Advice to the Writer

Found in Ian Frazier’s Humor Me: An Anthology of Funny Writing, the opening of Michael O’Donoghue’s How to Write Good:


A long time ago, when I was just starting out, I had the good fortune to meet the great Willa Cather. With all the audacity of youth, I asked her what advice she would give the would-be-writer and she replied:

“My advice to the would-be-writer is that he start slowly, writing short undemanding things, things such as telegrams, flip-books, crank letters, signature scarves, spot quizzes, capsule summaries, fortune cookies, and errata. Then, when he feels he’s ready, move up to the more challenging items such as mandates, objective correlatives, passion plans, pointless diatribes, minor classics, manifestos, mezzotints, oxymora, exposés, broadsides, and papal bulls.

And above all, never forget that the pen is mightier than the plowshare. By this I mean that writing, all in all, is a hell of a lot more fun than farming. For one thing, writers seldom, if ever, have to get up a five o’clock in the morning and shovel manure. As far as I’m concerned, that gives them the edge right there.”

She went on to tell me many things, both wonderful and wise, probing the secret of her craft, showing how to weave a net of words and capture the fleeting stuff of life.

Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten every bit of it.

It peters out after that great opening… now off to work on my signature scarf, accompanied by my delight in the new found fact that the plural of oxymoron is really oxymora!

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