Advice to a Young Writer from J.D. Salinger

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After reading a recent NYT article entitled, “Paradise Lost, in Guatemala,” by Joyce Maynard about her home at Lake Atitlan (a house a bunch of my friends rented last Thanksgiving), I was inspired to read her memoir, At Home in the World. It consumed me for five days, compelling me to start and finish the whole thing rather than offhandedly¬†reading several volumes at once as has been my tendency of late.

Joyce wrote an essay in 1972 for The New York Times Magazine called “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life,” which compelled J.D. Salinger to correspond — and fall in love — with her. She moved to his house in New Hampshire for the duration of their 10-month relationship. He was 53 at the time, 35 years her senior.

Joyce received harsh criticism from the literary community when the memoir was published in 1998 for “exploiting” Salinger and going against his wishes for total privacy and silence. I applaud her! Salinger is a big part of the story she tells, but it is her story to tell, and she does, with honesty, love and openness.

He comes across as a passionate, intelligent but ultimately hateful, bitter, complicated man. In any case, he gave the 18-year-old Joyce some sage advice that all writers must heed:

“What I want for you, kid, is to write about what you truly love, and nothing, but nothing, less than that. … with nothing less than originality and tenderness and love.”

and, later, with a more negative spin:

“Some day, Joyce, there will be a story you will want to tell for no better reason than because it matters to you more than any other. You’ll give up this business of delivering what everybody tells you to do. You’ll stop looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re keeping everybody happy, and you’ll simply write what’s real and true. Honest writing always makes people nervous, and they’ll think of all kinds of ways to make your life hell. One day a long time from now you’ll cease to care anymore whom you please or what anybody has to say about you. That’s when you’ll finally produce the work you’re capable of.” ¬†- Jerry Salinger

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