My Advice to Young Writers

Been away doing literary editor stuff. (To MMIP fans–all two of them–soon my pets, soon.)

Now that I’m back, let’s get into what I’ve been pondering: Jeffrey Eugenides’s Advice To Young Writers, which struck me as a fairly ordinary bit of writing advice that probably assumes too much about what drives young writers to get into the low-level con game that is fiction writing. Neither “When you started writing…It was in response to the wondrousness and humiliation of being alive.” nor  “You’re also the college sophomore standing in a corner of a keg party in the basement of some desperate dorm” successfully describes me at anything other than isolated moments that had little to do with why I decided to hit the keyboard. What got me the game because was reading Tom Sawyer when I was eight and thinking: How did Twain create this? And could I do something like itNeither a river nor a vomiting Phi Delt in sight. I’m not “by turns ecstatic and despondent.” I’m better described as crabby with occasional moments of brightness. And Eugenides’s admonishment to ignore fashion because “You might begin to forget the person you are in order to write and sound like someone else” is a bit risible after he’s spent the last two paragraphs telling me who I am, why I write, and how I should set about my work.

So while I’m disinclined to be as tough as Noah Berlatsky was on Eugenides’s speech–because while Eugenides’s “ignore fashion and follow your heart” advice may be boilerplate, what awards-night speech isn’t? (Yes, yes, Jodie Foster, I know.)–I think it is worth asking, as Todd Hasak-Lowey does in his The Millions article, just how useful Eugenides’s adviselments really are.

My answer: his prescriptions aren’t all that helpful, unless you’ve never had an inspiring English teacher, read Thoreau, or seen Dead Poets Society on cable. I assume anyone who’s gotten into writing has experienced at least two of those three things. So we’ll move on to my advice, which you didn’t have to win an award to read. Aren’t I nice?

1. You suck. Trust me on this. Your work is dreadful. Your ideas are boring. Forget Eugenides. You should stop writing now, take your mother’s advice, and go into accounting. It’s a nice career. It’s only busy about six months out of the year, and you have something solid with some money at the end of the line. How many careers can you say that about in this economy, eh?

2. Okay, if you ignored that advice, you passed the first test. That doesn’t mean your work doesn’t suck. It probably does. (I’ve read many of your submissions and…well…yeah…) And so this is the second test. Stop sending out early drafts. Revise until it’s as done as it’s going to be, then revise one more time. Then put it away, start working on something else, and read it again in a month. If it’s good, ship it to someone who might lose his mind and care. If it still sucks, think of something else. Some people spend the rest of their lives on one story idea. These people are most often sad.

3. Think your ideas through. Whatever idea might have served as your inspiration is probably not as fully formed as it first seemed. In fact, it’s often best, when struck with inspiration, not to write about it for a while. It may have just been a mental burp. If you still remember your ostensibly brilliant idea a week later, then, maybe, it’s a good one. At that point, start developing it. Ask why you think it’s a good idea. Ask why you need to write this idea instead of some other ideas that are rolling around in your head. Ask if this idea can be married to some other idea you’ve been toying with. Ask if this idea is just a small piece of something larger, more interesting, or better. Do all this because while just about everyone has ideas for stories, very few take the time to work through all their implications.

3. Cultivate connections. Writing fiction’s a hard ass business. I often think we exist just to make newspaper reporters feel better about their own wretched, impoverished lives. (Actors do the same thing for fiction writers.) While submitting stories to total strangers and getting their approval is exciting and validating, in the end it’s better to cultivate connections to people who like your work and who think the targets you aim at are worth hitting. They’ll publish your stuff when no one else gives a damn about you, and they’ll champion your work to others who can help. (After eight years of query letters and blind submissions, connections got Dismantle the Sun published.) This doesn’t mean you should suck up to everyone with influence, but it does mean you should try to make friends with people who think you’re good.

4. There’s no way to help being influenced by fashion and money. Contra Eugenides, we writers don’t start out pure only to be corrupted. Our corruption starts the first time we tell a joke, someone laughs, and we try to figure out how we did it so we can make them laugh again; or the first time a friend or a teacher or a parent reads our work and doesn’t make a sour milk face. Money and fashion are just approval misspelled, and approval is a powerful agent in life. What you must do is try to understand its influence, interrogate it, and take whatever value you can from it. Maintaining a purity you never had in the first place is a waste of time.

5. If all this thinking and revising and connecting gets too hard or isn’t fun anymore, stop writing. Your words won’t be missed. No human being could read even a substantial fraction of the worthwhile books available in bookstores, in libraries, and on the web. Honestly, even illustrious authors who’ve won awards and grants and who’ve been on Charlie Rose are largely unknown to the bulk of humanity, and the odds are overwhelming that their works, though acclaimed now, will be forgotten in fifty years. (Ever heard of Robert Lewis Taylor? His Travels of Jaimie McPheeters won the Pulitzer in 1958. No? Me either.) So if you don’t give a damn about your writing anymore, if the night has been too lonely and the road has been too long, it’s okay to quit. Get that accounting degree. You’ll probably be a happier person for it.

If this advice also seems boilerplate, I know. It is. It’s the same advice, more or less, that other writers gave to me. It’s always like that. Hemingway gets the credit for “Write what you know”, but I’m guessing you could find the same tip, in ancient Greek of course, on some lost manuscript of Sophocles.


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