In addition to writing the award winning novels She’s Come Undone (1992), I Know This Much Is True (1998) and The Hour I First Believed (2008), Wally Lamb has facilitated writing workshop at a maximum-security prison for several years. Here are his writing tips for aspiring writers:
Q: What is your method for overcoming writer’s block?
A: I complain on paper. Try this exercise: Grab two or three sheets of blank paper and a pen. (No computer.) Title the first page "What I Will Write About." Then, for ten minutes, write without stopping, even if you have to resort to whining about how hard writing is or why your stomach is gurgling. You don't have to come up with anything brilliant or profound. You just have to keep moving the pen across the page. Don't stop and think and then write. Think while you're pen is in motion. At the end of ten minutes, read over what you've written and underline whatever seems most interesting to you. Chances are you'll have a lot of throw-away lines but what you've underlined just may lead you into your next writing project. Voila! Writer's block vanquished.
Q: What are your favorite or most helpful writing prompts?
A: Once I have my head in a new story or novel, the characters prompt me. But my writing students at the prison where I volunteer always ask for prompts. An excellent source is an advertising-free monthly magazine called The Sun. It has a column called "Our Readers Write" that invites readers to respond to open-ended prompts and submit. In the current issue of The Sun, topics for future issues include "Rumors," "Cheap Thrills," "Authority," "Boxes," "Warning Signs," etc.
Q: What is the most valuable advice you received as a young writer?
A: When I was an MFA student at Vermont College for the Fine Arts, my teacher, Gladys Swan, told me I should never write for a preconceived audience. Rather, I should write for myself and have the faith that the audience that was meant to find my story would find it. She also told me that I was never going to write a completely original story because the world was a very old place, and so all the stories that people need to be told have been in the culture since ancient times. The best I could do, Gladys said, was to put my own modern spin on the archetypal stories that people always need. Study ancient myth, she was telling me; those stories have withstood the test of time because they speak to the human condition. I've studied myth ever since and could not have written the novels I have without having done so.
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