Writing Advice for Rhythm, Discipline & Truth

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A distinguished writer and commentator for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, Nancy Slonim Aronie offers her best writing advice, including her take on discipline.

By Nancy Slonim Aronie

Omega: What encouragement can you offer to aspiring writers?

Nancy: When it comes to my students, I have one rule. When someone finishes reading, we’re going to tell them what we loved. I consider what I do cheerleading and gushing. I always make jokes and say, “I don’t teach writing. I teach gushing.”

I like giving hyperbolic praise, because I want people to leave juiced and inspired, knowing that they have a one-of-a-kind voice. What I encourage the most is you sounding like you and respecting and knowing that you have a voice that is unique.

As soon as they think they can sound like themselves and take the chance of saying, “This is who I am. This is what happened to me,” the writing gets powerful. They go deeper.

The safer they feel, the wilder they get, and the more beautiful the writing gets. It happens every single time. I am not kidding. It’s stunning. 

Omega: You teach your students to write in their own rhythm. What does that mean?

Nancy: It means to write the way you talk when you're telling a story to somebody. Suppose you call your girlfriend on the phone and you say, “You are not gonna believe what happened. I’m sitting at the light at Mountain Road and Albany Avenue, and I’ve got James Taylor cranked. I haven’t even removed my makeup, and I’ve been crying all night, so I've got black under my eyes. I’m just totally miserable, and I look over to the right and there he is! He’s sitting in his Jeep Wrangler, wearing the sheepskin jacket I gave him. Oh, that's really, really nice! Wearing the f*cking sheepskin jacket I gave him. I hate him so much. I can’t even believe it.”

Most people would go write this story like this: "Having sat in my automobile at the intersection of two avenues..." The rhythm of their voice goes away because they think they have to sound like a writer. Your originality and passion disappears.

For a lot of people school really interfered with their rhythms and their voice. It stopped them from taking the chance of letting it flow.

I say act as if you’re talking to somebody. You can fix it later, but just act as if you’re talking to somebody, telling a story. And then you can read it over. I am very big on having people read their stuff out loud because that’s when you hear what you’ve got. You'll hear that you need another L-Y or another I-N-G, or you need a color in there, or you need another beat.

Omega: Discipline is a big challenge for a lot of writers. How do you encourage people to create and stick with a writing practice?

Nancy: One of the most frequent complaints I hear is, “I have no discipline. I leave your workshop, I write for three weeks, and then I lose my discipline.” I give them my discipline-disciple lecture and it works for many people.

The root word of discipline is disciple. When I think of the word “disciple,” right away it sort of shimmies and shimmers off the page. Your ego may have come here to buy cashmere, but your soul came here to write. So can you be the disciple of your own soul?

When you think of discipline, instead of it being angry and foreboding and making you feel “Ugh, I have to finish this thing,” you can think of it as something soft and spiritual, like, "I want to be the disciple of the part of me that’s the most beautiful."

Omega: Why is it important to write the truth?

Nancy: The stories you tell yourself about yourself drag you down. They’re old. They don’t serve you anymore. You have to get them out of your body, get them on the page, read them, look at them, and see what doesn’t serve you anymore. These stories can become really good writing because you’ve been carrying them around for so long you really know then. I really do think the truth can set you free.