I guess you’ve truly arrived as a writer when people barrage you after a reading with their book ideas. Don’t get me wrong. I’m so flattered I don’t even know where to start. Obviously, you think I know some secret to writing, some insider information that you don’t have access to. Today, I am going to tell you everything I know about writing and, I promise, I will hold nothing back.
Before you begin it’s important to know:
There’s JK Rowling, and then, there’s the rest of us. JK Rowling has pulled off the impossible. She has touched millions of children AND adults all around the world. As a result, she will spend her whole life writing and… doing whatever the heck she wants. She is a writer by trade and nothing more. There’s only one JK Rowling though, and I’m not her.
Ok, there’s Stephen King. Stephen King can write and do nothing else but that’s it!!! Stephen King, JK Rowling, and then there’s the rest of us poor saps. The reality is, even award winning authors have a second job whether it’s through freelance journalism, advertising, marketing, copywriting, or teaching. Nobody busts out the pages like Joyce Carol Oates, and she is well-decorated and well-respected. Yet, she’s always had a second job teaching and writing for magazines. This is a “hobby” for all of us who are not independently wealthy. We do it because we are passionate. Because we love it. Because there is nothing else we’d rather do. You will not earn a living through this. You will always be swimming upstream. But take heart! That, by no means, is an indication you are not a writer. In fact, not earning money at it is freeing! You only have to be true to yourself. And you will not be a writer when the money finally rolls in. You’ll be a writer whenever the heck you decide to sit down and get to work. And isn’t that a nice feeling?
That being said, here are the questions and comments I get on a semi-regular basis.
“I have this great idea but I don’t know where to start. I don’t want to tell you this great idea because I’m afraid someone will steal it and make a million dollars.”
I need you to understand this one indisputable truth about writing. Ideas are nothing, execution is everything. Don’t believe me? Consider this. There are thousands of shark movies but there is only one Jaws. And Jaws wasn’t even the first killer shark movie! The first was “Blue Water, White Death” made in 1971, four years before Jaws came out. This same “killer shark” movie has been made and remade over and over before Jaws and for years after. This is why no one could (or did) steal Jaws: Because Stephen Spielberg is a master storyteller. The reason Jaws wowed audiences is because dorky, dorky, Stephen Spielberg spent hours and hours watching and rewatching Universal “monster” movies. He saw how James Whale used music in Frankenstein, he watched Bela Legosi’s tremendously hypnotic performance. He didn’t study sharks, he studied the craft of visual storytelling. The shark is nothing. The killer shark idea is a dime a dozen. Jaws is everything. So, what Universal monster movies do you watch over and over so you can make Jaws?
The question I always ask next is, what the would-be writer reads. Who are your favorite authors? Most of the time, this is where the conversation ends because most people haven’t read since high school. There are usually a hundred reasons for this. “I don’t have time to read… Nobody writes like me… I don’t want to be influenced by other writers… I don’t like books. Most authors write crap.”
Well, we have a problem then. First off, there are a million good writers out there you haven’t even met yet. Ask yourself this, if you can’t be bothered to read their work, what makes you think anyone would bother to read yours? Believe me, I get it, there’s so much crap out there and, truly, how busy are we? Everyone I know is hustling more than two jobs in addition to whatever responsibilities they have at home. But do yourself a favor, on your day off, get a giant latte the size of your forearm and go to your local bookstore (or library). Start yanking down every title that remotely catches your eye. If you aren’t hooked by the first three pages, put it back (carefully where you found it), and get another. Do not leave the store until you’ve found something that’s got your attention. Something that’s made you smile, or sad or just caught your interest. Write down that author’s name. Read who they read. I adore the poet Ada Limon, so I read everything by her mentor Marie Howe. Then I moved on to Howe’s mentor, Stanley Kunitz. Keep following the trail that tells you how that writer became that writer. Keep reading until you know what you like and don’t like, and can say it out loud. When the pros are asked how to become a writer, every single author says “read, read, read;” but, I think there are people who just don’t believe it. There’s no way around this. You can’t study craft if you don’t know what craft is. So find out who’s good at the type of craft you like.
Still with me? Good! Maybe you are one of us! Welcome to the club! And it’s a wonderful club full of interesting people. And the best part is, we are all in the same boat. The best writers I’ve ever met face to face, from Margaret Atwood, to Maya Angelou, to T. Geronimo Johnson (who conducted the best workshop I ever attended) have immediately embraced me as a peer even though they put lightning on the page and I plow stiff rows. This is because this “second job club,” this club founded on dorkiness and raw passion is something they understand and recognize immediately. If you meet a stuck up author, remember I said this and shake them off. It probably has to do with their own social awkwardness and has nothing to do with you. The best, the heavy hitters, do it because they adore it and if you love it too, they will be kind to you. So, welcome. Glad to have you aboard.
But, sadly, I’ve never gotten this far in the “I want to be a writer” conversation, not after I’ve read my own work anyways. What I’d love to talk about is how many pages you’ve got, what you feel the hang-up is, your ups and downs. I live for these conversations with other writers. When they happen, they give me life. But, outside of my residency in my MFA program, I don’t usually have these conversations and here’s the reason why I think this is:
Everything I’ve said here would be evident if you’d done even a cursory Google search about how to be a writer. Or “How do writers become writers?” And it scares me if you haven’t done a preliminary Google search. Or if you don’t have any pages yet. Or if you don’t read and have no plans to.
This is what scares me if you haven’t read the masters in your genre, or when I direct you to resources, you don’t write them down. Instead, you keep looking at me, as though there’s some secret I still haven’t told you: The reason I’m scared of people who want to write but have no pages may be the secret to writing; it may be the one thing you don’t have that I do. That’s self-discipline. No. That’s not it. Not really. It’s the ability to work independently. The ability to work even though no one is saying, “Good Job.” The ability to keep working even though you don’t know if you’re on the right track or not. Most of our jobs rely on top down authority and believe me, I know how hard it is to get out of this mindset. There’s no longer any top down authority with writing; the old editor/writer/agent relationships seem to be a thing of the past. In this modern, digital age, you have to fight for your right to write. You have to turn off the TV. Believe me, I LOVE TV. But I have to turn it off to write. You have to carve out time. You have to sometimes turn down fun with friends at the last minute because you’re on a roll and don’t want to break your concentration. You have to finish story after story, poem after poem, knowing most of them will never be read. And if you can’t do that, if you haven’t done that yet, I’m worried that being a writer may not be your thing. Because the ability to work independently is the one thing, the one super-secret writing trick, that’s really worked for me.