The 4 Things You Need To Know Now If You Want to Be a Writer
By Don Wallace
This is the fourth in a series of posts leading up to the 2013 AWP Conference at which Eric Olsen will moderate a panel on “What We Wish We’d Known.” Please join us in Boston Saturday, March 9, 2013, 1:30-2:45 pm, in room 206 of the Hynes Convention Center, when novelists Jane Smiley, her daughter Lucy Silag, Vu Tran, and Doug Unger will discuss what they didn’t learn as MFA students, but wish they had, what they learned later, often the hard way. The world that Jane, Doug, and Eric entered a generation ago is very different from the world that Lucy and Vu entered more recently, and thus what they wish they’d known may be different as well. Or not. The panel will explore all of this, and much more.
Don Wallace has a .200 lifetime batting average for novels (Hot Water), .333 for nonfiction books (One Great Game) and .500 for screenplays (Those Who Came Before). Statistics don’t lie. A magazine editor in New York City for 27 years, he is under no illusion that anything he wrote or edited for the slicks will be remembered yesterday, let alone in 20 years. But the novel he is writing today, that’s another story.
What do I wish I’d known when I started out as a writer?
In 1971, at nineteen I’d come in second in my college’s poetry contest and had written my first story, the latter so clumsily that you could have used my blushes to power a generator when it was read out in class.
From there I went directly to work in the Long Beach oil fields. I thought a writer needed validation in the real world: calluses, salty talk, hardhat with your name on it. Standing up to my neck in a pool of bubbling crude, I began to re-think that proposition. And yet, the following year, my story about working in the oil fields won my college’s short story prize. And I did not need to blush anymore.
What’s the lesson here? Should a writer still look for real-world validation, in the form of experience, which for our purposes means work and living outside an academic bubble? It’s still a great question. I’m not sure what the answer is. I do know I spent, or wasted, a lot of time on it.
Why was validation important? Why didn’t I just write, and not look to bolster my street cred? Obviously I doubted the latter, but something else was at work here. I think all of us, when starting out, unless possessed of the self-confidence of a sociopath (recommended, actually), spend and waste a lot of time wondering about our talent and our calling—whether we have it, what’s the point of doing it. We look for something to ground us: “I’m a construction worker,” “I’m a native (pick your ethnic/sexual/regional/ genealogical self-identification),” “I’m a garage rock n roller who does heroin like a real king of the street.”
And that’s where we’re coming from. We can explain ourselves. In this way validation is a launching pad, a foundation, a blueprint for future work. But, as my experience now seems to me, it’s also a trap. It limits as much as it frees. And I wish I’d worried less about it.
When it comes to “real” jobs, the parameters of validation have changed, for sure. These days you can’t walk into an oil company HR department and come out with a union-trainee gig, even though you’re a hippie with gold wire-framed glasses. (I wore my prom suit!) Nowadays grown men fight for those jobs, if they exist, and I am inordinately proud that I was offered a permanent union job after my 90-day trial—that street cred thing again. Today a young writer is lucky to get a minimum-wage gig in a college bookstore (oops, do they still have those?), dishing out wings at Hooters, or serving at university events. Speaking of which, I once was a turkey carver for a Nobel Prize-winning economist at Stanford who was so impressed he had me back for all his parties. At age 28. And it did nothing for my career, except make me desperate.
Which leaves us the calluses you get, the blisters you break and re-bandage each morning, from teaching and from interning. Teaching we’ll put to one side. It is what it is. Because it deals with words and sentences, and young minds (at least we hope they have minds, those students of ours), it doesn’t exactly endow us with experience, with street cred, with a vision of worlds outside our ken. Just deadlines and papers to grade and more of the same. You can write about it, and too many do, but who’s going to read what essentially is a feedback loop of a freshman English class?
Interning, though, is another matter. Since so many writers do it now, in their outside-academic career paths, it is a common generational experience. Novels and stories have been written about it, the same way they are written about babysitting and nannying and, god help us, dog-walking. And so I embrace them, despite the fact that too many internships consist of being taken advantage of by cynical corporate HR types. Insofar as interning touches upon the reality of a “real” job, one you needn’t or won’t be able to take, it can serve a useful purpose for a writer starting out. Getting to know office lives, working lives, quietly desperate middle-management lives—that’s all to the good.
One cautionary note from my personal experience: as an intern you will be exposed to a very germane moral hazard. You see, in my last few jobs as a career magazine editor, I tried to help out as many interns as I could. At least at the companies where I worked, we paid them. But the internships never translated into jobs, because the magazines were always cutting staff. Eventually they cut the interns, too. Then they cut me. Then they brought back the interns to do pieces of my job—for a 65 percent pay cut, of course. Do I blame the interns? No. In fact, I suspect they may have learned something about themselves that they can put to use in their writing. But they will have also, perhaps, lost a little of their self-regard, inevitable as we go along in life.
Okay. Now to the core advice. Don’t despair.
What else? Leaving aside the basic equation (experience over time divided by hours spent writing about it equals a book), there are four numbered points I would like to bequeath to anyone starting out on the game:
One, forget what everybody is saying about markets, agents, money, the eBook. You already are absorbing that stuff and are defenseless against its influence. Use your time to write.
Two, before you write, take time to think. Thinking was the one thing I was never good at that I wish I’d noticed at the time. I do not mean school thinking, or social-climbing-thinking. I’m talking about the ability to step back from what is hip, what is now, what is trending, what the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker and the NYRB and Harper’s and Salon and The Atlantic and N + 1 and whatever, including your writing teachers, have been expounding upon as The True and Righteous Path of Writing. Step back, and think about it. Don’t think about emulating it, because you’ll start behind the cycle and be a follower. Try to get ahead of the beat, as the jazz bassists used to say. And read a lot of books by dead people.
Three, get out there. Publish by any means necessary. Self-publish, definitely. At the same time, don’t let self-publishing rob you of the edge to try to crack what few legacy markets are out there. Just keep grinding. Review books, because this will strip away the veils of illusion and you will see your idols have feet of clay. Be generous. Let the snobs make fun of you. One day they will approach you and ask if you’ll publish their stuff. And maybe you will, after a suitable pause to appreciate the moment.
Four, get thyself to a nunnery. I mean, of course, to a group. Writing groups, ‘zine-created gangs, publishing co-ops. Which I guess means things like poetry slams (snore, sorry) too. My midnight confession here: Late in life I noticed that while I’m good in professional surroundings, like startups and magazines and websites, I’d suffered from shyness at what I loved most and pursued longest, fiction and poetry and the associated arts. There’s a reason for this: commercial considerations are easier to identify and to meet. Art? It’s up to you to invent the rules of engagement and then hit the mark. (Try that for a lifetime. Those are the real calluses.) Anyway, find some friends who write, stay in touch, hitch your wagons to a star. If you can, make things like magazines and contests and scenes together. Make common cause. Make friends. These are the people you will sit around kitchens with later on in life and realize, I wouldn’t trade these guys for anyone in the whole wide world.
That’s it, with one important caveat. If you are writing in anticipation of a dependable, step-by-step career, with pension and retirement benefits, what you are really talking about is teaching. In which case, god help you. Nobody else will when you’re grading 85 papers at the end of the term, but at least your calluses will be real.
How important is street cred to you? What have you done to get it? What do you wish you’d done?