Tuesday, March 31, 2015

How to give advice about how to become a writer

My second novel is being launched this Saturday, a year and a half after the first. I launched the first book at an art gallery; there was wine and cheese; I read a few stories and then held a Q&A session. This book launch, we’re having at a bar. There will be pizza. There will not be Q&A. I guess it’s kind of like some people with children: the first child is the precious little baby and the second child—the second child is the really, really fun one. (Guess which one I am.)

Part of the reason I’m eschewing the Q&A session is nobody really enjoys the Q&A session, not the writer nor the audience (and probably not the people serving pizza). The questions are all the same, not because people are so unoriginal but because there just isn’t all that much you can ask at these things. I used to dread the inevitable “what advice do you have for aspiring writers” question until I realized that the person asking was usually just being nice, trying to fill the awkward silence that follows the announcement of “Q&A.” Nobody who has ever been asked that question has anything truly useful to say. Half the time they say things aspiring writers pretty much already know, and the other half they don’t really answer the question at all but simply go on a cranky rant which often begins the same way as Lorrie Moore’s popular short story “How to Become a Writer”: “First try to be something, anything, else.”

This is supposed to make aspiring writers understand just how much suffering the experienced writers have endured in their quest for authorship, you see. Except … that’s crap. Yeah, you suffer as a writer, just like you suffer as a marathon runner, but it’s a suffering you bring upon yourself, willingly, because you like it and because you can. Ergo, this is not truly suffering, nor is it “crazy,” as writers and runners often like to call it in the secretly self-congratulatory manner of people who want to be thought of as bold and daring and extreme. It’s the pursuit of something that gives you pleasure. I call that privilege, not pain.

After the initial dire warning about how becoming a writer is synonymous with becoming an embittered alcoholic debt-ridden misanthrope, the cranky ranter then takes on The Ultimate Evil, a.k.a. the MFA. My goodness, it’s hard to believe how much people despise MFA programs. It’s a little like hating, oh, I don’t know, say, the little “26.2” stickers marathon runners put on their cars. Yeah, sure, I suppose it’s irksome, but really, how much damage is it doing in the grand scope of things? A diploma with “MFA in Creative Writing” on it is just about as impressive as a 26.2 sticker, which is to say not really much at all, and what’s more, the people who have these things already know this. I can’t speak for other runners, but I took up running because the place where I live has almost no elevation change whatsoever. I didn’t do it to impress people, and indeed anyone who has ever seen me running probably feels more pity than awe. As for my creative writing degree, well, at one point in my life I hated my job so much I actually tried to get picked for jury duty. That was the point when I realized I might as well go back to school.

I do understand why some writers go on these cranky rants, why they reject pep-rally chants of “You can do it! Don’t give up! It’ll happen, just you wait!” In writing, as with many things, it isn’t the most talented people who succeed; it’s the most persistent. That’s good in some ways, but it’s also a little dismaying because it means a lot of brilliant writing will never be read by anyone while heaps of dreck will hit best sellers’ lists just because the dreck writers didn’t give up. At the same time, is this really something to wring hands over? The truth is the number of bad writers who will become household names is about the same as the number of good writers who will do so—that is, almost none of them. Encouraging writers who don’t care about “craft” or don’t read “great books” or blindly join the herds in the MFA corrals is not likely to unleash any more “shiterature” (made that up myself, I did) on the world than has already gone off leash. After all, cranky-rant writer, do you really imagine your encouragement or disparagement is going to make a difference?

But of course you do. That’s why you write.

Since I’m not doing Q&A at my reading, I won’t be able to give my advice on this topic, and while I could do it here, I won’t. For anyone out there who really wants to know how to become a writer, I’ll let you find out yourself. Then maybe someday we can all compare notes over wine and cheese—or pizza. It’ll be fun.


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