Advice to a young aspiring writer

writing_woodleywonderworks

As I love getting email, I respond to pretty much all of it. I mean, fair is fair, and as long as I can manage it, that seems fair.

What I almost never do is share my replies with anyone but the sender. This is not, after all, an advice blog, nor am I an advice blogger. With the exception of my correspondence with actors, most of whom find me via my monthly marketing-for-actors column, and whose questions I solicit for the express purpose of helping as many of their fellow performers as possible, I expect people write to me with the assumption that what we talk about will remain between us.

So when this young, would-be writer emailed me about writing, and without expecting a reply, which is the only way to write someone for advice cold, I began my reply to him and only him. Until at some point, probably 75-85% of the way in, I realized not only that what I was saying to him was potentially applicable to all kinds of other people, but that it was really the advice I wish I’d been sensible enough to ask for and fortunate enough to receive when I was a young, aspiring writer.

Which is why I’m sharing it here. There is no shortage of advice to young, would-be writers, just as there is no shortage of older, somewhat-established writers to give it to them. Most of it boils down to the same thing: write a lot, read a lot, don’t quit your day job, pursue your truth relentlessly.

Then again, there are only seven stories in the entire world, yet we seem to want to keep hearing new takes on them. You never know what version of the story will work for you, just like you never know whose Heathcliff will finally make you understand Cathy’s despair. (This one, for now.)

For now, I’ve removed all identifying features. If the young, aspiring writer in question wants to wave, he’ll do so; he’s been welcomed, privately, in a note with a few additional, private words.

But the message serves even with the particulars removed. At least, that is my sincere hope.

Pass it on.

* * * * *

Dear Young Aspiring Writer:

You ask me how you’re doing as a writer. You ask me to review the pieces you sent me (which you sent as links, not attachments, for which I thank you), or one of them, and to give you my assessment of your writing talent.

Essentially, what you are asking me is whether or not you should be a writer, something you have no training in, but a hankering for, or whether you should, as you put it, “stick with business and be mediocre.”

I don’t need to look at the pieces you sent me. Your note tells me all I need to know about whether you should be a writer or not: you want to write, ergo you should be a writer. Done! (Wasn’t that easy?)

However, I suspect you may actually have asking me something else, something along the lines of “Do I have the talent to make it as a writer?” where make it equals getting money, attention, beautiful ladies (or gents) (or both) throwing themselves at you. The answer to that question is, “I’ve no idea.” Most of whether you’ll make it as a writer has to do with how much you want it, and how much that translates into you working your ass off, i.e. reading enough (hint: there is never “enough” when you want to be a writer) and writing enough (hint: you should write every day, as much as you can, with 250 words a rock-bottom minimum) and busting through of your own blocks enough (hint: take a good acting class and/or get into therapy).

Also, experiences: you need lots of them. Along with time, to let them stew and simmer together and become a part of your very being. And fellow travelers, both of the writing variety and other folk who are equally passionate about whatever their “thang” is.

If you want to be a writer, you will write. You will write regardless of anything else you’re also doing. Being a writer and being a business dude (or lady) are not mutually exclusive, viz. Wallace Stevens, among others.

If you want to be a journalist, well, you will have to immerse yourself in that particular end of the writing pool. And work your ass off, and do all of the things I mention above. As my gal Beverly Sills so wisely said,

There are no short cuts to any place worth going.

But this I will say for sure: no matter what you end up doing with your life, do not go into that thing thinking being mediocre is okay. It’s not; it’s the worst kind of bullshit. Mediocre isn’t mediocre: it sucks. It’s close to planned, intentional evil, because it’s a pissing-away of potential, a waste of life. And life is precious, young man, not a thing to be wasted.

You can have a survival gig and still pursue your dream of supporting yourself doing something you love more. I would prefer you start thinking of it now as “having a job that is satisfying in some way that writing is not” as opposed to some crap job. Even the crappiest crap job should be feeding you somehow: with experience, with a practice. You can learn a lot about patience or humility or managing up or any number of things from a Stupid Day Job. Sometimes you can learn that and a bankable skill: I learned as much from my job as a low-wage glorified gofer in a media-buying agency as I did from my 10 years as a highly-paid copywriter.

So, again, if you are a writer, you will write. You will also read, voraciously, because that is writer-food. Read crap, so you know what it is, and read in the area you want to write for, but also read the best of the best: the novelists, the playwrights, the essayists, the poets, the columnists, the philosophers who are enduring. Don’t ever let me catch you anywhere without reading material. (If it is helpful, think of the world as a giant bathroom, and you as always having to go. You’re welcome.) And you must always make certain that a certain percentage of what you read is books. They need not be physical books, the definition of “book” has changed much in the past five years, and will continue to change much in the next five, but they need to be of substantial length, and read offline, with some concentration. This will help your brain knit itself together properly, get those neurons fired up and linking.

Okay, one small note on the pieces you sent me. Well, one of the pieces. Or rather, a part of one of them, I did not get all the way through. Because the one I read a bit of was imitative of a thing you think you want from where you’re standing now, instead of the thing you really and truly want, which is to WRITE. To connect with other human beings through words.

That desire, to WRITE, came through clearly and strongly and plainly and simply and compellingly in your email to me. It came through so compellingly, in fact, that I ended up writing you this long-ass reply when, arguably, I didn’t have to write you any reply, and when I most definitely had a lot of things to do before I had any business sitting down to write a reply. Any writing that triggers a response that is both passionate and considered I would argue is good writing. Sensationalist writing, the kind that is done merely to incite passion (or to garner attention and page views), is not something to aspire to, unless you’re looking for short-term successes and an anxiety-ridden life from constantly chasing something outside of yourself.

Now. A note on imitation. There’s nothing wrong with imitating other writers. If you peeked in my old 1980s journals, you’d find writing that reeked of Oscar Wilde or Frederick Barthelme or whatever other writer I was obsessed with in the moment, along with every short-story writer for the New Yorker from 1975 – 1988, emphasis on “reeked.” We learn by imitating. Hell, sometimes we learn by outright copying: there’s a whole school of Writing Thought that prescribes writing out the contents of your favorite book in their entirety, just to have the feel of making something great. I’m not saying this isn’t worthwhile, either; I think there has to be some benefit to copying out The Great Gatsby, if only that it slows you down enough to really take in the story.

But my point is this: imitating other people is the place to start, not to finish. Imitating other people for too long, or as more than an interesting exercise, makes for disposable writing. The work of finding your voice is work. Not altogether unpleasant work, but effortful and time-consuming and…well, weird. Because it’s you, hacking through the wilderness rather than you, following a well-lit, well-paved road with plenty of markers and traffic. There’s no GPS for finding your own voice except your own inner voice, how things resonate within your heart, and this can be kind of crazymaking along the way. Never fear! Or, fear and sally forth, regardless! This goes for whether you want to write “serious” stuff or what certain stuffy serious writers might call “fluff” or even “crap.” There’s plenty of fun, interesting writing with a strong voice in pop journalism; that’s what makes for great reviews and commentary, for great food writing, for great humor writing, for great sports writing. There is great writing in every genre, although you may have to do some work to ferret it out. (Hint: it’s not always what’s the most obvious and/or popular.)

So the answer to your original question, Young Writer, as to whether you have a talent for writing, a gift for writing, is really more “who cares?” than “yes” or “no” or “who knows?” It’s immaterial. If you have a talent for writing and don’t write, you will never be a writer, much less a great one. Whereas if you have no talent for writing, you may well find out that you have a talent for something else through writing, because by really applying yourself to writing, you’ll find your truth. And either that truth will be “Hey, I’m a writer!” or “Hey, I’m not a writer!” You won’t know until you’ve slogged away for a bit. As a girl I liked writing and drawing and performing pretty much equally, but over time, it became clear that I was a writer. How? Because I wrote and I drew and I acted, and guess what, I wasn’t a draw-er or an actor!

Given the handful of details you’ve shared in your note to me, especially that you lit on the idea of being a writer at age 9 and gave it up as impractical at 18, I suspect you are a writer. In my experience, the things people believe they are when they’re about 9 or 10 end up being the things they truly are. Some of us may take the long way around the barn (raises sun-damaged, vein-y hand), but we circle back to it eventually. I think it might be that at 9 or 10, we have the perfect balance of awareness and freedom in between being a blob-like mass and feeling the need to conform and be sensible. As an adult, you do need to be sensible if you want to keep that Great Finish Line in the Sky as far away as possible.

And that goes double for adults who want to live the long life of a writer. The starving-artist myth is bullshit, as are the myths of the tortured artist, the crazy artist, and the hopelessly-drunk artist. It’s the reasonably-well-fed, clothed and housed artist with some love, peace, fun and sanity in her life who makes it to the end. Along with my Beverly Sills quote, I am recently loving this one from Gustave Flaubert:

Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

In other words, yay! for dental hygiene and a good night’s sleep. And for day jobs, while we’re at it.

For now, see if you can apply yourself to your writing and your day job. Pick a reasonable mix, 25/75, 15/85, and go for it. If you can’t do even that much of your own writing on the side, you may need to find another clock to punch. If that happens, try to pick one that will either teach you some valuable skill (there are many!) or that will free up your brain to work ideas out in your head while you do your job (and that doesn’t make the world a worse place, those jobs will kill you).

And write, every day. Read, every day. Find support from fellow travelers to build up your tolerance for dealing with people who may be less than supportive.

You can do this. I hope you will.

xxx
c

UPDATE(s): My buddha-tea-boy in PDX, Jason, invoked the canonical bit of writer-to-writer handoff advice/encouragement, Letters to a Young Poet.

Also, I just finished listening to an outstanding episode of Back to Work that addresses a lot of this sort of doubt-and-keep-going stuff. It’s not up on the 5by5 site yet, but it will be Episode #23, possibly named “Failure is ALWAYS an option” (you’ll have to listen for context, and there’s a lot of nerd stuff that may or may not be interesting, depending on how you hoe your row. If I listen again, I’ll try to remember to mark the salient bit.)

Image by woodleywonderworks via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

35 comments

  1. Wow. That was epic! Kudos to you for offering so much advice with no strings attached and no agenda. I bet that made the day (or the week) of whoever you sent that to. I got a lot of value out of it too :-)

  2. Yes, WRITE DAMMIT! I’ve only just recently given in to writing every day, even though I’ve been writing for a while. Stubborn, this one.

    This letter is also such perfect advice for anyone who’s working towards following their gut into a field they’re unsure about. If you’re passionate, do it, even if you’re desperately longing to break into underwater basketweaving.

  3. Okay this is one for the ‘keep’ file. No matter where you are along the path –these are wise words. Your love shows big Colleen.

  4. Thoughtful and sweet. Kind of you to blow off the other things for a while. This is the kind of advice that percolates to the top over time. Learning to support yourself in pursuit of your deeper desires is hard. Good that we have Flaubert and y’all.

  5. Beautiful and tender and smart.

    Whenever you decide to write a book, dear Colleen, I’ll be queued up for the first copy.

    xox

      1. If anyone could entice me to buy a book about marketing, it would be you. (Because I know it would be about way more than marketing – that is what makes your writing special.)

  6. Thank you for sharing this with all of us – it is indeed great advice and reinforcement of some simple truths. So simple they’re easy to discount or overlook. And always entertaining while those little arrows of truth go Zing!

  7. This advice is wonderful for new and not so new writers. Thank you! I decided years ago that I am a writer, and the simple decision opened something inside. I guess the questioning was wasting some of my energy that I could have used writing. :)

    I appreciate your reminder to read every day. Part of me feels that reading could somehow derail me from my own story. (I suppose that’s true if I’m reading as procrastination.) But what I get from reading great – and not-so-great – writing completely overshadows anything I might risk losing.

    Thank you! :)

  8. As a writer one step further and beginning the search for an agent, any advice on where to begin? Also on how to increase your blog following? Thanks for the time you’ve already taken,
    B

  9. Thank you C! I know you didn’t have to reply to me, so getting a reply and a blog post was definitely surprising. Deciding on my future career is probably one of the most stressful things I’ve faced and I’m sure many others could agree with me on that.

    I’m going to stop pretending and “come out” as a writer. I know I’d make more money if I used my business degree, but I don’t write for fame or money; I write because I love it and can’t imagine myself doing anything else.

    Thank you for helping me out :)

    Here’s to a long life of writing…for better, or for worse.

    -Nate Shenk

    1. Dear Nate,

      I got a degree in civil engineering, and tried to make myself like jobs in management and sales. But I hated them!!

      Now I host a radio talk show that (I hope) helps people find, and find the courage to do, work they love.

      But my entire blog is an attempt to convince myself that working in writing and radio isn’t irresponsible!

      Just to reassure you that you have lots of company when it comes to angst!

      Go get ’em, and keep us all posted!

      Thanks!

      Maureen

      1. So much encouragement in one day what will I do?? :)

        In a perfect world, someone would say “Hey, I like your writing style, here’s a fun job where you’ll be able to do what you love and pay your bills, yay!” …But let’s face it, I shouldn’t hold my breath, but I do have my fingers crossed ;).

        I’m glad I’m not alone in this and I’m going to snoop around for your blog :).

      2. Maureen’s weekly radio show is fantastic (and not just because she has me on it semi-regularly, although hey, I do love to yammer). It always features terrific people—people who GIVE GOOD RADIO—talking about their weird career trajectories, and Maureen asks exactly the right questions to draw them out.

        Also, her book is woooonderful. A truly fun, interesting, and inspiring read.

  10. Hi Nate,

    Thank you for inspiring this great blog post for us all to read! :)

    Choosing a career can be very stressful. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
    + You can have many careers in your lifetime, if you choose.
    + Many careers and jobs include writing and pay well. Marketing, technical writing, and grantwriting are some obvious ones, but project managers and city planners write a lot too. (I’m not saying you want to go in this direction, but there are a lot of options if you want to.)
    + You can be a fulfilled writer even if your income comes from other sources. (It all depends on what you want from your writing and how you define success.)

    Good luck!

    1. Well maybe my marketing degree will actually be used one day :).

      Thank you for the great advice and reminding me that I can change career paths and not stick with just one!

      I’m glad I decided to email C! She’s great isn’t she :).

      Have an awesome week!

      1. Nate, yes. I was an English major who went back to school for marketing. Now I write web content for fun and profit. Creative writing skills are SORELY needed in the marketing world. And they can fund your other writing projects, too.

      2. So true, Tea! :) I find my creative-writing skills help my professional writing. And, I’ve noticed that more and more clients are realizing that and actively looking for writers with a broader background.

        Cheers!

  11. Thank you for encouraging the young reader and us to work our writing with our day job. I’ve learned many skills as a Mental Health Provider and the writing gets done here too.

    Also, thanks for debunking the myths that go along with being a writer. I want to run the writing marathon, not crap out when it becomes hard or worse, get a big head and be, as my Great-Grandmother would say, “putting on airs.”

  12. Yes and amen.

    I’m an English teacher who actually has my students read and write every day which (shocking!) elicits huge growth not only in reading and writing, but in finding one’s voice.

    It’s not about some subset of skills to be taught in a scope and sequence. With daily writing and reading, one encounters problems to solve and solutions to apply. As I conference with my 8th graders, we might be talking about finding the truth of the piece, how to make their dialogue more believable, how to make a scene work technically or a host of other issues. BUT: none of that would be meaningful, useful or authentic if it wasn’t couched in their own questions and writing.

    The saddest thing? My kids leave our K-8 school and come back to report that they never get to write at school anymore. To which I reply, “You know, you could do it on your own. You know, ’cause you want to and you’ve got something to say.”

    Love this post!

  13. Colleen, thank you for this heart-opening reminder that writing is its own reason for being. And, like all reasons-for-being, the relationship with it is not a transactional one.

    Love brings us together. But to keep us together, we still need the nourishment of time, attention and spaciousness. All of which require money.

    Some of the best writers I know have supported their writing with work that provides both experiences to write about, and enough cash flow to keep on writing.

    Thank you, again, for the tender kindness of this post!

    Love, Hiro

  14. I just printed this out for my partner’s children- they are 15 and 14. They may want to be something other than writers, but it still fits! I highlighted and commented in the margins. Oh and I highlighted and wrote notes just for me on my own copy.
    Thank you!!!!

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