Writing Advice from Will Ferrell’s Dad

Okay, the title is a bit of a stretch. Will Ferrell’s father, a professional musician for thirty or forty years, was actually talking about show business. But his advice is applicable to all creative endeavors and every writer should hear it.

Ferrell told the story about his dad on Marc Maron’s podcast (which I’ve recommended before). The whole interview is worth listening to – it was ninety minutes with the “real” Will Ferrell, not one of his characters. And he’s just what you would hope: thoughtful, genuine, and funny. Underneath that bring-the-house-down persona, there’s a lot of gentle wisdom in that man.

Unfortunately I don’t have the transcript so I’ll have to paraphrase. But first, a little scene setting.

Ferrell had come home from college and figured out that he wanted to try comedy. He started doing some anxious standup in Orange County, then eventually made his way to the Groundlings. He was doing well, although this was still light years away from SNL and comedy superstardom.

Ferrell had lunch with his dad and he told him he wanted to pursue comedy as a career. His dad, who had watched him on stage, gave him some practical advice:

“Well, if it was only about talent, I’d say you won’t have a problem. You have a lot of talent. But success takes a lot of luck too. So if you get to the point in four or five years and it gets too hard, and you decide to take something else up, don’t feel bad for trying and don’t feel bad that you quit. Don’t ever regret that you took a chance or that you gave it up.”

Ferrell says that this unassuming advice had a liberating effect on him. From then on, he just let things go. If everything is a kind of crapshoot anyway (and it is), then what do you have to lose? You might as well put yourself out there. Or as he put it in a sports metaphor, you have to try not to grip the bat too tight.

I read somewhere that Edmund Wilson, the great literary critic, complained that he could never write fiction as well as one of his college friends. While Wilson was immersing himself in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (and feeling like his own fiction couldn’t measure up), his college friend was reading schlocky novels (and feeling like he himself could do as well or better).  Discouraged, Wilson eventually became a critic, always wishing that he could turn off his critical mind and free himself up to write better fiction.

His friend, meanwhile, went on to write The Great Gatsby.

Don’t let your demons defeat you. The external negative voices telling you you’re no good, or the internal ones saying that what you’re doing isn’t worthwhile. That you don’t have it in you. That your lack of success means you are not capable of success.

And when you sit down at your desk, and you’re facing the blank page, and your hands are perched above the keyboard and they’re frozen in place as you suffer through the agony of creating something from nothing, something that will come from you and be a reflection of you and will be out there, in the world, as something you did – don’t think about all the future rejections you’ll receive. Don’t try to bulletproof your writing against criticism. Let it go.

Don’t try to beat the masters. Try to beat the schlock.

Let your characters – on the stage or on the page – be as funny and free as they want to be.

And don’t grip the bat too tight.

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