An Email About Writing, And My Response

I received this email the other day. I get emails like this a lot, and I always try to respond (though sometimes my lack of time — or lack of a meaningful answer — get in the way of my best efforts), and usually my replies end up being just a few lines. This one, I don’t know why, got a more robust response that even I didn’t really expect, words just sort of tumbling out, and I thought it might be useful or challenging or at least an artifact of curiosity to post the email and its response:

Hello, Mr. Wendig,

My name’s [REDACTED], and I’m a second-year at [REDACTED]. I was going for an Economics major, found that it wasn’t for me (I hated it, and I wasn’t good at it). Now, I want to major in English.

I’ve been hearing these nasty horror stories about writers going hungry, being unable to find jobs, and, recently, I read a blog post about how writers die off almost at the rate of artists in L.A., New York, and… Sedona, Arizona, was it?

I want to try to find a job in the editing or publishing industry because I love books, especially novels (I know, I know, “another one,” right?) and I believe that I have the personality to be successful as an editor or a publisher. That is, if I can get the job first and work my way up in the company.

Actually, my real dream is to become a novelist. Which is a lousy dream to have right now. I should know. I studied the economy for a year and a half (ex-Econ major, remember?).

I feel lost. I feel lost and scared. What I’ve been doing is collecting the life stories of English majors, poets, and novelists to try to figure out how they got where they are as professional writers that get to do what they love for a living. I want to be like them, but I don’t know how to get started on that path. They always tell me that everyone takes a different route, but I want to know some of the routes that I could take. I’ll have to carve out a fork in the road to get to the finish line eventually—I know that—but I want to see how much guidance I can get before I can decide the best route to carve. it’s kinda like an RPG. You go through the village following these routes, and you can follow what the villagers tell you, or you can ignore them, but in the end you gotta take your own path through the creepy, dangerous forest. So. I guess that makes you a villager. Maybe the friendly local village Wordsmithy?

What I’m asking for is your life story, and any advice you might have. I do take the advice that I receive to heart. Please respond; I will appreciate any advice that you have to offer.

Best wishes,

[REDACTED]

* * *

My response, which may or may not be helpful to the author of the e-mail and to you:

Hi, [REDACTED]!

I adore the RPG metaphor.

Don’t be scared.

I mean, you can be a little scared, but that should also come with a little exhilaration.

This is actually a pretty good economy for people who want to do their own thing.

So: after college, get a job. A day job. In publishing or out of it. Take the time when you’re not doing that to write a novel. And if that one sucks, fix it. And if it sucks so bad you can’t fix it, then write a different novel. Do this again and again until you maybe sorta semi-kinda know what you’re doing.

Make sure you have health insurance. When the day comes sooner or later that you won’t have a day job and you’ll be jumping out of a plane, building a parachute from your manuscript pages, we now have the ACA marketplace (which should be working by the time it matters for you) to help you obtain health insurance at a price that doesn’t kill you.

Write every opportunity you can.

But live every opportunity you can, too. We fill our creative coffers by experiencing the world around us. And we spend what’s in those coffers on the page.

Tell the stories you want to tell.

Bleed on the page.

Don’t chase trends — let trends chase you.

Be excited. Love writing. No reason to do this thing if you don’t love it. Don’t just love the result. Love the process. Even when you hate the process.

Learn why satisfaction is more important than happiness. Why long-term bliss means more than short-term dopamine release.

Tell stories about characters, not about plots.

Tell stories about you that nobody knows are really about you.

Write what you know except when that stops you from writing what you want to write — then use it as an excuse to know more and write more.

Worry more about writing good stories than getting published. The publishing industry is just the minotaur in the middle of the maze: the challenge at the end. You still have to get there. You still have to wander the maze in order to fight the monster.

Don’t feel like you have to write just one thing. Write the things that make you twitch and smile and scream and clamp your teeth. Write those things to which your heart and soul respond. Write to your loves. Write to your fears.

Say things with your work. Make the words about something. About more than just what’s on the page.

When you have a novel you love and trust: seek an agent. Or self-publish. Choose a path and then choose the other path later down the line to mix it up. Seek diversity. Aim for potential and possibility.

Hell with the doubters.

Down with the haters.

If this is something you really want to do, do it.

Embrace the fear.

And write.

Good luck.

— c.

74 comments

  • Fantastic. I have been trying to explore various types of writing in order to zoom in on one. It is nice to know I don’t have to limit myself. Thank you for responding to this email. You helped a lot of people with your answer.

  • Fantastic, and you are one of the few people I’ve read who picked up on the point that you need to put stuff into your brain, experiences, life and the like, if you want to get stuff out.

    It was a lovely e-mail and a lovely response.

    You got pennies in heaven for that one I reckon. 😉

    Cheers

    MTM

  • My very lengthy reply to this email and Wendig’s response is at http://tinyurl.com/pakuyrj
    I basically argue that, although I greatly appreciate the inspirational advice in this column about what it takes to become a successful writer, I think we do a disservice to aspiring authors to encourage them to think of writing as a career. A vanishingly small minority can make a career of writing, but many more can be successful if they approach it as an avocation. One becomes a writer by writing; only when and if one becomes commercially successful should one quit one’s day job to become a professional writer.

    • Whether you are making a living at it or doing it because you love it, you can’t be a writer without putting butt in chair and putting words on page/bits/etc. Thinking about writing like a career encourages the long-term mindset, habits, and discipline you will need to be successful *as a writer* with no regard to how much money you make from it. Thinking about it from a career standpoint is necessary — this is what needs to be done if I want a chance of being self-supporting financially. If I can’t/don’t want to do that, then I scale it back. it’s far easier to scale back from that expectation than it is to start with the “inspired artiste, slave to passion, Dances With Muses” position and turn that into some measurable level of success (however success is defined).

      In my day job of IT, we have a saying: you can’t fix the problem if you can’t define and measure the problem. Metrics matter. It doesn’t matter how much money a writer makes, but if you want to be a writer, you have to write. Otherwise, you’re having a Dire Straits moment. Best to discourage that — or call it what it is — right up front.

  • You ROCK! You ROLL! You are Elvis, back in the building! I love you, Mr. W! Thank you for the stiffening my upper lip (et al).

  • Several days late, but a few things I done learned as a fellow English major, not about writing careers, but about the not starving to death in the streets stuff:

    1. The general unemployability of English majors is overblown. If you make sure you also gain some basic technological/clerical skills (know how to use Microsoft Office! All of it! Including spreadsheets!) and not-totally-awkward people skills, you’ll be employable in a fairly wide, if sometimes difficult-to-figure-out-precisely-where-to-look-for-because-it’s-really-random, range of jobs. Doing part-time work/internships/volunteering/student clubs/other stuffs you can put on your resume while you’re still in undergrad will help you a lot.
    2. Publishing is not really an “eh, I will fall into it as a placeholder while working on my real career” industry anymore. If you want to work in publishing, please ensure you are committed to working in publishing; it’s a project to break into. It’s particularly difficult to break into if you don’t do a publishing internship while still in school. Internships are basically evil but publishing relies pretty heavily on them these days, and you don’t want to be applying for internships AFTER you graduate more than you have to.
    3. Even though you didn’t like economics, if you can get an Econ minor out of the time you did spend with it, that will probably also be helpful for the acquisition of boring day jobs. There’s a fair amount of work out there for business/technical writing and editing stuff (ie Writing What Our Corporate Overlords Tell Us To Write) that often pays fairly well and will get you putting words together for a living, even though it’s on boring subject matter, and if you know a little bit about one of these boring subjects, you’ll be better equipped to write businessy crap about it.

    For what it’s worth, I was an English major with a concentration in creative writing, Great-Recession-era graduate (2010), and I have so far worked as a paralegal (which I admittedly hated and wasn’t great at), a proofreader, a freelance editor-slash-copywriter-slash-research-assistant-slash-whatever-this-random-client-tells-me-to-do, and, currently, a technical editor.

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