Consumer Bandwidth; Or, The Writer’s Emotional State

By Michael Nye

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away … well, actually, it was just 1985. Back to the Future and all that. At the time, The Missouri Review was housed in the Arts and Science building, several blocks east of our current location in McReynolds Hall. A young man, Mike McClaskey, was earning his Masters in English and contemplating pursuing a PhD in literature. He had a long conversation with Speer Morgan about whether or not this was a good idea. Shortly after graduation, Mike left Mizzou and went into the technology field, spending twelve years with Perot Systems, before ending up at some company called DISH Network. You might have heard of it.

Mike has always been a generous support of TMR. This year, he and his wife Janet agreed to fund two new internships, which began in August 2013. These internships will provide assistance to students and post-docs who will be working to support the technology initiatives of The Missouri Review.

Mike is now a senior vice president and chief information officer with DISH, and he frequently returns to Mizzou to recruit students, from all over campus, to come work for DISH in a variety of areas: human resources generalists, information technology, analytics, and so forth. With approximately twenty-four thousand employees, DISH has lots of ground to cover.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with interning in publishing?

When I graduated from Ohio State in 2000, I knew two things: I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to leave Ohio. Anything beyond those two concerns (or even, really, how to achieve concern #1) didn’t enter my mind. When compared to today’s frequent and lousy news about tenure-track employment and the state of the humanities, my goals seem relatively quaint. While our editor-in-chief, Speer Morgan, hasn’t exactly told students not to bother with academia, he has emphasized that we need to consider areas other than study at an university. Speer asked Mike to come talk to my class, and Mike generously took the time to showcase what some of those other areas might be for graduating seniors.

Toward the end of this week, one of the second-semester interns (who are recognized as “Advisors” on our masthead) asked me how I keep up with what’s going on in publishing. I had just come down to the main conference room to get coffee, and the intern was reading manuscripts, and we fell into a natural conversation about how to not get overwhelmed by all of it: the endless number of submissions, the three hundred thousand books published in English every year, and how this shapes and shifts one’s own writing.

I have an answer that I think is pretty good. Reading manuscripts at a literary journal is an excellent way of seeing, in the here and now, what your contemporaries are writing. Say what you will about the New Yorker, but subscribing and reading their fiction shows what the heavyweights in contemporary literature are doing and—factually, if a bit cynically–showcases the work of a novel that has just been published or is forthcoming within a few months. Reading the Books section of Entertainment Weekly. Knocking out the core books in The Canon, various -isms aside, gives a writer a needed foundation in literature. There’s also websites such as The Millions and The Awl, and following writers, publishers, editors, and agents on Twitter.

I also think this answer lacks something useful.

Take a look at that paragraph again: that is a ton to ask anyone to do. That’s not just seeing what’s going on (“Oh, Meg Wolitzer published a new novel…”) but that’s asking someone to find, read, and absorb all that writing, which can easily feel less like a love of reading and writing but the drudgery of keeping up with the Joneses.

And it doesn’t even address one’s writing. That’s just keeping up with other people’s writing.

I think my student’s question came from a place of uncertainty. And I know that for me, that place of uncertainty creates an anxiety that never goes away. I didn’t experience these feelings when I was an undergraduate because I didn’t know any better. It started to creep in during graduate school, and now that we’re all connected online all the time, it’s impossible not to feel pressure to Do Something Big. Or, at least, the pressure to not feel small, to not feel inconsequential. One of the (many) criticisms of the online world is the way it puts rose-colored glasses on everything. I’m sure such thoughts on Facebook and Instagram as narcissism and self-loathing are not originally to you; book reviews, regardless of medium, are filled with general praise for all writers and all their books, as if they are the grown-up children of Lake Wobegon. In the online world, this is, of course, counterbalanced with the opposite end of the spectrum: irrational, enraged hatred and scathing criticism calling everything bad and unreadable.

It’s all quite exhausting. All this noise can feel crushing.

Americans love talking about happiness. When you think about it, especially as a writer, having language such as “the pursuit of happiness” put into a government document is curious. My old mentor, Lee K. Abbott, would call that a “stout stake” that makes a narrative promise that you, as writer, better deliver. I’ll keep the cultural commentary to a minimum here, but when a nebulous and temporary state called “happiness” is part of your national heritage for nearly three hundred years, the tendency to avoid sadness, fear, embarrassment, pain, disquiet, vulnerability, and restlessness becomes normal. It’s why so many books by American writers are interior and focused on the individual. It’s why so many books by American writers (and the writing workshops where the foundation of these books are birthed) feel like therapy.

(see what happens when I’m asked a seemingly innocent question while I’m getting coffee?)

This mixture of disparate emotions, however, should not and cannot be shut off, not just because such complexity makes narrative art great, but because this complexity also makes us human, makes us feel alive. This complexity is integral to ourselves, and the people that enter and exit our lives. It’s beautiful and it’s joyous; it’s ugly and maddening and unavoidable.

The standard advice to a young writer still holds: write frequently and read widely. If he or she wants to write, hey, that will come naturally in time. But the reality is that there will be doubt and anxiety on a regular basis, and the trick is, I think, to recognize and accept this as normal. The key is to keep writing. Remind yourself: you can quit at any time. Right?

So why quit now? Exactly: you don’t.

Maybe it’s as simple as that.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

10 Things Emerging Writers Need To Learn

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.

Onward!

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