So You Want to be a Writer…
At least once a month—and just about every time I do a reading—someone asks me for advice on publishing, getting a job, getting into an MFA program, etc. Most of the time this person is already a writer, and when I see their work it’s usually pretty good, but they also always seem to be looking to take that next step and become professionals.
The problem is that I’m not sure I actually know what professional means. If there is a clear path to a writing career, I never found it. I stumbled through my first few years on some combination of luck, pluck, guesswork and industry. I wrote all the time—most of it junk—and I failed again and again and again until I didn’t. Most days, that’s still the cycle I’m in. Writing is hard, making a career of it even harder.
So here’s my first piece of advice for those wanting to become a “professional” writer. Don’t.
Seriously—don’t. You’re probably very talented, but so is everybody else. MFA programs all over America are overflowing with young, ambitious, talented writers who will never make it and who will spend the rest of their lives working crappy jobs teaching freshman comp just to pay off student loans. Give up the idea of writing as a profession, because except for a lucky few that path just doesn’t exist.
If you can do that—if you can strip yourself of any capital-R Romantic notions of winning a National Book Award, getting your work in the Norton Anthology, and watching your mailbox flood with royalty checks—you just might come to a much more important and telling truth:
Writing is not a profession; it is a calling.
Right now, the rest of your life is spread out before you. If you can imagine yourself grading the essays of football players and Ag majors every evening for the rest of your life, replacing the steak-and-caviar award dinners of your dreams with Chinese takeout in your crappy apartment; if you can imagine yourself driving the same car fifteen years at a time, forgetting about royalty checks and watching your mailbox fill with rejection slips and past due bills instead—if you can imagine all that, and the writer’s life still seems worth it, then we might have something to talk about.
If it turns out instead that the lifestyle you imagine is more important to you than the actual act of writing—well, your skills would be equally useful in law school, and that path can buy you all the steak dinners and first-class living you need.
So here, for those of you still with me, is what I know about becoming a professional. It’s not much, but it’s what worked for me…
First, write. Then read. Then write. Then read. Then write then read then read then write then write then write then read then write.
Most of what you write won’t be very good. You won’t know that on the same day you write it. Sometimes you’ll instantly fall in love with garbage. Sometimes you’ll hate what’s creeping out of your pen, but later it’ll turn into the best and most important art you’ve ever made.
If I’ve learned one thing studying the writers who have made it, it’s that they write. Whatever processes or rituals or routines they need—at the end of the day, they sit down with pen and paper (or keys and screen), and they do their job.
Anne Lamott—whose Bird by Bird is a book every aspiring writer should own—writes in her essay/chapter “Shitty First Drafts” that what is important is getting your thoughts on paper, no matter what shape they’re in. Self-censorship is the enemy. Quality comes with revision, not with drafting. You can’t really begin to apply real craft until you have something on paper to apply that craft to.
And of course, learning the craft you need to apply in revision is not something you can do by yourself. You can’t reinvent the wheel with every story/poem/essay. You would never get anything worthwhile done.
A more realistic approach is to carefully read all the writers you can who are better than you (and there will always be writers better at something than you), and learn how they work. My imagery comes from Leonard Cohen, Allen Ginsberg, Miguel Pinero, the King James Bible, and a whole host of slammers from around the turn of the century. My prosody comes from Jack Kerouac, Saul Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Bryonn Bain, Shane Koyczan, and the Baptist hymns I grew up with. My themes come from grunge music, urban spaces, the Gospel of Matthew, and all the hip-hop crossover poets—like Saul Williams and Miguel Pinero—I can find…
These lists go on, but the point is that writers write in community. If you want to grow, you will need both a living community of writers, editors and honest friends, AND a large library of truly great influences you can draw from. There’s no Ginsberg without Whitman or Blake. There’s no Shakespeare without Petrarch. There’s no tree without roots. It just doesn’t work any other way.
As for the MFA—well, that choice is yours. I chose the best possible MFA for me. Hamline University is interdisciplinary by nature, and so am I. Jim Moore—one of their flagship poets—brings big metaphor to everyday living in a way I needed to learn. Deborah Keenan—their other flagship poet—is good at all the things I’m not. I learned more from her than I could have from a thousand professors whose writing is more similar to mine.
Maybe even more important than all that, the MFA program at Hamline prides itself on faculty who can teach instead of just faculty who bring big name recognition and high visibility. This is what I needed at that point in my life.
I made my choice. You make yours. Find writers you admire, and look them up on sites like Rate My Professor to see if they can teach. When you find the faculty you need, apply to the schools they work for, regardless of reputation or location or price or any other factor. If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad…
And give up on trying to game the application. Just send them your best writing sample and your most honest essay. Don’t overthink. Let the pieces fall where they may. If the program doesn’t like what you do, you would probably not be happy there anyway.
As for the job market and the publishing game—nobody really knows how they work. Apply to places you want to work, where you’ll be surrounded by people you want to work with. Send out to journals and book publishers you admire. Find out whether or not you admire them by doing your research, reading past issues, and learning what they’ve published before.
Whatever you do, don’t lose sight of what’s important. Careerism has its place. That place is not on top of your list of priorities. Read what you read. Write what you write. Remember your calling, and trust that somehow the Universe will keep you afloat long enough to put something worthwhile out into the world.
If it can happen to me…