Yesterday, the writer Cathy Day linked to an article on Forbes by Jason Nazar titled 20 Things 20 Year Olds Don’t Get, giving grumpy advice to the new generation of workers. With the autumn semester set to start in about two weeks (I know, right? First: two weeks?! Second: nothing labeled “autumn” begins in August, yeah?) I thought that twenty bits of advice, given from someone who isn’t nearly as grumpy, might be a good way to prime emerging writers for their upcoming workshops and lit classes. And if you’re out of academia, and working on the Next Big Thing, perhaps some of this is helpful too.
However, twenty pieces of advice was a tall order. As with most advice, as I get older, I find there are fewer things that I’m certain of in the first place, and so my advice tends to be grandfatherly and broad, so we’re going with ten items, not twenty, and Imma aim to be a bit more specific. That’s okay, right? Right.
You’re Talented, But Talented is Overrated. For better or worse, there is a sense of competition among writers. This happens naturally in the writing workshop environment. But it also happens long after the MFA degree is over. Thanks to social media, we see what other writers are doing all the time. Someone, somewhere, is publishing something new and wonderful. The writers achieving success are hard working. Being the most talented writer doesn’t necessarily translate into publishing success, which really comes from methodical and consistent work rather than raw talent.
Ignore the Clock. I’ve yet to meet the writer who was, in hindsight, happy with her/his first publication. In the rush to get things published, in whatever venue, it’s easy to forget publishing isn’t the ultimate goal. Publishing your best work is the goal. Anyone can publish. No one is waiting for your next great masterpiece. You might as well take the time to make your work the best it possibly can be.
Put Down The Phone. One of the biggest challenges for writers, a group of people (broadly) who are more introverted than most, is being social. Making it to readings, talks, and other community events, is an important step but you also need to be socially engaged. Hey, you already left your home to be out in public anyway, right? Take a moment to speak to the writer, the organizer, the other attendees. Believe me, this is not easy to do: I know I really struggle to say hello and shake hands too. But these small bits of engagement and consideration are not soon forgotten. Save the texting for another time.
Don’t Wait To Be Told What (or When) To Write. There comes a point where no one is going to tell what you should read, what you should write, and moreover, no one is going to point this out for you. Making time to write is not easy, but until we all get crowned with Guggenheims, we all need to carve out a few hours each week to focus on our writing. Protect this time with your life.
Take Responsibility For Your Mistakes. Your writing workshop or writing group can only point out the missteps in your work. The person that wrote them is you. And any advice you get on the second or third or fourth or fourteenth draft, well, you’re the one who has to decide what to do with it. The editor at the publishing house doesn’t write the manuscript, you do. If something doesn’t work in your writing, that’s on you.
Throw The Book Across The Room. This is not a metaphor. There are going to be novels or collections that you read that have been heaped with praise … and they are absolutely terrible. Do not finish that book. Chances are high that you will never read all the books you want to read in your lifetime, so why finish the books that you don’t like? Even worse, what if those books are truly awful? Look, trust me on this one: throw that book across the room. I mean it. Throw the book. You will feel so much better. I’m a big believer in high quality book throwing.
Both the Size and Quality of Your Network Matter. I was fishing around for a word besides “network” but I’m only on my second cup of coffee and, besides, many of us who write do so around our full-time job. So, yeah. In this interconnected world, our reputation matters. Magazine editors know which writers are a pain in the ass. We all know who the alcoholics and jerks are, and what they do to make other people’s lives miserable. Don’t be that person.
Over the weekend, I was at a housewarming party and talking to a new friend about basketball (naturally). I told him about my pickup games, and how I often know very little about those guys, often only a first name. But, in other regular games I played in, there was more to it. My old Saturday morning game in St. Louis would last for two hours, and then our group, anywhere from six to twelve of us, would go for a cup of coffee and talk about our week. And that’s what I valued more than the game itself. And, once we get out of college, we really have to actively work to make new friends.
You keep good people in your life not because they can do something for you, but because they are good people: intelligent, engaging, funny, loyal, reliable. We need those people in all facets of our life, not just our writing world.
You Need At Least 3 Professional Mentors. You need these three not just for letters of recommendation but also as guides. “How would X tackle this problem?” They are our mentors for a reason, and having them there, both in reality and in our imagination, shows us how to work through problems, both on the page and on the job.
Pick an Idol & Act “As If”. You may not know what to do, but your professional idol does. When I’m working on a short story, and I’m stuck, I often think “What would Andre Dubus do here?” Sometimes, Dubus would have the exact right approach … other times, it’s obvious that he’s no help. Maybe it’s Fitzgerald. Maybe it’s O’Connor. Maybe it’s none of them. But thinking about the writing as if you were (fill in the blank) helps to make me see that are multiple ways to approach a story, multiple ways to make decisions, organize the manuscript.
Read More Books. Why do you write? Because you like to read. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? You were a reader before you were a writer. Nonetheless, I’m sometimes dismayed to hear how little other writers read. Don’t be that person. Reading is a simple reminder of why we do this in the first place. Grab a book and sink into your couch for a few hours. That’s always a good decision.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye