Richard Russo’s Advice on Writing Through Self-Doubt

Illustrations © Nathan Gelgud

How does a writer make things funny? To hear Richard Russo tell it, he doesn’t. There’s no way to make something funny, and there’s no real way to teach humor. Writing funny doesn’t come from changing one’s perspective, but from being faithful to it. If you have a comic view of the world, and you sharpen that sensibility and hone your craft, your stories will probably wind up being funny. “I don’t make anything funny,” Russo tells his writing students. “I’m simply reporting the world as I find it.”

Richard Russo/Nathan Gelgud

Advice and observations about literary perspective and the craft of writing abound in Russo’s new collection The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life. It’s a book about writing by an authority on the subject. A successful, acclaimed writer, Russo has authored eight novels, had a few them turned into successful movies, and he won the Pulitzer for Empire Falls. But The Destiny Thief feels less like a book forged in the sacred confines of a writer’s study, and more like one born of years in classrooms and workshops.

The title essay itself is about the diverging and intersecting career paths of Russo and an old workshop buddy named David from the University of Arizona. Russo is told by the teacher that most writers have about a thousand pages of crappy prose in them that has to be expelled before they have a chance of churning out anything good. In Russo’s case, the teacher doubled the estimate to two thousand pages. David, meanwhile, displayed bold talent and was writing a novel about a rock-and-roll band, making Russo jealous.

The tenuous paths that David and Russo walk to find their calling is perilous. Many call it quits before they’ve churned out those one or two thousand crappy pages, many are driven to depression and substance abuse as they try to find their voice (or, close to impossible, success). Russo has no illusions about the difficulty of the writing life, or the near-constant voices inside the heads of all writers, telling them to quit, that they can’t hack it, and that their prose is garbage. But if the lessons of schooling, workshops, and teaching can offer anything, it’s clear-eyed advice about how to keep going, and Russo’s doesn’t hold back. Be like Odysseus. Strap yourself to the mast of the ship as the siren songs of fear and doubt try to drown your hope and ability, and keep going.