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Not Writing Is Your Alligator

By

An open letter to a very young writer from a not-much-older writer.

Every year or so I find myself reaching for a book or essay about what it means to be a writer. I do this to find a little comfort or advice, some reassurance that this life spent pouring countless hours into my laptop is not as insane and hopeless as it sometimes feels. I expect that many people on non-traditional creative career paths find themselves doing this every once in a while; how, we wonder, do we get our creative lives and our actual lives to cooperate, to maybe even earn a modest living?

These kinds of books and essays are usually from a writer who is many decades, books and awards into their career. Here is someone who has at least figured out something about a profession that, as Steinbeck said, “…makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.”

And then, a few months ago, I got this email:

Hello Catherine,

I don’t know if you ever check this email address  but it doesn’t really matter. I had to write to you, even if you never read it. I hope that makes sense. Ok, first off, Hi. I’m Michael. I’m 19, I live in the small, old city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. To cut to the chase, I found one of your blurbs on brownbunnymagazine.com. Then the one on hotmetalbridge.org. I cannot explain it any other way except that I was drawn into your writing….

I discovered a passion for writing, especially creative writing, when I was about 8. Right now I have my metaphorical ‘foot’ or even more appropriate, ‘toe’, dipped into the terrifyingly cold water that is picking a college. Pitt, Full Sail, Penn State, etc. I want to write. Despite the advice offered to me by parents (who would rather see me go to school for accounting or something), I can’t refuse this passion of mine. I need to write.

Hopefully someday I could be a self-supported writer. Someday.

I’m working on a book right now. I am completely over my head and loving every second of it. I just wanted to let you know I really like, and appreciate your writing. I just connect with it. I would really cherish any advice and/or knowledge you have as an established writer that I understand and connect with.  With that said, I hope this finds you well. Have an awesome easter weekend and I hope I hear back from you soon!

Sincerely, Michael.

Me? He wants me to give him advice? But why? I still have no idea what I am doing. Then I realized that I did, at least, have eight more years of a writing practice that had run in tandem with a life of odd jobs, graduate school, starting a business, traveling, etc. I thought about an anecdote my friend Daniel once told me about what happened when Ian McEwen was asked to give advice to a young writer just starting out. He simply said, “Be successful.”

Maybe a slightly older peer could better explain how to navigate the swamp of those first years than someone who has the momentum of acclaim behind them. Intending to write Michael a quick, encouraging paragraph, I soon realized I had a lot more to say.

***

Michael!

Thank you so much for getting in touch. As I’m sure you know, writing is mostly internal and a little lonely as it requires long hours of working on stuff that may or may not be read by anyone. It is so unbelievably nice to hear from anyone who has connected with anything I’ve written. You didn’t have to take the time to be so encouraging and sweet, but you did, so, thank you.

And congratulations to you for finding something to do that makes you happy! I am always surprised and saddened by how many thoughtful, smart, interesting people feel they are not passionate about anything. It’s good to remember that the ability to have a passion is a tremendous gift, not a given, in this life. Also–it’s awesome that what you love to do is as portable, self-informing and as useful as writing. Just imagine if what you loved to do was glassblowing! You’d be tied to your studio and it would be costly and cumbersome for you to send work to other people and it would be difficult to use your glass blowing skills to get any job outside the glassblowing world. Fortunately this is not so with writing. You can do it anywhere. You can send your work quickly across the world. Your writing skills are helpful in a myriad of professions (copy-writing, editing, teaching, grant-writing, journalism, etc.) Furthermore, your writing can be a powerful means of self-discovery and reflection. Sometimes your hands will take over and write something that you didn’t even know that you believed until you see it on the page. To be blunt: it’s some powerful shit.

Now, some of the bad news. Most likely, the first few years you are focused on writing as an adult, it will be difficult to find people who want to listen to you. Some people mistake all the rejection they get at the beginning of their writing life as a sign that it is impossible for them to be an artist, but if you are sure that the act of writing in itself is what makes you happy, don’t misinterpret a difficult beginning as a de-legitimization of your passion. Those rejection slips from magazines, editors and agents or the empty stares of your workshop peers mean a combination of two things: You haven’t found your voice yet and you haven’t found your audience yet.

So these are the first two missions of being a young writer: Find Voice. Find People.

1. Find Voice.

First of all, I dislike the phrase “finding your voice,” but I’m going to use it anyway because the alternatives aren’t much better, so here are some things I find helpful in relation to voice-finding and maintenance.

Right now you are nineteen years into an American, male, twenty-first-century life and I hope they’ve been good, loving, book-filled years. Your experiences, insights and your particular way of witnessing life are just as valid (no more, no less) than every other person who has ever been on this planet including Shakespeare, Grace Paley, Homer, JD Salinger, Jean Rhys, Nabokov, Truman Capote, Mary Gaitskill and every writer you look up to and every one else, ever, living and dead. The difference between you and the writers you admire is partly the fact that they have had very different lives than you’ve had, but the primary difference between their writing and your writing is a lot of work.

I believe (and this may be just absolutely false according to a neuroscientist or someone else who knows more about this than me) that a talent for writing isn’t so different from a desire to write. If you really love to write and you desire to do it and you do it as much as you possibly can despite all fear, you will develop skills that people will look at and say, “Oh, well, he’s just naturally talented.” What they don’t notice is that you’ve been spending lots of time stashed away in your room busily working to get that “natural talent.” Maybe some people get there faster; that might be true. There are prodigies. There are people who produce astronomical amounts of quality work from the first day they decide to write. But these people are outliers and if you are not one of those people, do not fret. Most of us are just working as hard as we can to get anything done and we’re throwing away a lot of crap on the way there.  Talent = Work + Desire + The ability to smell shit in your own work.

A little more on this smelling-of-shit business: When you over-write or under-write or write something that is just boring or stiff or whatever, you might not immediately notice it. This is you not smelling your shit. When you read back over your work and read a sentence that is over written, under written, boring, stiff or whatever and you recognize it– Congratulations! You have just smelled your shit. Get rid of it. If you want to actually reach people through your work you have to translate all those experiences and thoughts and insights into a language that other people can understand. This might sound easy and sometimes it does happen easily, but more often than not it takes a long time to get right. This is partially what I mean by voice.  The way your life and feelings are balled up in your brain right now will probably take some detangling before they’re ready for other people to effectively consume. If you just put things down on the page the way they immediately come out of your head and you don’t sufficiently translate this into a language for others, your reader will just kind of scratch his head and feel a little alienated. The reader will probably see that you you’re trying really hard to connect, but if the message is garbled by too much navel-gazing or too many thesaurus words or too much self-consciousness or over-writing, you will frustrate your reader. Please don’t do that! It’s very kind of your reader to sit there and be receptive to a connection between the two of you. When that connection isn’t being made, it’s an almost painful kind of sad, like talking to someone over the phone who has a bad connection. (Can you hear me now? What about now? No? Oh, dear. Gosh. Um, I guess call me back later…? Bye? Can you hear this?)

If you’ve been reading good books for a while now this will help you smell the shit in your work, but here’s an exercise: Let’s say you believe you have just finished a short story. Great! Put it away for at least a month (depending on how long you’ve been working on it) and go work on something else. Now read that story again. Still holding up? Have someone else read it, preferably someone who isn’t related to you, sleeping with you, or invited to your last birthday party. (More on good editors later.) Now maybe see if one of the million online literary magazines will publish it and hope that somehow someone will read it and feel connected and happy and satisfied. Maybe that will happen, but if it doesn’t yet that doesn’t mean anything. It just means you need to keep working and if you keep working it will happen and it will be great.

Another crucial thing for finding your voice is reading. I’m sure you’ve heard this, and if you already know this, skip this paragraph. Still here? Ok. For Christssake, read! Read read read read read and then find the authors you really admire the most and read every single thing they’ve written, in chronological order if possible. Here’s a story: once  I read a novel that  knocked me on my face in a way that had never happened to me before. I laughed. I cried, etc etc. I immediately went and bought all of the author’s previous books and read them. The author’s first novel just barely resonated with me.  There was something impressive and smart about it, but emotionally it didn’t feel alive. The second one was kind of good, but sort of washed away after I read it. I can barely remember a scene. It seems like only then, after writing two books and certainly doing a lot of work before those 2 books, that this author seems to have hit a stride and become very good at connecting with readers. That disappointing (to me) first novel? I keep it near my writing desk, not so I can read it, but so I can be reminded that often you must put in a lot of work before you find your more expansive, more connected voice.

Your best writing voice is not selfish. If you write something because you want to impress people that piece of writing will probably not be very good (but it might!). Regardless, you’re better off if you keep true to your voice, if you write what makes you happy, if you write the kinds of stories and books you’d like to read.

Still, despite all the work you put into “finding your voice” (cringe) some days you will sit down to do some work and your voice will not be there. You might want to say, “What the fuck, Voice? I’ve worked really hard to get you here and I’ve got seven part-time jobs to support you and we’ve got three spare hours until we need to leave the house for one of those jobs and you’ve got the nerve to not show up? Fuck you, Voice. Fuck you so much.” I encourage you not to say this to your voice. Your voice may start moping around the house if you do that. It may not want to get out of its pajamas. It may start subsisting on breakfast cereal. If your voice doesn’t show up to work one day you just have to sit there and pound out some work anyway. It might help if you read a story or a piece that you know is one of your favorites. This will sometimes help coax your voice out of her hiding place. But getting angry at her won’t help. You know why? Because you, writer, are your voice’s bitch. But if she’s cared for, she will care for you.

Everything good in the world has the potential to show up in your writing, but guess what also lives in your writing? Your self-doubt. Guess what else? Your desire to give up. And what else? Yes, that’s right: Fear. All kinds of fear. Fear cake covered in fear icing served with a glass of fear. And fear is some potent stuff, but it’s not all bad.

Yes, fear can be limiting. It can be what makes you not want to work on that hot-mess-of-a-novel and it can make you not want to talk to that cute red-headed gal who seems to not notice you exist and sometimes fear just makes you not even want to get out of bed.

But if you re-orient yourself to your fear it can be motivating. Let’s say you’re walking down the bucolic streets of Lancaster and an alligator comes out of nowhere and starts chasing you; I’d bet your fear of that alligator’s teeth would be pretty good fuel for running.

But since alligators don’t live in Lancaster and you are a writer and probably not being chased by anything at this moment, your alligator is Not Writing. And you need to run from that alligator. You need to write your alligator into oblivion. Everything else will happen on its own time as long as you keep writing.

 

2. Find Other People.

That’s probably enough or (maybe too much) about finding the particular way that you can best tell a story.  Now, who is going to read it? Well, people are. People who are maybe something like you, but if you’re doing it right people who don’t seem to have anything in common with you will be connecting with your work, too.

Before you have an audience, it helps to have some kind of collection of people you can get reactions from about your work. It helps if these people are also writers, maybe also just starting out or maybe a step or two ahead or behind you. Since you’re about to go to college, your writing community will likely form there, though keep in mind it may take a little time to find it.

A ready-made writing community that has been both loved and contested by many (often in the same breath!) is the writing workshop. Sometimes the writer who is receiving critiques gets a lot of helpful stuff, sometimes you get nothing. The dirty secret about workshops is that it is pretty rare you get any brilliant ah-ha moments about your own work during the critique. No one is going to shoot your manuscript with some golden bullet. I always found the experience of being workshopped as if my brain was getting this almost painful bear hug, one where my circulation was being cut off in places, but then after my turn was over and the blood was returning to my metaphorical limbs, I often found that it shook something out of me. When I returned to edit the manuscript I had a different energy for it.

The real advantage of the workshop experience, if you’re open to it, is the chance to edit other people’s work. Your inner Editor is the conjoined twin of your Voice and if you strengthen your Editor, you will strengthen your Voice. When you look at a manuscript of a peer and find yourself  circling the parts you’re enjoying and Xing the parts you’re not enjoying you are building up your own taste. You are learning what you like and what you dislike and you’re deciding how to make a piece great on your own terms. It’s often much easier for us to access the taste of our Voice/Editor when we’re looking at other people’s work. That’s because your ego is not on the line and you can slather your red ink all over the place knowing that you’re not going to have to clean up the mess. This is a double-edged sword, though, because if you criticize without finding the merit of a piece, your peers will do the same to you and then the workshop just gets ugly and people start saying yo-mamma insults and bringing voodoo dolls to class and spitting in each others’ coffee cups when they’re not looking. Just kidding! It’s never like that, at least not exactly.

Depending on how comfortable your peers are with the workshop format (either a natural comfort or one built from experience) you may or may not have a natural flow in the workshop. All of this can be saved by a good teacher. A good workshop teacher knows how to steer discussions when they need it and knows when and how to add her or his opinion and if he or she is really, truly awesome, you will get some great guidance on your work from him or her.

Creative Writing teachers, almost unilaterally, are gentle souls. Whether at a community college or an expensive one, adjunct or tenured– they are often underpaid, under-appreciated and often don’t have enough time during the semester for their own work. Most of them are doing this because they actually care about young writers to some degree. They want to see you grow and they want to learn from you. I think many teachers secretly hope they discover some amazing young writer-in-progress in their classroom. If you put in the work and show them you’re serious, you will most likely be taken under their wing in some way, or at least under the wing of their office hours.

Of course I can’t guarantee this will happen. Teachers are people, too. Yours may be having a bad year or a series of bad years. If this seems to be the case, don’t take it personally and see if you can find a mentor elsewhere. A creative writing group. The local literary magazine. An older student whose work you admire. Or, hell, start your own group.

If the people at your college or in your life don’t seem to care about writing the way you do, then count yourself lucky that it is 2012 and you have the Internet. Writers (ones just starting out, established ones, ones floating in the middle) are all over the internet. See if you can hash out some kind of community online. Maybe it’s a listserv that a few young writers like yourself can share their work and work they’re liking lately. Maybe it’s as simple as just diligently following the work being posted in an online lit mag (try Wigleaf or Everyday Genius or elimae.)  Maybe there is some website or websites you go to and read and comment on. Endless Internet writer friendships have turned into real-life Internet friendships. This is easier if you live in the same city as these people (part of the reason New York is so darned convenient) but significant writer communities happen on the Internet all the time.

A danger to the workshop setting is that sometimes you get so close with your fellow workshoppers that it’s hard for you to read their work without hearing it in their voice or imbuing it with a conversation you had with them or just feeling unable to criticize it because you like them so darn much.

This, I think, is sometimes a problem in MFA writing programs; unlike undergraduate workshops where you may or may not know, or have the chance to get to know, your fellow workshoppers, in an MFA you are almost morally obligated to become friends with some or all of them. Your MFA peers first seem like they are great editors (and many of them may be!) but then you start hanging out with them and sleeping with them and inviting them to your birthday parties and then all of a sudden they are actually really great friends of yours and sometimes when this happens it’s hard to critique this person’s work for what it is. (This won’t necessarily be a problem you run into, but in my experience it has been often true. But there are times that close friends and loved ones can be good editors, or good editors can turn into friends and stay good editors. If you find a person like this never ever let them out of your sight again because they are literary leprechauns and they will escort you to greatness.)

Keep in mind that these people who you are trying your work out on are practice for the anonymous people who are going to read your work in the future. You don’t get a chance to defend your work to them. You don’t get a chance to explain what you really meant by that convoluted metaphor about a flyswatter and a rowboat. Nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing in a story meant for others will matter if it only makes sense to you. You must find the way (through time and practice and lots of deleting) to translate all those experiences and feelings and thoughts into words that can reach other people.

3. (Bonus!) What are you going to do?

Some thoughts about making money: Like any other writer I fantasize about sitting in my well-lit office eight hours a day, contentedly transcribing this on-going dialogue I have with myself as fat checks are pushed through the mail slot, which my lovely creative professional husband will take to the bank to deposit on his way home from picking up our darling, well-behaved children from soccer practice, after which we will sit in some patch of freshly cut grass and express our gratitude that we are so lucky to be a family supported entirely by income from the arts. But children, we know, are not always darling and well-behaved and lovely creative professional husbands often forget to go to the bank and it’s rare that anyone can write for eight hours a day and fat checks are mostly found elsewhere.

From school and living in New York long enough I know a lot of writers who everyone would consider highly successfully, but almost none of them subsist on writing alone. Many teach, but plenty do other things, often an assortment of other things. I’ve worked and continue to work a ridiculous assortment of odd jobs, but the ones that have worked the best have allowed me to have mornings free to write. For others they’d rather have nights free. Some just need a couple afternoon hours. A lot of teachers I know barely even write during the school year and then work their asses off during the summer. You will find what works for you. Patience, above all, is what you need, when it comes to finding the right lifestyle for yourself as a writer, because even when you are not writing you can still be actively taking notes and reading. (Did I mention reading? You should be reading as much if not more than writing right now. Also, a really old dude once told me that I should walk as much as I write, and I also tend to agree.)

But know, also, that even when you reach some level of success, even when you publish a story that reaches some total stranger who emails you out of the blue you will still crave to do it again and again and again. There is no endgame. You must be alive at your desk and know that it will not always be pleasant (though sometimes it will be) but pleasantness is not the point. If you love to be challenged, then your desk is your oasis of challenge. And remember you are a writer for the process of writing first and foremost. We all are running in a pack from our alligators.

***
Rumpus original art by Rachael Schafer.


Catherine Lacey is a 2012 NYFA Fiction Fellow and has published fiction and nonfiction with The Believer, The Harper Perennial Anthology 40 Stories, The Atlantic, Cousin Corinne's Reminder, Brooklyn Magazine and others. She is a founding owner of a cooperatively run bed and breakfast in Brooklyn, 3B. More from this author →