Ten Things I’d Like To Say To Young Writers

More and more I’m allowed the benefit of corrupting the minds of creative writing students out there in the world, which is awesome for me, and probably disturbing for them.

Regardless, as I am occasionally mistaken as some kind of “person who knows things” when it comes to writing, I feel like I have a few things I’d like to say to you Young Penmonkeys out there — those of you between the ages of, mmm, say, 16-21. Not to say this won’t also apply to others who want to be professional writers when you grow up, but it is aimed specifically at that age range both in terms of what I remember being like then (ugh!) and what I see when I meet these amazing, ass-kicking creative writing students.

I’m about to be 38 next week (my mantra being a loudly hooted NOT YET 40 WOOOO) and I had my first short story published at 18, and my first taste of professional writing work at… age 21? Or something like that? So, I’ve been out there quite a while. Which means you should listen to me.

*whacks you in the head with my old man cane*

LISTEN TO MY WISDOM YOU YOUNG PUNKS

You Do Not Require That Degree

You don’t get a creative writing degree because you need it. You get it because you want it, and because you have chosen a program that holy crap does what it’s supposed to do — teach you how to write a goddamn story. But don’t go for this degree hoping it’s some kind of Magical Wonka Ticket to the Dreamy City Of Authoropolis in the clouds — in all the writing I have done over the last 18 years, over the literal millions of words I’ve written, nobody, not one motherfucker on the paying side of the fence, has asked me about my degree. They want to know: “Can you write?” And then I write. It is a pure and wonderful relationship.

I’m not saying your degree is worthless. I’m happy I have mine because I really did learn how to hone my wordsmithy as a creative writing student. And besides, these days almost no degree is a Magical Wonka Ticket. Hell, I’m pretty sure most college degrees double-up as placemats and paper towels (though not particularly absorbent, I am sad to report).

And if you’re thinking about an MFA…

If you need it, great.

Otherwise: just get out there and write, yeah? Student loan debt ain’t awesome. That money is better spent on travel, life, experiences, crates of Ramen noodles, porn, boxed wine.

You’re Not That Good

Sorry! Nope. Not that good.

This will frustrate the vibrating fuck out of you because you want so badly to be good. Anybody does when they begin an endeavor, particularly when they’re young — you pick up a guitar or sit down at a video game or Try To Do The Sex and you’re basically clumsy thumbs and inward screaming and then a lamp breaks and someone is crying. You’re looking at published work. Or the work of your peers. And you want to be instantly that awesome. It’s frustrating to be not-that-good because you feel like, this is what you want to do, and you need to justify that desire now by putting out top-shelf, high-octane writing. And you’re young, so life feels shorter than it really is. You have time. This is, as I have said many-a-time, a long con, not a short game.

Ira Glass actually said a wonderful thing about this:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

But You’re Not Supposed To Be Good

You’re not actually meant to be good. Not being good is how you get better. Not being good means you’re in that formative, fundamental blobby parthogenesis period where The Authorial You just starts to emerge. Not being good is how we are forced to take the time to not just Get Good, but also Become Us. You’re not yet the Author That You Will Become. This is all normal. Be bold enough to suck with gleeful abandon — but also know that your critical urge to be better-faster-now is a good one. Don’t quit. Don’t rest. Force yourself to improve.

And You’re Still Probably Better Than You Sometimes Think

Let’s be honest. The Internet is mostly writers. We’re everywhere. Like roaches inside a hoarder’s house, feeding on whatever old pizza and dead chihuahuas got trapped under that collapsing stack of National Geographic magazines. We’re breeding like cats and rabbits. (“Crabbits?”)

Thing is, if you’re actually in a creative writing program, you’re probably better than a lot of the yahoos on the Intertubes who want to be writers. I’ve read some really awful things by some truly deluded people — people who do not have writing professors tell them, “This is actually very shitty. D-minus. Do better, for Chrissakes.”

So, no, you’re not that good.

But you’re probably better than you sometimes think, or fear.

And you’re almost certainly better than the delusional sub-layer of authorial treacle found on these here Internets. That’s gotta be worth something, right? Hell, most people can’t string together a cogent Facebook status update, so.

Worry Less About The Business Now

You want to ask about publishing and payment and all the perks of being a writer, I get that. And yes, every writer does get a special Members-Only jacket to begin with, and after that it’s like leveling-up your character in a roleplaying game. You can choose new Talents and Tricks. I can actually type with my tongue, for one. I also can transmogrify coffee into words!

But the publishing industry right now is like Los Angeles: it’s sitting squarely atop a giant trembling fault line, and constant earthquakes big and small continue to move the crusty mantle beneath our feet. So, by the time you’re ready to actually sell words, who knows what will happen? PERHAPS WE WILL ALL BE HUNTING EACH OTHER IN A DOOMED WASTELAND. Or maybe it’ll be limousines and eight-figure book-deals, I have no idea.

Point is, don’t sweat it. Don’t sweat genre. Don’t sweat medium. Learn as much as you can about the actual process of writing — think about narrative construction across multiple formats and aim to be well-read and well-taught across the spectrum. The industry will be what the industry will be when you get there. You’re not there. Worry about you and your work, not where you or your work will end up. Think present more than future.

This Is The Time To Write Whatever The Fuck You Want

Not thinking about markets or industry yet means: you can and should go bug-eyed apeshit cuckoo bananapants when it comes to your work. Write anything. Anything that itches so bad at your fingertips that to not write it would constitute a drug withdrawal reaction. Any genre. Any genre mix. Any medium. Any mix of media. Whatever. Fuck it. You are afforded an early chance at play-time. That’s what this stage is. It’s sand-boxes and cheap wine and you making your own toys without anybody telling you what your toys should look like.

Embrace it.

It’s Okay To Ape The Voices Of Others

You will try to sound like the authors you love. This is normal. This is okay. This is also perhaps often expressed as fan-fiction, and that is very rad. Again: this is play-time. So? Play.

Write Often And Write Enough And Your Voice Will Find You

You will chase your voice like a dog chasing a car, but you’ll never catch it. Because you were your voice all along. You were never the dog. You were always the car. You were never Jack. You were always Tyler Durden. And yes, Fight Club is just one big metaphor for becoming a writer. (Okay, maybe not.) (But maybe?) (Nah.) (Buuuut…)

You find your voice by doing. And by rewriting. You won’t want to rewrite now. You won’t want to edit. Edits feel like you’re not good, like you’re being insulted, like having to fix it means it was broken to begin with. But recognizing broken things is a value. A skill. You get as many shots at the goal as you want. Let that be freeing, not punishing.

In writing a lot and rewriting a lot, your voice will find you.

One day you’ll say: “Oh, so that’s what I sound like.”

And it’ll be amazing.

The World Will Lie To You About Being An Artist

Almost nobody in a position of Adult Responsibility thinks you should be a writer. Even your professors will probably, if pressured whilst drunk, quietly whisper: hurry, go learn accounting.

Being an artist is not a path that accords a lot of respect, which is almost ironic given how much our society is driven by art and artists — it is a monster-sized industry, and yet somehow everyone seems to think that it’s tiny and impenetrable, like an old-timey bank safe. A lot of this doubt comes from a good place. They want you to be safe and taken care of and admittedly, being an artist is a risk. Society all on its own doesn’t support artists very well (though it’s getting there, and I swear to Sweet Saint Fuck if anybody tries to take away my new guaranteed healthcare I will shiv them in the pancreas), and so people tell you not to be an artist and the cycle continues.

But creative work exists. It exists, and pays.

You have to get good doing it.

You have to learn how to make money doing it.

Art isn’t just Doing Art all the time, and this is why you should also learn other skills that your creative writing classes probably won’t teach you — from marketing to editing to business practices to how to budget and balance your bank accounts and pay your taxes. I know, ew, taxes. But this is how being an artist is done. Your parents or whoever will tell you just not to bother. I’m telling you to bother, but gather the skills needed — skills that go well-beyond writing, painting, singing, or other art-making.

(A small rant of mine is that so many creative writing programs are way over-focused on writing — particularly writing literary books rather than genre-flavored anything. Art programs in general need to teach more than just the creative stuff. Because you have to also survive at being an artist, and in that survival, practical skills are key.)

Finish Your Shit

But then it all comes back to this.

You will never be the writer you want if you cannot complete what you begin.

Ironically, some of the professors who are teaching you have not yet mastered this.

You’re young, and you will leave behind you a trail of unfinished story-corpses. That’s okay. No shame, there. But there comes a point when you have to stay on that bucking bull till it finally tires and dies in the dust. You can’t just keep not finishing things. Art must reach a conclusion. Stories have endings. You can always go back and edit — but you have nothing meaningful to edit if you don’t finish what you begin in the first damn place.

This is the hardest skill, I think, that I learned as a young writer. Just merely to finish. It’s easier not to. It’s easier to talk about writing than to do the writing. The work you never finish always exists in what appears to be a perfect, gleaming state — a young, preserved corpse on display, its James-Deanian potential perfectly captured in its youth and naivete. But fuck that jibber-jabber. Storm the beach. Suck if you must. But finish what you begin.

And then rewrite until it’s right.

160 comments

  • Thanks Chuck

    I really needed this today.

    I started my Writing and Editing degree two years aged 40 because, although I’ve been a technical and instructional writer for 20 years, I felt I was unable to write what I wanted, that I didn’t have the skills and abilities. I needed a ‘safe place’ to have an external eye look at my work and judge it, with an eye to making it better and uni has given me that.

    I’ve tried genres I would never have before and have found I’m not sucking as much as I used to. I’ve developed the ability to recognise where I’ve gone wrong because of the comments from my instructors and other students. The degree lets you pick electives from almost every field of writing, from romance to crime, young adult, picture books, screenwriting, documentary writing, poetry. You name, you can find an elective you could study.

    If nothing else, my degree has made me produce between 5 – 15 pieces of new, fresh writing every 13 weeks. Feedback and comments are given that allow me to make them better during edits. If I had personal confidence in my story writing ability, I probably wouldn’t have done the degree. I now have the confidence to write what I like, what I want, because I know it is getting better.

    Personally, I would always recommend someone undertake a writing degree, if only for the pressure of producing to particular styles and genres within a very tight timeframe and sometimes the weirdest prompts or boundaries. I’m lucky my degree stretches me in ways I would never have anticipated.

    Have a nice Easter if you celebrate it, Happy Chocolate Day, if you don’t.

    Nicole

    • I would say to research the degree/college first, though — many are very strongly literary-focused, which will not grant them the flexibility to produce to varying styles and genres. :D

      But yes! Otherwise, yes.

  • As a 15 year-old writer who’s just had her first poem properly published, this kinda speaks to (or shouts at!) me. Finishing things is just the worst for me, especially with my stories. I get all these ideas for characters and worlds and it’s great but then 100 or 1,000 or even in one case 10,000 words in… I get bored. And I don’t finish it. And it sucks. But I’m still learning, and writing, and doing a bit more learning and a bit more writing each day, week, year. I know it’ll take time, and I know that I need to keep at it, but damn is it frustrating sometimes. It’s nice to read something that tells me that that’s normal, and one day it’ll be very different. So I’m going to love writing half-stories about all the crazy, wonderful stuff that’s buzzing around in my head for now, and let it be. It really is good to know that being crap is okay when you’re fifteen ^_^

  • This is fantastic, excellent advice. Well said. I find that not finishing kind of kills me. It’s like getting to the last 10 minutes of a film and then being thrown out of the theatre and being tols, “I’m sorry but you cannot find out how this film ends for two years.” I am literally aching to write the ending from the minute I begin. I must be warped or something.

    Cheers

    MTM

  • Hey Chuck! As usual your words are always a smile provoking and refreshing read. Whereas I was feeling a bit frustrated and downtrodden, I now feel somewhat uplifted thanks to your encouraging advice.
    I am a 49yr. old (new) author. With 9yrs. of writing under my belt, I have produced 3 novels of varying genres. Thing with me is getting my work out there, and I don’t even mean for pay, I just mean for some honest feedback, whether my stuff’s boring or not, well written, etc.
    I can’t seem to find one honest, non-overly critical person willing to read a little of my work. But maybe this is the plight of all (most) writers.
    P.S. I realize that this was not necessarily the topic, however.

    • Dan, I’d recommend the meet-ups website and NaNoWriMo groups to meet other writers and get feedback. But, I feel the need to say, you can’t ask for honest feedback and be upset when people do critique it more than you would like. I’m really thin skinned when it comes to my work, so I understand, but learning to appreciate crits and thicken your skin to them is really important, not just for developing as a writer but also in preparing for an editor.

  • Born in the 40’s, raised in the 50’s, married in the 60’s, but, writing since I am 8 years old. I was born into a poor family, we were lucky to get a high school diploma and then it was off to work, to help the family. Still I wrote. Poems, stories, letters. The children came, I worked for AT&T, my husband was a C.C. (Certified Chef) a graduate from The Culinary Institute in Hyde Park N.Y.. Our children received their degree’s from University, they are all married and have families of their own. They all have good jobs, and do very well.
    The choice was mine, to marry and have a family. Through all of those years I kept writing. At the age of 69 I wrote a book “The Italian Thing” a humorous memoir it can be found on amazon.com. I have fulfilled a dream. I am still writing. I will be 71 in June.

    I enjoyed reading your article and the advice was great. Thank you.

  • The best article I have ever read on writing. I never heard of you before but I just signed up to follow your blog. I have placed a link to this piece on my blog, giving full credit – in hopes that other writers will appreciate it as much as I did. Thanks Chuck. Look forward to learning more from someone worthy of being a mentor and I hate fucking mentors.

  • I agree, although it’s a horrible pain to be a young and aspiring writer/artist, and not make any money from it, and get mocked by most others, even family and friends, and sort of have to bring it all out of yourself, and, and…. and…. well, yeah.

    http://www.AssafKoss.com

    • I don’t talk to my family and friends about my writing much. It’s a very long process and anybody who doesn’t do it just has no clue. I feel like if I keep talking about it, they’ll start rolling their eyes. Oh yeah, that again. A few showed interest early on but got bored when I didn’t get an agent after 2 weeks of querying. My husband and my kids are my cheerleaders, but everyone else, I’ll just surprise them when I get published with a copy of my book.

      • That’s probably a good move. I’m happy for you, that you have your hubby and kids cheering on you. :=D

        What bothers me about people responding in a negative way to aspiring authors, or artists, or artisans, is how obvious it is that only a person who had given up on their own aspirations would be this way. I keep my distance from those folk.

        • April 22, 2014 at 11:55 AM // Reply

          I’ve been doing the Artist’s Way book and she says that people who discourage you are usually frustrated creatives who aren’t pursuing their art.

  • I have been a paid writer (journalism, copywriting, travel writing) for over seven years now. I quit my last copywriting job because it sucked all the creativity right out of me. I felt so depleted. When I was younger, I wanted to be a writer so badly, I didn’t stop to think about what I wanted to write.
    I just started giving my creative writing a real go this year. I can’t afford an MFA, but I have a writing group and it’s helping me actually finish stuff. You’re right: I do suck. Seven years writing, two travel guidebooks, and I still suck.
    Some of the best writing advice I ever read is “writing is an act, not a state.” A lot of people get so tangled in “being a writer” (sigh) they forget to write, to improve, to take advice of authors who know better.
    Thanks for this. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

  • To be honest, I’m below the recommended age. I did find this useful, however, and am now excited to go back and rewrite my 11 page short story

  • I echo all that you say . . . my wife is my cheerleader, it’s just that it would be kind of nice if she had actually read some of my stuff.

  • April 18, 2014 at 3:31 PM // Reply

    That really is the nice thing about being an unpublished author. There is no expectation of what you should be writing, leaving you to write whatever you want.

  • Most poignant for me was this: “You will chase your voice like a dog chasing a car, but you’ll never catch it. Because you were your voice all along. You were never the dog. You were always the car.”

    I’ve been writing (blogging, and writing/hating/burning novels) for several years now and have only recently begun to write the way I think. It’s so much easier to get the words out when I’m not trying to be or impress someone else. I think I’ll be writing that metaphor down to keep as a reminder to stay authentic.

  • You can major in something else and take the writing and editing classes that you need to fulfill or exceed the total requirements you need to graduate. This could help some people who just can’t justify throwing the money into a B.A., but if you’re already at State U. for engineering or business, why not learn how to tell stories, too? Very serious here. You will, at some point in your life, have to tell a story, even if it’s about the robot you built, the drug you made, or the product you’re trying to sell. So learn the art of words.

  • If I tell people (including myself) that one’s first book is going to be terrible, they take it as a personal insult (esp. your’s truly). But that first *terrible* book is critical because that’s the stepping stone to better and eventually, excellent writing. Your points are excellent – thank you so much!

    Destination Infinity

  • Having a support system to keep you grounded will help the 10 things you’d like to say to writers hit home and become an agent of improvement. All writers need a healthy, thriving and honest community of supporters.

  • I’m 22 — do I qualify for this advice? :) Thanks for the great post. Especially the “you’re not that good” and the point about taste. My taste has changed a bit, but I still have some of the same core values of taste that tell me if something is good, bad, or just blah. I often feel a bit hypocritical writing reviews when I can’t write as well yet, but I consider reviews and reading part of my “research” as a writer…

  • Haha, it’s May, and I’m late to the party…but!

    To Chuck,

    You know what? I seriously wish someone had listed and told me these EXACT same things back when I was an undergrad in a ‘liberal arts’ university, back when I WAS 18 – 21 years old. Yes, I practically BREATHED all things artsy (still do), but back then I was withdrawn into a shell of not really wanting to branch out, spread my wings, and show what I can do to the world. You’ve hit the nail right on the head about people deterring young artists from trying to become artists because of how society looks at you when you espouse the interest, and how that and ‘real life’ doesn’t support it. Some of my teachers gave me weird, tilted-head stares when it came to “wanting to be a writer” or “wanting to be an artist/painter.” They told me “it doesn’t pay,” along the same lines my parents told me “that’s awesome!–just make sure you have a job along with it.” I understand that being a ‘starving artist’ is a stupid and backwards notion, and this is why I focused academically on Psychology rather than Creative Writing, but…then as I got older I noticed what happened to so many people I know who are quite seriously talented, but was so wrapped up in society’s demands to “get a real job and steady pay” that they pressed their talents to the background and never pursued them further than as hobbies, or, as my mother used to say with her crochet, “it’s done for love.”

    She’s gone now, passed away July 2013…and I miss her. I have no regrets with her being gone because I know how she felt about everything in our current life and the times, but my one biggest sadness in her being gone is that the world won’t be able to enjoy and embrace her craft–and she was a goddess at it. My Dad? He’s a great drummer, and really, he should’ve been part of a band and a lawyer. But when ‘reality’ told them to buckle down and be a “responsible adult,” the results are clear–and I’m afraid of it happening to me.

    So, between that and shitty teachers being semi-racist (being Black and drawing in an Oriental style pissed off a bunch of them, because they thought it “didn’t suit me” and was “un-inspiring”), it took me up until I’m nearly…26 (this coming October) to mentally tell them to go “fuck themselves” and do my thing WHILE still carrying a job and planning to do a PhD in Psych. So, I believe strongly in your words and the words of Ira Glass (which I’ve seen his video on YouTube when he said the exact lines you quote), and hearing those is inspiring and I wish I had heard them before now, which I truly hope is not too late for me.

    Also, yeah, about structured courses on Creative Writing–not really worth it. Unless one is seeking actual prompts and demands to make more writing material, you’re better off saving your money and looking for the writing motivation and genre research from within yourself. I was lucky to do a few courses in Stetson before graduating, as part of my double-minors, and both the Studio Art and Creative Writing courses, while useful in giving me something to do and SOME learning material, ultimately lowered my standards, shattered my resolve (for awhile), and was me just pissing about for a couple of semesters. I was either given undue high praise, no praise at all, or racist/sexist bullshit the entire time, and very little to nothing of constructive criticism or mentoring on my fiction, poetry, or screenwriting. So, I’d say one can pursue such venues, but don’t count on them giving you much more than you can provide yourself–emphasis on FOR FREE!

    I do have a small question, for a “not-so-young” anymore beginner (because I have yet to have a lick of anything writing-related published, although art is a different story)–what do you do when you’re at a wall with your writing currently because you think you need some direction? I WANT to be published, so bad I can taste it, but with the bit of feedback I’ve gotten from, say, Apex Mag and Siren’s Call Pub, it sounds as if I need beta reading or mentoring. I know sites that have beta readers and critiquers, but it’s such a long process. You gotta find the right people, and persons well-acquainted with your genre, and…asking most professional writers to mentor you is like ramming your head into a brick wall or sticking it down a toilet just to give yourself a flusher (no offense to professional writers, as I understand they’re uber busy 105% of the time.)

    What do you do?

    Again, AWESOME post…and it’s really beneficial to hear. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your realism and inspirational words.

  • July 9, 2014 at 1:37 PM // Reply

    I’m glad I got the chance to read this now! You have no idea how much better you’ve made me feel. Thank you Chuck for your great wisdom!

  • I’m so glad that I can go through and get an idea of what I need to do now, before I have even turned sixteen. In this way, I can -try- to set myself up for success as I go along, and not have to go back and restitch all of the loose threads.

  • This is AMAZING. I swear if you hadn’t told us your age (why the heck didja do that? Crazy old man) I would have thought you to be a lot younger. I think thats probably why it speaks to so many of the younger generation (well… us. I am including myself *shamefully* in that category). Thank you so very much!

  • Hi, ran across this today and I can relate to it, like, so much. I’m 21 and just decided that may be writing is not a career option for me. The light my literature teacher showed me when I was 14 of how good I was with writing seemed distant. I almost believe may be it was a lucky shot. I felt a ‘pang’ and ‘damn this is what I’m going through right now’ when I read this. Thank you for I’m now realize how normal it is to not making good stuffs. I thought I don’t have my voice, I thought I value myself too high, I thought so many negative things as my writings were unsatisfying, the unfinished stories piled up, and add up by worrying of the security this career could give in my life. Turns out I was wrong, I just didn’t do hard enough, and I’m grateful I found this today.

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