What We Wish We’d Known
By Eric Olsen
Please mark your calendars for Saturday, March 9, 2013, 1:30-2:45 pm, in room 206 of the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, when novelists Lucy Silag, Jane Smiley, Vu Tran, and Doug Unger will be discussing “What We Wish We’d Known” at the annual meeting of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). I’ll be moderating the discussion.
Our four panelists and yours truly attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but not at the same time. Jane, Doug, and I were there in the mid-’70s. Lucy and Vu received their MFAs a generation later. Under discussion will be what we didn’t learn as workshop students, but wish we had, what we learned later, often the hard way. Needless to say, the world that Jane, Doug, and I entered a generation ago is very different than the world that Lucy and Vu entered more recently, and thus what they wish they’d known may be rather different as well. Or maybe not. We’ll explore all of this in Boston in March, and much more.
Between now and March (and well beyond, for that matter) we invite you to weigh in on what you wish you’d known before entering the literary world.
When I got out of the Workshop rather more years ago than I care to admit, I was quite ill-prepared for the “real world” as the real world at the time was presenting itself to a young wannabe writer, but I was so clueless I didn’t know I was clueless. It was only in the months and even the years after, as I stumbled into a sort of career as a magazine writer and editor (but one who was also always working on one unfinished novel after another), that I began to find myself saying things like “Gee, if only I’d known that,” usually after some setback or dumb move.
For example, I wish I’d known when I left Iowa with my MFA clutched tightly in my hot little hand that you should never ever, under any circumstances, listen to any advice your agent might give you about “the market” and what the market “wants,” since by the time you’ve finished writing a book for that market, the market will have changed and no one will want your book (unless, of course, your book happens to have vampires and/or zombies in it).
I also wish I’d known that novels really don’t get written unless you put your butt in a chair every friggin’ day and keep it there and write, or at the very least stare at the blank page (or screen), which is itself part of the process. (Well, I “knew” it, but it just didn’t sink in right away.) I wish I’d known to move to New York City, which at the time was where the literary action was. And I wish I’d known that — the examples of several of the faculty notwithstanding — Jack Daniels and a pack of unfiltered Camels do not constitute The Muse….
This isn’t to say that we didn’t have opportunities to learn some useful stuff about the lit-biz, all the stuff I’ve come later to think of as “professional practices,” but there was nothing systematic about it and you had to be paying attention to pick up anything useful at all. Usually, a young writer would get an insight or two about how the “real world” works as some visiting writer held forth over one beer-and-shot too many at one of Iowa City’s fine drinking establishments.
And now and then an agent or editor from New York City would come to town, but on scouting trips, not to teach us anything. And the workshop faculty carefully screened access to these folks, so that only those deemed “ready” actually got to meet them.
It was only much later, after I’d been in the publishing biz myself, working as an editor, and even in the production and design ends, that it occurred to me that it would have been awfully nice if graduate writing programs offered a little something about professional practices, about how the lit-biz really works and how a young writer can navigate through the lit-biz to best effect. Maybe an elective or two a young writer could take if he wished, I thought. Wouldn’t that have been nice? Maybe bring in the occasional agent to talk about what agents do and why and how to find one. And maybe an editor to explain why editors feel the need to do what they do to a perfectly good bit of prose. And even a marketing guy to explain how books are marketed, or more likely not marketed, or to try to explain the economics of publishing and why it is the typical novel has a shelf life somewhat briefer than that of live-culture yogurt.
And while we’re at it, I decided, wouldn’t it have also been nice to have had a class in teaching basics, since teaching is often part of a young writer’s career arc, at least until the royalties start rolling in? A class that might advise a young writer like I was, for example, not to try to teach T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in an introductory English class at the local community college to a room full of Vietnamese and Russian immigrants, every one of whom is about to transfer to U.C. Berkeley to major in engineering.
But another school of thought holds that the two or perhaps three years one spends in a writers’ workshop are or should be a refuge from the “real world.” The “real world” and thinking too much about it are just a distraction from what’s important, which is of course one’s “art.” Get the art right, and the real world will come knocking on your door. Maybe….
So which is best? Professional practices? Or refuge? Or is there a middle ground?
These are some of the issues our panel will explore in Boston in March.
And of course now the real world has changed profoundly from what Jane and Doug and I encountered after graduation, and it continues to change rapidly as all the players in the lit-biz adjust to such things as e-books and all the new distribution channels such as Amazon, and to the opportunities of self publishing, and the conglomeration of a lot of smallish independent houses that sometimes actually value “literature” into a few gigantic conglomerates for whom the bottom line is all. How does one prepare for the “real world” when the “real world” is in such flux?
How can a young writer find and approach the appropriate lit magazines and other outlets?
How does a writer know if contests that charge a reading fee are legit?
In this brave new world of e-books and self-publishing, how does a young writer find an editor, designer, publicist, and more, and what should the writer understand about the economics of e-books?
Do writers REALLY have to master social media and self-promote? How does a young writer find a community of kindred souls to read and review a work in progress?
And how can any mere mortal begin to understand the typical contract (e.g., what the hell are “first North American rights?”)
Of course, some things never change, and so we can just as well ask if there’s any way any young writer can prepare for the dread of the blank page (or screen, more likely) or the pain of rejection? Or an old writer, for that matter. When it comes to that blank page we face every day, we’re all just starting out, again and again and again….
It’s questions such as these, and many others, that we hope to explore in Boston in March.
In the meantime, let us know what you wish you’d known, and how and when you learned it. If you ever did….