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.
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.