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Etgar Keret’s Advice For Writing (and Life)

The Israeli author gets real with Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie magazine

Stephanie Butnick
April 11, 2014
Etgar Keret. (Moshe Shai)
Etgar Keret. (Moshe Shai)

Etgar Keret, the Israeli writer and Tablet contributor whose stories are small, marvelous gems that will delight and terrify you, shared some advice for writers with Rookie back in 2012 that’s actually helpful not just for writers (rare in those kinds of lists to begin with), but for everyone. It was a while ago, sure, but since Keret himself only shared it on Facebook this week, it’s worth revisiting. Keret’s Facebook page, I should mention, is full of entertaining bits, like the first short story he ever wrote (the pages of which his brother used as a pooper scooper).

His first tip? Make sure you enjoy what you’re doing. “Writers always like to say how hard the writing process is and how much suffering it causes. They’re lying. People don’t like to admit they make a living from something they genuinely enjoy.”

Number three: When you’re writing, you’re free. Literally, you’re free from what might happen to you if you really did the things you make your characters do. “In real life, if you don’t behave yourself, you’ll wind up in jail or in an institution, but in writing, anything goes. If there’s a character in your story who appeals to you, kiss it. If there’s a carpet in your story that you hate, set fire to it right in the middle of the living room. When it comes to writing, you can destroy entire planets and eradicate whole civilizations with the click of a key, and an hour later, when the old lady from the floor below sees you in the hallway, she’ll still say hello.”

Keret explored the darker side of this freedom last month in Tablet, that intoxicating power that fiction writers have over their stories and their characters.

Whose fault was the crash? The dark-skinned bald guy who accelerated and ignored the stop sign? Not really. The van driver who didn’t buckle his seat belt and was driving over the speed limit? Not him either. There’s only one person responsible for that accident. Why did I invent all these people? Why did I kill a guy wearing a yarmulke who never did anything to me? Why did I make a nonexistent guy have pain? Why did I destroy a dark-skinned bald guy’s family unit? The fact that you invent something doesn’t exempt you from responsibility and, unlike life, where you can shrug and point up to God in heaven, there’s no excuse here. In a story, you’re God. If your protagonist failed, it’s only because you made him fail. If something bad happened to him, it’s only because you wanted it to.

That’s some classic dark, introspective Keret.

His best morsel of Rookie advice, naturally, is about being yourself. “If you try to write like Nabokov, there will always be at least one person (whose name is Nabokov) who’ll do it better than you. But when it comes to writing the way you do, you’ll always be the world champion at being yourself.”

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.