Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Radical Writing Advice: The Flawed Guru

There is a tendency to seek out teachers or mentors or artists we want to emulate. This is a good thing. Like that old saying, "why re-invent the wheel?" But sometimes we want to know how the wheel was constructed. What things did this person try - and what worked or didn't?

What are our options?

Did you know that in the past, it was common practice for developing artists to copy the works of The Masters. And I don't mean to follow their style or interpret a famous painting. To actually try to paint a painting of one of The Masters. To duplicate it in order to get the feel of the brush stroke, the shadowing, the colors, and so on.

Some writers do that, too, I've seen that advice here and there over the years. Copy, by hand, some poetry or a short story or piece of a novel of a writer you admire and whose style you strive to achieve. Not to plagiarize, no, but to get the feel of their language and their pace and the thing you like to read in their work into your hands and your body.

And then there are the writers we want to learn from. It may be from book s or workshops or videos. From online seminars or writing retreats or magazine articles. This, too, is good.

A couple of days ago I discovered I had an audio book in "my library" at This was from 2004. My technology at that time was very different than what I have now - and the technology at Audible didn't work with what I had, and so on. So I had this audio book, "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott (and I also own printed version). I'm going on a road trip and was thinking about getting a couple of audio books for the road, maybe taking Audible up on their special new member deal right now ($7.49 per month for the first three months, which gets you one book per month). I was happy to discover I already had a book, so I could test it out with the Bluetooth in my car. And it works, really well. Yay.

But in listening to her read her book, there were some familiar pieces of advice. In her own words and her own style, of course. But a few things were very similar to Natalie Goldberg; one of my writing gurus. For example, Anne Lamott has a different version of monkeys and things which take away our attention - but I'm particularly fond of Natalie Goldberg's discussion on "monkey mind" in "Zen Howl" and some of her books, which draws us away from our writing or our creativity, maybe making us feel hungry or like we have to go to the bathroom when we don't if nothing else works.

Then while thinking about that I was also thinking about some well-known writers who have inspired me over time, like the two I just mentioned, and a couple of other mega-famous writers. How sometimes we think their lives are probably perfect (or perfect for a writer) and everything they say is golden and we should pay attention. But then they prove themselves to be human and we back away. We may feel betrayed or tricked in some way and we may start to feel that what we thought was excellent advice is now not worth our energy.

I admit to doing that a time or two. Not that I've completely disregarded someone I used to admire, but they had fallen in my opinion.

But as I listened to Anne Lamott talk about her monkeys and started thinking about Natalie Goldberg's Buddhist "monkey mind" and remembering another writer who talks about the things which distract us. Something has come up regarding each of these writers which put me off, caused me to take them off the pedestal where I'd placed them.

Wait. The pedestal was mine. I placed them there. They are human. They are not perfect. They have a right to be who they are and - I don't have to throw out everything I liked about their  advice and insights because there religion is too conservative for me or they were snobbish during a workshop (note to self, however: never go to another in-person workshop with that very big name person again, stick to her books, which are awesome and fit my style) or they have too many discriminatory "isms" for me.

Really. Gurus are not perfect, nor should we expect them to be. Lead by example - sure. Be a good role model - okay. And are there people whose work we may want to not support? Sure. But in the case of the ones I have in mind, their work on writing is pretty solid. Well-known. Recognized. And some good advice which has helped thousands or millions, I don't know how many.

So I was thinking that sometimes we mistakenly want our mentors or our gurus to be perfect. To have all the answers. To never slip. But in reality they are human. Just like us. They have flaws. But being flawed does not negate their good, they are simply our flawed guru.

image from