Friday Speak Out!: Two Kinds of Advice

Friday, April 21, 2017
by Jill McCroskey Coupe

Most writers seeking feedback on their work learn to pay attention to advice that seems useful and ignore the rest. We’re individuals, after all. Each approaches writing in her own unique way.

And we know good advice when we hear it. Years ago, one of my fellow MFA students was addressing another student in our workshop. “It’s all there,” she said. “Just keep digging.”

By “it,” I’ve come to realize, she meant the solution to a problem. How the story will end, for example. Why and how a character decides to act (or is afraid to). Whether or not a new scene is needed, or a new character. How to tie everything together.

As for advice of the unhelpful sort, I have been told, on multiple occasions, to slow down. But you have no idea how slowly I write now, I always felt like saying. There are writers who can complete the first draft of a novel in a month; I am not one of them.

Was I perhaps being too defensive? Should I have at least asked these folks what they meant?

Maybe it’s better to have figured it out (I think) on my own. Slow down, they were telling me. Keep digging. Dig deeper.

I’ve learned that when I’m unsure of what to write next, it often helps to go for a walk. Lie down on my back in a dark room. Swim laps.

What’s happening here? Am I tapping into my subconscious?

Last fall I attended a one-hour Master Class taught by Jennifer Egan at Goucher College, not far from where I live in Baltimore. She spoke, eloquently, about how she worked on bringing structure to A Visit from the Goon Squad.

I was eager to attend because I’m working on a series of linked stories, with Egan’s book and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge as my models.

In her class, Jennifer Egan stressed the importance of waiting “instinctively” for a solution. She suggested that we try to free up our instincts, warning that not all instincts are the right ones. She advised letting the material stumble forward and find its own form. She compared a writer’s ideas to islands protruding from a submerged land mass. From this hidden expanse (the subconscious?), the author must extract form and order.

Her excellent advice concerning structure is also in the notes I took that afternoon. But what had me smiling on my drive home was my new mantra.

It’s all there. Slow down. Wait instinctively.

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A former librarian at Johns Hopkins University, Jill McCroskey Coupe has an MFA in Fiction from Warren Wilson College. She grew up in Knoxville and now lives in Baltimore. Visit her online at or
Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Sioux Roslawski said...

Jill--Some writer friends of mine got together recently, and spoke about this same topic. We need to listen to the voice inside that dictates what form a story takes. Sometimes, it's the story itself that dictates the plot twists, the ending.

Yes, every writer has to find their own way, their own solutions, their own way of working.

Good luck with your future writing endeavors. We're all in the same boat--muddling along one word/line/page at a time...

Angela Mackintosh said...

Great post, Jill! This is the advice I needed to hear today. I've been working on a short piece that I started this morning, and I always feel like I have to complete it in the same day or a race to get all my ideas on paper. But like you said, maybe these thoughts are just the tip of the iceberg and there's a subconscious mass below that's even more meaningful.

Jill McCroskey Coupe said...

Thanks so much for reading my post and responding to it. I agree that we learn as we go. It's important to stay open to new ideas, new approaches. I appreciate your comments and wish you every success with your own writing.

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