Tuesday, February 21, 2012

It's that easy

A student came in to my office hours last week to talk to me about being a writer. He'd had classes with me before, taken the creative option on a couple of the papers, and done well enough he wanted to write as a career.


Let me start by saying, that I am pretty much always happy to have this conversation. I like it when people get brave enough to make art, to choose to do something creative. It delights me that people see the world and want to put something unique into it. I understand that talent levels vary, as do desire and dedication, and that most people who try will not actually achieve the kind of success they have in their dreams the first time they say, "I want to be a writer." But you know what? It's not my place to discourage them.


So he sat down, and I talked about submissions guidelines, and query letters, and duotrope. I recommended some of my favorite books on writing, and talked about how I cope with rejection letters. I mentioned that many writers never give up their day job, because they can't afford to, or they like having things like health insurance. I've been giving some version of this talk fairly regularly each semester, so I had the high points ready to go.


This was not the talk, it turned out, he wanted to hear. "So, you just write? And send stuff out? And someone buys it? It's that easy?"


And I sat there blinking for a couple of seconds, because I had never heard that particular question before. Easy? I must have missed some important point in my normal speech.


I mean, I get that I'm not physically laboring in a mine, or a sweatshop, or any number of other truly appalling working conditions. I get that sitting at my notebook or at my computer making things up is a damn good job. And in a way, of course, he was exactly right - you write. You send stuff out. Someone buys it. It's that easy.


He continued, though, and that was where his puzzlement became clear. He didn't know anyone in the field - no editors or agents, no other writers. Where was the part where I introduced him to someone, helped him get his foot in the door and make the connections he needed to publish. Who had done that for me?


Well, I applied to a workshop, I said. To Clarion. It was taught by pros, and they are still accepting applications. This year's faculty is great, I said.


But what if he didn't get in?


Apply again, I said. Or send out your application stories, see if a market will buy them. Keep writing. Keep sending things out.


I think I failed. I don't think I ever convinced him that there wasn't some kind of secret word, or key to the clubhouse that - if I would just share it with him - would bring him success, the kind of success that means never getting rejection letters, that means selling everything you write. That the way you break in to being a writer is you write.


It's that easy.


And that hard.

12 comments:

  1. What?! Didn't they tell you the secret word? You must have missed that lecture!

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    1. Dammit! I should have never listened to Jim's "skip one thing" advice.

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  2. Yeah...I'd say "simple" instead of easy, but that's why it's so hard for many to accept. To be a writer, you have to work really hard, and even that doesn't guarantee anything...the end. Everyone wants a silver bullet.

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    1. Everyone wants a silver bullet? I resemble that remark :).

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  3. I know a few people who believe that. I know one, specifically, who asked for my advice -- only to take away odd things. It took me a while to realize that you can only put the advice and the knowledge out there. Like close reading: if you pay proper attention, you glean things. If not, you don't.

    Writing is work, like anything else. You didn't fail at giving advice. You said the right things. It's up to the person seeking the advice to listen closely -- and to hear what's being said.

    Now, if there is a magic key, it belongs to Keyhouse. ;-)

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  4. LOL what a curmudgeonly post on my part.

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    1. It didn't sound curmudgeonly to me. Maybe because I see it all the time - I'd say at least half of the people who have ever asked me directly for advice on how to become a writer behave as if they think who you know is more important than what you do.

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  5. What do you mean you didn't teach him the secret writers handshake?

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  6. That last line is what people tell me. To write, you must write...

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  7. For every new writer you bring into our secret sister/brotherhood you get a toaster oven and 112,000 airmiles!

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    1. Oooh. I have some travel I need to do. I could use those airmiles.

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