How to Be a Writer (Although You Probably Shouldn’t Be One)
“First, try to be something, anything, else.”
–Lorrie Moore, ‘How to Become a Writer’
A few weeks ago, The Guardian published some lists of fiction-writing advice from famous writers, or at least, from semi-famous writers. Some of the advice was solid, practical, and good. (Zadie Smith: “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.”) And some of the advice was meaningless poetic bullshit. (Andrew Motion: “Think with your senses as well as your brain.”) …And some of the advice was just plain wrong. (Elmore Leonard. “Never use the [word] ‘suddenly.’”) Yeah, really? I can’t use the word “suddenly” anymore? Bullshit. I think I’m about to suddenly break this rule. Very suddenly.
ANY-way, all of this writing advice from famous novelists got me to thinking. And what I thought was: “Hey, I’m a writer.” And then I thought: “Do I actually have a column for today?” And then I thought: “No. No, I don’t. Definitely not. I have nothing to write about.”
All of which led to today’s somewhat unnecessary column, in which I offer you unsolicited tips to becoming a better writer! Seriously. And please to enjoy.
HOW TO BE AN A WRITER
1) Don’t listen to advice from writers. I realize that me saying this will invalidate this entire column, but I’m cool with that. Writers like to talk about writing because talking about writing is easier than actually sitting down and — y’know — writing something. (Like a novel, or a play, or a poem, or such.) Don’t listen to writers. And are you sure that writers even have your best interests at heart? Most writers that I know are petty, insecure, self-absorbed dicks. And writers don’t like competition. Therefore, take any advice that they give you with a grain of salt.
2) Chill out. Most people are a thousand times more interesting when they’re talking than when they’re writing. Why is this? Because people panic when they start writing. People instantly revert to memories of 10th grade English class, and memories of No. 2 pencils, and lined notebooks. And then they freak out and tense up. Don’t tense up. Just relax. Seriously.
3) Just relax. …Um, seriously. Chill. When are you funniest and most interesting in life? When you’re hanging with your friends, maybe having a few beers, and telling a funny story. So when you write, do that. Just be normal. Act like you’re telling a story to your friends. Write the way that you talk. This will be much more interesting, I promise you.
4) You’re gonna have to write all the time. I wrote for about six hours a day, every day, for 15 years before I could quit my boring job and become an actual paid full-time writer.
Which reminds me of a funny story. In his excellent autobiography, animator Chuck Jones talks about his first day at art school. And on his first day, the “mean” professor said this to the class: “You have 200,000 bad drawings inside of you. The sooner you get rid of them, the better it will be for everyone.” Startled gasp! The class was horrified. And Chuck Jones, genius and creator of Bugs Bunny, etc., was horrified for a second too. Until he realized this: “Wait. I’ve already done at least 300,000 drawings.”
The same thing happened to me on my first day of school. Our professor said, “If you want to be a writer, you have to write for six hours a day. No exceptions.” And I was appalled, until I remembered that I did that already.
You’re gonna have to write all the time in order to get better. No one can make you do this. You’re going to have to make yourself do it.
5) You’re going to be poor for a really long time. People told me this when I started out, and I didn’t believe them, because — wait for it — because I was an idiot. I assumed that I’d be famous by 21 and dead from a drunken car accident by 23. I was wrong.
And also, being a poor writer sounded kind of romantic to me when I was, say, 18 years old. And being a poor writer is kind of romantic — for a while. It becomes less romantic when you’re 30 and can’t afford to buy a soda when it’s hot out, and can’t afford to have a girlfriend because that would actually involve paying to go to a restaurant or something. So. There’s that. So if you can’t handle being really really poor, then stop now.
6) You’re going to have to realize that you suck and that you’re awesome at the same time. …Which is a little something that the poet Keats called “Negative Capability” — i.e., the ability to hold two conflicting ideas in your head at the same time.
Listen, the first thing that you write is going to suck. There’s a simple reason for this. If writing was that easy, then everyone would do it. Sitting at home all day in your pajamas and scribbling down pithy little thoughts is a way more fun job than, say, being a garbageman or a dishwasher. (And I’ve been both.) Being a writer is hard, because being a writer is fun.
So, you’re going to have to realize that your writing sucks. Otherwise, you’ll never improve. But you also have to believe (against all hope, sometimes) that your writing is awesome. If you think you’re great from day one, then you’ll never improve and you’ll never get published. But if you always think that you suck, then you’ll get discouraged, and you won’t write for five to six hours a day like you need to.
And that’s the awesome/sucky dichotomy. It’s a tough one, but I’m sure you can pull it off.
7) You’re gonna need help. …And you’re going to need this help because it’s hard to tell when something you write is good or bad. So, you’re going to need a peer group.
Maybe you’ll have to take a class at a local college, or maybe there’s a writing group that meets at your local bookstore. You can show your stuff to your friends, but the odds are that they’ll just lie to you and tell you that everything you write is really great. They’re going to tell you this because: (a) They probably don’t care about writing that much, and (b) They don’t want to hurt your feelings.
So you need to surround yourself with fellow writers who are supportive but also honest. Some people will tell you that your writing is always good. These people are lying. And some people will tell you that your writing is always bad. These people are also lying. …But a few rare people will point out the stuff that they like, call you out on some of the dumb shit that you’re writing, and gently but forcefully suggest ways to make your dumb shit better. Treasure these people. Learn to recognize them. These people are your only hope.
…They are your only hope to becoming a real writer, that is. And you need to find them. You’re going to find them, and you’re going to hang out with these people as much as possible. You’re going to go drink coffee with them at 2am in shitty diners; you’re going to become new best friends with them; you’re going to call them at all hours on the phone. You need to hang out with these people as much as possible.
Because in the end, we all work in the dark. We are blind. We can’t see what we’re doing. We exist in a cosmology of not-seeing. We have to take things on faith. And in the end, we just have to hope and pray that someone out there actually wants to listen to the things that we are saying.
…And that’s really all the advice that I have to give about writing, I guess. Hope that helped! And if not. …And if not, well. …And if not, well, I just sat here for five minutes trying to think of a clever way to end this essay. And I failed. So there’s further proof that writing is really hard, and that maybe you shouldn’t listen to me, after all.
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