Category Archives: writing life
“Some people write for fifteen years with no success and then decide to quit. Don’t look for success and don’t quit. If you want to write, write under all circumstances. Success will or will not come, in this lifetime or the next. Success is none of our business. It comes from outside. Our job is to write, to not look up from our notebook and wonder how much money Norman Mailer earns.”
– “The Long Quiet Highway,” Natalie Goldberg
20 thoughts on what it takes and how to do it.
1. Nobody owes you time, money, or sympathy. Editors have hard jobs and need to balance a lot of concerns that writers don’t. If an editor or some other client is spending time on you, take it as a compliment. This is true for all readers of your professional work, whether they’re publishers, managers, or website owners. Any time spent on you and your writing is a vote of hope and confidence in your abilities, even if the reader is critical or has a hard-edged personality. It’s a tough business. Keep that in mind.
2. Never write for “exposure” or because someone says the job will “look good on your resume.” That is usually a mistake.
3. Don’t waste time. There are a lot of ways to do this that seem good at first. Sometimes, you have to take a risk on something that will ultimately turn out to be a wasted effort. But most of the time, money is a good test. Are you getting paid? For real? In legal tender as opposed to “exposure”?
4. Write outside your comfort zone and don’t be afraid to do research. It’s the only way to grow. Get used to pushing yourself. You should be surprising yourself at what you can do on a regular basis. How do you expect your work to impress others if it’s the same old thing putting you to sleep?
5. The truth is compelling. Try to tell it as much as possible in and about your work. Contrary to popular belief, telling what you believe to be the truth is likely to result in a higher degree of personal effectiveness.
6. Don’t complain that it’s hard. Of course it’s hard. You can always go clean carpets for a living if you can’t handle being a writer.
7. Don’t complain that you’re broke. Of course you’re broke. A writer trades social respectability and small middle-class luxuries for the big luxury of being a professional writer.
8. Play the field. No one knows you exist unless you make them know. Moreover, rejection will be a constant. The writing world communicates primarily in metaphors of loss and rejection. Remember that it will hardly ever be personal, even when people try to make it seem that way.
9. An agent is not your personal savior. An agent is a businessperson who understands how to make money in your particular field of writing. Sometimes, agents help. Other times, they’re a waste of precious time and effort (see point 3 above).
10. Always plan six months to a year ahead of time. You will hit dry spells and in freelancing there is no security net on which you can depend.
11. Avoid wasting time convincing judgmental friends and relatives that you are honest and have an actual job (see point 3 above). People will be curious about how you exist. They will often assume that you are gaming the system somehow while they have to break their backs at jobs they hate. To non-writers, it will seem like you are getting paid for doing something everybody does on a daily basis. This attitude is grounded in ignorance, but don’t tire yourself out trying to correct it. For example, if you also write screenplays and novels, it’s better not to mention it. When people hear, “I write fiction,” the first thing they’ll think is, “How come I’ve never heard of him? If he were any good, I would have.” The way to avoid people automatically concluding that you’re a loser and a failure is to stay as boring as possible: “I mostly write technical stuff.” The upside is that if you’re a freelancer for any length of time, this will be at least partly true.
12. Get sleep. This should be obvious, but early college programming dies hard. You can’t write well with a bleary mind.
13. Don’t be afraid to disappear to get work done. Time gets distorted when you’re writing intensively. What seems like a week to you might only be a few days of sustained work. Often, your friends and family won’t even notice that you’ve spent the weekend at a small table in the attic.
14. Get out and meet people. Freelancers usually prefer to write from home in their pajamas. Outdo them by dressing like a professional and offering to meet with clients. Some people won’t be interested, but some will jump at the chance to avoid having to express themselves in text (their problem in the first place). This is especially true if you soak up the travel expense. While meeting with them, take pictures, notes, recordings. Practice active listening. Stay as engaged as possible with the culture of their organization. You may also mention that you offer writing tutorials and intensives. Be a walking advertisement of all you can do for them. You will develop some very meaningful business relationships that way.
15. Accept that much of what you write will be secret. It’s called “ghostwriting” and it exists at all levels in all fields. People don’t want it known that they had to hire you because they didn’t have the opportunity or capacity to do the writing themselves. Your CV should be honest, but accept that you’ll always have done more work than you can show. This is part of your professionalism. Some of the highest paying clients will require the most discretion.
16. You don’t need to impress anybody. That’s for escorts and politicians. Your writing has to impress people. It does this by being clear, precise, imaginative, and otherwise correct as defined in your guidelines. As long as you can produce work like that, you will get a lot of repeat business.
17. Have fallback income to reduce stress. This goes beyond just saving half a year in advance. There will be times when no one wants to hire you and you’re burning through your savings while you wait for new leads. This doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It’s just the way things go sometimes. Having a secondary way to pay the rent and get your teeth cleaned will keep you sane and actually make you a better writer by giving you new experiences. It also toughens you up in a lot of different ways. Just like Aunt Fanny used to say: every artist needs a trade.
18. Give yourself assignments. Writing well takes constant practice—just like playing the viola, only the viola is the writing part of your mind. So you need to write regularly even if no one is paying you to do it. You can use those pieces later as samples if you don’t have professional clips yet. Post your uncomissioned pieces to a blog and let the world in on what you’ve been thinking about. This practice is indispensable.
19. Help other writers out when you can. “Good will” comes back to you when you least expect it. This is another hidden dimension of what it is to function as a professional. It’s also just a decent way to live. That said, sometimes helping someone out means giving an honest appraisal of their work when they ask. It doesn’t mean hurting their feelings if you can avoid doing so. Never expect others to be as tough as you pretend to be.
20. Never apologize for what you do. Your cousin, Jimmy, might imagine that all you do is sit around all day while he busts his ass at the car lot. Send him a card at Christmas and let him feel superior. He will never understand your strange world of ideas, structures, and sounds. He doesn’t need to. Not everyone can sustain the writing life (see point 11 above).
As I have said many times and in many different ways, graduate study in literature and creative writing is not easy for anyone, even in the most favorable circumstances. There is an inner, emotional, psychological, processual effort that no one talks about and an outer, technical, rhetorical, production effort that everyone takes for granted. Both of these “efforts” are difficult. They must run concurrently and consistently for satisfactory completion of your program. And no one—not advisors or fellow
students—will have the wherewithal to set aside their own problems in order to help you with yours. You are alone. You are responsible for expressing a universe of ideas in your own voice. You will accept this or fail.
If you pay attention, you will soon come to realize that your path is more or less unique—that you’re following a largely self-determined trajectory through the work. It may be partly modeled on someone else’s (such as that of a mentor with a strong personality telling you what you should be reading, writing, and thinking), but ultimately you’re making your own intellectual path by walking it. This is one of the signature characteristics of higher study in the humanities. It may be a strength.
A large part of this blog is dedicated to exploring these things, to making the implicit explicit for the good of those who feel drawn to the discipline of English studies and / or creative writing. It’s clear that I’m critical here of what I often see as hypocrisy and self-serving prevarication in greater academia. But I also disagree with the Libertarian voices currently developing the Don’t Go to Graduate School in the Humanities genre of business-oriented success advice. I think, in spite of very practical arguments to the contrary, if you feel called to study, write, and teach, by all means do it. Just don’t do it ignorantly and learn how to survive afterward so that you can keep doing it. How this unfolds in your life will be a mystery specific to your becoming.
With this in mind, I expose my own values here, my own work, which continues the inner-outer efforts I mention above. The Writing Expedition represents part of my disciplinary “production effort,” dedicated to expressing insights on what I have experienced in this field. Moreover, I think “expressing” is the right word because it implies a dichotomy. In order to ex-press something (or “squeeze out” if we want to look at the origin of the word), there must be an interior area where it already exists. An inner world. Often, a hidden world that can make the dominant scientistic discourse of reductive materialism very nervous. Like it or not, the Academy is subject to the dominant political, economic, and aesthetic tropes and discourses of the day; though, academics often find this distasteful and prefer to ignore it.
The ivory tower covered in camouflage.
It is safe to say that the Academy is an ancient type of institution that has survived to the present by appearing to be what society needs it to be in any era. Study the history of higher education in the West and it is easy to notice that the great universities have not existed in spite of what they imagine to be the barbarism and ignorance of the profane, but as a mode of cultural expression, a conglomeration of beliefs and rituals, a matrix of ideas given a particular form in the material world. In other words, the Academy is an extension of culture. It offers a product that society wants and survives by making that product seem relevant. It has always been that way; though the outer wrapper of the product is redesigned again and again to reinforce existing narratives of power and faith. In the rare times it fails to do this: Kent State, May 4, 1970.
As Martin Petersen writes of CIA tradecraft standards (intelligence agencies being very similar to universities), “We have to establish our credibility and usefulness individual by individual, administration by administration. There is no down time when it comes to quality” (“What I Learned in 40 Years of Doing Intelligence Analysis for US Foreign Policymakers,” Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 55, No. 1). Without being too cynical, we could easily convince ourselves that establishing credibility and usefulness is one of the ongoing directives of the Academy: we want to matter.
Enter: John, who also wanted to matter.
When I was in graduate school, studying creative writing and rhetoric, John, a friend of mine there who happened to be a gifted poet, went through a kind of nervous breakdown. Since no one knows what a “nervous breakdown” actually is, we can call it that or we can say he went through a season of harsh depression, anxiety, purposelessness, and emotional pain. His wife described it as a “slow-motion train wreck” and they both tried to laugh about it. But it was real and the pain he went through changed his life.
Before you even think it, I should note that this person is not me. Things may have changed for John since then, but what hasn’t changed is the high-schoolish competitiveness in our colleagues that has lingered for a long time. Since many of them read this blog, I will only tell the part of his story that everyone already knows. And I will do it for a particular reason. Nevertheless, I hope he forgives me for this and understands what I am trying to say. Knowing him, I think he will.
It started with the birth of his daughter in our second year. John had come to the PhD from a high-paying career in industry, such that he didn’t have to take out student loans and could rent a fairly large house (as opposed to the holes most of us were living in). His wife didn’t work and they were living off their considerable savings. Still, the pressure was on, partly because John now had a child to think about, but also because had an immense work ethic and he was no fool. He knew, as did we all, that there were very few full-time teaching positions available and that trying to get one (even getting an interview at AWP or MLA) was like playing the Irish sweepstakes.
Nevertheless, John applied himself, wrote good poems, said smart things, and generally did well. He was older, married, and didn’t waste his time like the rest of us at the sad graduate school parties or looking for love in all the wrong places. He had a particular energy around him that said, I know the truth and, if I don’t know, I’m sure we can discover it together. In short, he seemed like the type who should win the career sweepstakes and become an assistant professor. There should be more people like John in teaching positions. When I think of what it takes to be a great graduate student, I think of him.
But he reached a breaking point, something in his “inner process” that no longer worked the way he thought it should. The reality of being a father had become far more real and compelling than the realities he was creating as a student of English and a poet. His hair turned stark white over the course of a month and he went through a kind of existential fugue, which according to him involved a lot of crying, regret, and hopelessness. Eventually, he dropped out of the program. He moved with his wife and daughter to Arizona to live with his in-laws. And two or three years later re-entered a PhD program at a different university, this time to study British modernism. As far as I know, he’s now a professor somewhere in the Midwest and I am sure he is great.
I tell his story here because although it had an ostensibly happy ending, his dark night of the soul is one that most of us experienced on some level at some time in our work. The difference may have been that he suffered from pressures we didn’t have, destroying the credibility and usefulness of the Academy for him. I believe this as much as I believe that he also lacked certain essential qualities necessary for running those inner and outer efforts concurrently and consistently, at least the first time around.
The voice in the fire: one hears it or one does not.
A teacher of mine once made an interesting observation about “mystery.” The more one seeks out the lacunae in one’s life—the numinous moments, the noetic leaps of high strangeness that result in extraordinary creations, realizations, and states of consciousness—the more mystery seems to increase, not decrease. Seek the mysteries and you will find there are more mysterious things in this world than you ever imagined. Or maybe you will find yourself imagining more such things as you learn to accept new ways of knowing.
Conversely, if you let existing modes of expression, accepted narratives, the exoteric rituals of consensus culture (especially those of the Academy) crowd your senses, ways of knowing will become narrower; meaning will become increasingly delimited and rigid; and the dominant cultural discourses (for us, scientism and reductive materialism) will come to seem all-encompassing. This is what I believe happened to John in his first PhD program. His outer effort was strong, but his inner work was obstructed by the anxiety of feeling responsible for his family. I do not fault him for this. However, I think his experience offers us an interesting lesson.
Recall that the “inner effort” is an emotional, psychological process. It therefore partakes of mystery because interiority cannot be completely mapped. This is where the muse, the creative genius, lives. This is where we dream, where we hear that voice speaking to us about who we truly are and how we must express ourselves. It is the place artists go when they produce authentic and original work.
Funny thing about the muse. She gives and she takes. Dedicate your life to a particular mode of expression and you must always try to hear her. Your sense of the numinous will increase exponentially, but you will also have to make sacrifices. As your outer effort must concern itself with “credibility and usefulness,” your inner effort must be like a love affair with the mystery inside you, which is what we’re talking about when we refer to the inner life of an artist.
Hakim Bey discusses this in The Temporary Autonomous Zone and calls it “sorcery”:
The dullard finds even wine tasteless but the sorcerer can be intoxicated by the mere sight of water. Quality of perception defines the world of intoxication–but to sustain it & expand it to include others demands activity of a certain kind—sorcery. Sorcery breaks no law of nature because there is no Natural Law, only the spontaneity of natura naturans, the tao. Sorcery violates laws which seek to chain this flow—priests, kings, hierophants, mystics, scientists & shopkeepers all brand the sorcerer enemy for threatening the power of their charade, the tensile strength of their illusory web.
A poem can act as a spell & vice versa—but sorcery refuses to be a metaphor for mere literature–it insists that symbols must cause events as well as private epiphanies. It is not a critique but a re-making. It rejects all eschatology & metaphysics of removal, all bleary nostalgia & strident futurismo, in favor of a paroxysm or seizure of presence.
Incense & crystal, dagger & sword, wand, robes, rum, cigars, candles, herbs like dried dreams–the virgin boy staring into a bowl of ink—wine & ganja, meat, yantras & gestures—rituals of pleasure, the garden of houris & sakis—the sorcerer climbs these snakes & ladders to a moment which is fully saturated with its own color, where mountains are mountains & trees are trees, where the body becomes all time, the beloved all space.
We can just as easily speak of it in terms of embracing a wider spectrum of expression. Viktor Frankl puts it this way: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible” (Man’s Search for Meaning).
What, then, is the voice in the fire? It’s not a degree from Yale, tenure, and a tactless sense of entitlement. It’s that unmappable, ineffable interior effort, that numinous guidance system which instructs and inspires us to continue our work. It sustains us through years of advanced study, reveals the mystery inherent in the world (even in something as outwardly mundane as the sight of water), and helps us answer for our lives. If we are responsible practitioners of our art, we will listen to this voice just as carefully as we may express our work-products. If we stop listening and forget the internal process, focusing only on the external product, we will enter the dark night of the soul, which entails a lot of suffering.
This is the meaning of that famous line from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” If this is the life you choose (realizing that you have been chosen to answer for your life this way), I continue to wish the best for you.
Listen. And seek the mysteries.