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