mess around with all the internal organs. Don’t think about proclamations, think about touch, about contact, about impact. We don’t need de profundis, we need in extremis. Profundity finds its way in all by itself.
Which is NOT a call to exploitation. It is a call to passion, and bravery, daring. I essentially beg my students: surprise me, stun me, horrify me, make me choke with laughter, sadness, fear. Do not bore me. You are not boring, I know that. I know it.
Go after it with abandon in that first draft. That is your chance. Find it there, unshackle yourself and follow it all the way down, up, in, out. We can work on polish later, but we can’t infuse it with spirit later if you don’t bring it. Bring it. Bring me the hot mess and let’s see what we’ve got.
We don’t like to talk too much early on about agents, editors, and the like because that can be an unhelpful distraction to early-stage strivers. But, it behooves us to think that somebody is out there somewhere, watching, waiting, reading. You might someday get a note saying that your work is a chaotic and frightening ball of heat and crazy, but there is something special to it so can we talk. You will never get the note that says this thing is utterly devoid of spirit, but it is fantastically well punctuated so let’s do business. That note is not coming.
But the somebody is out there, remember. You always want to blow the doors off of that somebody.