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How To Be A Writer
July 16, 2011 7:47 PM   Subscribe

How To Be A Writer
posted by Trurl (107 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yes, but there's a class that teaches that, right?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:53 PM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've been a professional writer of one stripe or another my entire adult life. It's not nearly so romantic or difficult as lists like this make it seem. Practice, find mentors, study, don't quit. Same as almost anything else worth doing.
posted by Bookhouse at 7:56 PM on July 16, 2011 [21 favorites]


This is a weird post. I'm not going to go negative, but I've read advice like this 100 times before, and it always reads as reasonable, but that whole post can be boiled down to, "Don't be a crappy parent and encourage your kids." There's pretty much nothing a parent can do to "make" their child do anything. The converse also holds true. If a kid wants to be a writer pretty much nothing you can do will stop him.

My only other comment is that her own writing credit seem a bit lacking.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:58 PM on July 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


you're forgetting the very important lying face-down on the ouch immobile for hours on end
posted by The Whelk at 8:11 PM on July 16, 2011 [21 favorites]


couch ouch it's more or less the same thing

(goes to sit on the floor in the dark in the bathroom and rock back and forth)
posted by The Whelk at 8:12 PM on July 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


I am not a writer, but I have a theory that the best writers have had the most extraordinary life experiences. It gives them fuel, makes them real. Sitting in a quiet corner and working the same job as everybody else is not a way to build up a repertoire of things to write about.
You could argue that this is "method writing" rather like method acting, growing your emotional memory.
posted by niccolo at 8:14 PM on July 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


I thought lying face down on one's ouch was a yoga thing.
posted by louche mustachio at 8:15 PM on July 16, 2011 [8 favorites]


Isn't it weird (assuming you're old like me) how people growing up now will be writing their entire lives. On handheld metal machines. In tiny bites. But having to come up with complete, understandable thoughts without the benefit of body language. And even if we used phones a hell of a lot, at least we had tone of voice.
Sorry. Back to your regularly scheduled thread now.
Metafilter: lying face-down on the ouch immobile

posted by Glinn at 8:15 PM on July 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Writing is its own reward.

This is so deeply untrue I don't even know where to begin with it.
posted by pts at 8:20 PM on July 16, 2011 [25 favorites]


This is all very good advice for someone looking to write Hallmark cards.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 8:24 PM on July 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


Who the f*** would want to be a writer?
posted by philip-random at 8:24 PM on July 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'd add to that:

Lose control at least once in your life-- probably under the influence of something.
Fall in love, get your heart broken.
Use someone, break their heart.
Get arrested and spend time in a holding cell...try to avoid the shit where you go to jail.

...of course, that's not advice you give to the mom of an aspiring writer. That's advice you give to the aspiring writer.
posted by Ct314 at 8:25 PM on July 16, 2011 [7 favorites]


Writing is its own reward.

Well, it is if you don't get paid for it. Let's be real -- no one who asks for advice on becoming a writer who is over ten years of age is asking for advice on how to write. They're asking for advice on how to write and not have to do anything else and still be able to eat. Better yet, they're asking for advice on how to write and not have to do anything else and eat really, really well.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:27 PM on July 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


I am not a writer, but I have a theory that the best writers have had the most extraordinary life experiences.

I'd amend that by saying that best writers tend to have extraordinary inner lives. For every swashbuckling globetrotting adventurer like Hemingway, there are many Jane Austens who outwardly may seem to have led unremarkable lives. Extraorindary life experiences can provide seeds for the imagination, but it's the inner light of the mind that burns brightly in the banal days and lonely nights of working and writing.
posted by Pantalaimon at 8:28 PM on July 16, 2011 [16 favorites]


I met a mother recently whose daughter was invited to a famous software company's summer program that introduces high school students to high tech. The daughter is super smart, great in math and science. She didn't want to attend the program because what she really wants to do is become a writer. Her mother supported her decision. Now, that may have been an OK stand to take, but as her mom was telling me this with a huge, proud smile and I nodded encouragingly, inside my head I was screaming "What the heck is she going to write ABOUT???" and "The world needs more women writers in technology!"
posted by girlhacker at 8:31 PM on July 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


If I had to point to anything from my Actual Writing For Real it would be "Make lots of friends" and "get AMAZINGLY lucky, like you have NO IDEA".
posted by The Whelk at 8:32 PM on July 16, 2011 [11 favorites]


My initial reaction to this post was to be offended by its banality but now I'm wondering if the advice is even relevant. Everyone younger than me has been writing and publishing online since for most of their life. If I can barely get through a short story without turning or clicking away, imagine hwo the attention span of the next generation will manifest. Where I aimed for pith to avoid cramp, your little sister does so because the medium demands it. Where I still hesitate to "publish" a potentially great observation because I just can't get the words right, your nephew types lazily and clicks "share" and the world gets a new idea.

The world is different now. Sitting outside at night under the stars is nice, but when was the last time you saw stars?
posted by doublehappy at 8:32 PM on July 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


Don’t freak out when she shows you stories about Bella Swan making out with Draco Malfoy.

What!? No, that's disturbingly wrong. No, not the gratuitous world-mixing. Draco is secretly madly in love with Harry and he'd never make out with an empty-headed codependent pushover like Bella. That's just ridiculous.
posted by loquacious at 8:34 PM on July 16, 2011 [22 favorites]


but when was the last time you saw stars?

*looks outside*

well there's--

oh

i imagine that metaphor was terribly clever
posted by LogicalDash at 8:35 PM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Step 1: Be Interesting
posted by LogicalDash at 8:37 PM on July 16, 2011


How To Be A Book Writer
by
Mike Mongo

Foreward
Thanks, professional support. And wife husband kids. And cute named friends. But most of all, Mom and Dad or inspiration. I couldn't have done it without you.
Signed,
Mike
Wherever I am
Today

Introduction
You can write! Here's a story. And that's how I did it. You can, too. Read on.

Chapter 1
Wake up. Schedule time to write. Any time. No distractions. Force yourself to write. Stick to the schedule. Stick to the regiment. The muse will show up. No matter, write as if it has. Just schedule time, be there, write the entire time, and stick to it without distractions.

Chapter 2
Coffee, sodas and diet colas, cigarettes or grass. Yes or no. Remember, "write drunk, edit sober".

Chapter 3
Back up your work. Frequently, like every five minutes. Or else make a copy of it. But don't let it out of your hand if you take it anywhere. Not for a second. Not for one second. Not for a single second.

Chapter 4
Outlines are good. Manuscripts are good. Drafts are good. Working copies are good.

Chapter 5
Famous relatives. If it's your mom or dad and they're a famous writer you're almost certainly out of luck. Don't let that stop you. However, if one or both of your parents are writers but only so-so famous ("Hi Dad") there's a good chance you may do at least as good as they have done if not better!

Chapter 6-9
If needed. See: Chapter 10—Editor, we all need one.

Chapter 10
Editor, we all need one.

Chapter 11
You did it! The End.

Epilogue/Afterword
Sometimes, a final thought or consideration. And it's usually a fine-point that either ties things together....

....or leaves it open for more.

About the Author
posted by Mike Mongo at 8:38 PM on July 16, 2011 [24 favorites]


True, I've read this advice a thousand times as well, but it always misses the crucial issue. When someone asks, "how do I become a writer," what they are really asking is, "Who do I need to make contacts with in order to submit and sell my writing." And the authors of these pieces know this, and simply pretend not to understand so that they may write trite pieces about how, really, you just gotta keep writing.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:39 PM on July 16, 2011 [13 favorites]


I think the long list of recommended lifestyle choices was written just to satisfy the type of people who aren't satisfied with her first answer, which was indeed correct: read a lot and write a lot. These are the people who need an agenda, a to-do list, and who (I suppose) find the idea of giving their child the liberty to make their own decisions anathema. So you spoon-feed nonsense about cabins in the woods and sitting out under the stars so that mom can make a checklist - "Stars - check. What's next?"
posted by MShades at 8:42 PM on July 16, 2011


I am a writer and I would like to know how to not be a writer. Thanks in advance.
posted by condiments at 8:42 PM on July 16, 2011 [21 favorites]


I know how to write. What I don't know is how to get fucking paid for it.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:44 PM on July 16, 2011 [29 favorites]


How To Be A Writer: If you don't finish this story SO MANY PEOPLE WITH LAWYERS ARE GOING TO STAB YOU WITH KNIVES IN THE THROAT
posted by The Whelk at 8:46 PM on July 16, 2011 [15 favorites]


I hope none of my friends are friends with me because they think it'll lead to future success. I mean, not because that'd make me feel used or whatever, but because man are they in for a shock.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:49 PM on July 16, 2011 [7 favorites]


Everything I know about writing I learned from The Unstrung Harp.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:57 PM on July 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


Don't forget the part about the sunscreen.
posted by eyeballkid at 9:00 PM on July 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Writing is Step Two to becoming a writer. Step One - sadly, the step most overlooked - is reading. Reading widely, seriously, and deeply. Reading historically. Really delving into the language you plan to master (which is already nominally 'your own', but reveals itself as a medium in the works of masters). Learning, questioning. Developing discernment - the ability to differentiate a brilliant sentence from a merely 'very good' or workmanlike one. Really understanding your likes and dislikes on a technical level.

And writing as you go. Writing a lot.

I was always struck by the way in which my father (an extraordinarily good writer) was able - casually, and so deftly - to weave together various levels of language in a single sentence or paragraph - usually for comic effect. This is because he had read ... for the purposes of this post, "everything", and had mastered the alchemy of English.
posted by ferkit at 9:06 PM on July 16, 2011 [7 favorites]


I'm planning on telling any future Tiny Stardusts to go get a real job first and then if they really want to write, they'll find a way. For Zombie Jesus' sake don't try to make a career out of literary writing and don't get an MFA. Don't wait until you're 30 and owe loads in student loans to realize you have a Master's degree in being unemployable. If you really have something to say, it'll still be there once you've got a stable life.

Then again, they will probably rightfully dismiss this as me projects my regrets all over them.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 9:08 PM on July 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


Err, *projecting*
posted by Kitty Stardust at 9:09 PM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think what I feel is missing from these pieces is the next step after writing a lot.

Edit. Edit, edit, edit. After you write, you need to check your writing to see if it's any good. If it's not, determine if what you're trying to write is worth the work that comes after writing. Learn to cut the things that aren't saying what you wan to say, improve the things that say what you want to say, but are doing so badly.

Learn to throw things away when they don't work. Learn to keep the parts of bad ideas and bad writing for another time.

Also, learn to take criticism and rejection.
posted by xingcat at 9:16 PM on July 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


How To Be A Writer:

Sit around feeling like you are The Worst and Will Never Amount to Anything and No One Is Ever Going To Care About This Anyway And You Will Die Alone And Unremembered.

Force yourself to write a few sentences.

Check your email.

Repeat.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:20 PM on July 16, 2011 [13 favorites]


This FPP and every comment that follows are made from 100% post-consumer recycled content.
posted by Nomyte at 9:20 PM on July 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


It took me a long time to figure out how to be a writer. You have to be a professional about it. And a professional will do for money, what he will not do for any other reason.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:22 PM on July 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


While this has always summed it up for me in an I'm kidding but not really kidding way, the thing my would-be writer friends always struggle with is, at some point, you actually have to sit down and do the writing. Not creating Facebook fan pages for your future published author self or posting on your blog about all the writing you want to do or angsting on Google+ about writer's block. And it took me a while to figure it out, too.

It's there. You just have to go in and get it. Sometimes, it's like digging a diamond mine with your bare hands, but it's in there. You have to go in and do the hard work of writing day after day after day until the thing is done, and that's where 90% of the would-be novelists I know fall down. They're waiting for someone to parachute out of the sky, recognize their latent brilliance, and hand them a 3 book contract.

I'd say 5% of the remaining can't take anything resembling criticism and recoil back into their shells the first time they get a document back from an editor that looks like it's been used in the slaughter of animals.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:22 PM on July 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


Step One: Completely second guess everything you think and ruthlessly analysis your choices and grind them down to a basic nub while maintaining constant guard against ego.

Step Two: Believe fully and with complete enthusiasm and conviction that you have any ability or anything new to say despite rejection and criticism as ceaseless and unreasonable as the tides and your own merger position in the world and universe.

Step Three: Stare unblinkingly into the middle distance for a while.

Step Four: ????

Step Five: PROFIT!
posted by The Whelk at 9:27 PM on July 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


- Smile all the time
- Shine your teeth with meaningless and sharpen them with lies
- Whatever's going down will follow you around (that's how you fight it)
- Laugh at every joke
- Drag your blanket blindly
- Fill your heart with smoke
- The first thing that you want will be the last that you ever need (that's how you fight it)

Oh, shit, wrong song!
posted by honeydew at 9:27 PM on July 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


...Should I also wear sunscreen?
posted by EmGeeJay at 9:35 PM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


goddammit, sunscreen, your knees have got to be kind.
posted by sweetkid at 9:55 PM on July 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


Writing is Step Two to becoming a writer. Step One - sadly, the step most overlooked - is reading

God yes. Writing without having an intensive background in reading... it's like expecting an aspiring musician to start writing songs without having listened to-- and learned, and figured out the tricks of--the musical canon. You have to read the way you would listen to music if you were planning on starting a band: constantly, at length, everything, and take it apart while you're reading it to learn how writers make things happen: exposition, dialogue, the rhythm of sentences, etc. You can't do it well if you cant understand what doing it well means.
posted by jokeefe at 9:56 PM on July 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


One of Dostoevsky's novels, The Insulted and Injured, has a writer as its main character. I've always liked how this 'writer character' says,
"If I was ever happy it was not in the first intoxicating moment of my success, but before I had ever read or shown anyone my manuscript; in those long nights spent in exalted hopes and dreams and passionate love of my work, when I was living with my fancies, with the characters I had myself created, as though they were my family, as though they were real people; I loved them, I rejoiced and grieved with them, and sometimes shed genuine tears over my artless hero."

I can easily picture Dostoevsky writing that way.
posted by Net Prophet at 9:59 PM on July 16, 2011 [8 favorites]


I am not a writer, but I have a theory that the best writers have had the most extraordinary life experiences.

Eliot worked in a bank.
posted by regicide is good for you at 10:04 PM on July 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


Definitely save those handwritten journals from middle school. They will make excellent kindling for that barrel fire that you will share with the other vagrants after graduating from college with a useless degree and no hope for a job.
posted by Rhomboid at 10:05 PM on July 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


step one use inspiration herb. step two feel good. step three forget to write.
posted by Taft at 10:07 PM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Writing is Step Two to becoming a writer. Step One - sadly, the step most overlooked - is reading

I remember a great quote, Nabokov I think, "There are no great writers, only great readers." You can take that a lot of ways, but I think he meant, like you, that great reading was a prerequisite for being a great writer.

I remember a TV interview with some famous writer, I forget who, but the interviewer asked him about how he felt now that he was terminally ill and he could see the end of his writing career. The writer said, "My biggest regret is all that reading I did will go to waste."
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:15 PM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Summary: The writer subjects readers to bland prose before standing atop her Mt Sinai of angst filled journals and proclaims 5011 platitudes on raising writers to the lost flock of parents.

This is not good writing. It is almost terrible. It reminds me of stale Walmart produce.

If writing is its own reward, then doing it for money seems strange. Very few people eat or exercise or sleep for money, so why would writers write for money assuming it is its own reward?

Aside: Platitudes cultivate mindlessness.
posted by Silo004 at 10:16 PM on July 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't know, just acting like I knew what I was doing seemed to work pretty well for a few years--at least from kindergarten, when I made it into the early reader group, through grad school. But now I have an agent and stuff and a book to finish revising and OH GOD GUYS THIS IS SCARY!!!@!@@!!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:17 PM on July 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


There was a recent fpp about an article by 10+ modern authors about how they became authors, well over half had been Hollywood screen writers for over a decade. George R. R. Martin for example.

I'd imagine the formula is : Read and write all you can while young. Find a steady-ish job writing TV for morons for a decade. Turn all that experience around to produce that's non-vapid but still consumable by the masses.

Or you might join the J.K. Rowling 'plot doesn't matter' brigade pursuing the infantilization of our culture.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:24 PM on July 16, 2011


George R.R. Martin wrote for the '80s Twilight Zone revival, which adapted work by many of the leading horror and science fiction writers of the day. So no, not moronic. If you do the math, though, his career seems to have begun roughly when he was a fucking zygote, and he still didn't become a household name until...well, until this year, probably. I don't think there are any lessons to take away from the fortunate and very specific-to-him career of Martin, other than write stuff for a long time and then keep doing it and stuff.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 10:31 PM on July 16, 2011


My dad's a writer. We grew up poor, sometimes we went on holiday, didn't have what the other kids had. Dad is now finding success having a couple of books tuned into television. Point being, takes ages, patience and determination, and perhaps a bit more than self sacrifice. But yes, writers write - heaps.

A family friend once said to me that it must have been wonderful having a dad with a head full so many stories - I smiled and said yes. But the real truth was that he didn't waste them on his kids. We never saw him.
posted by the noob at 10:36 PM on July 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


I think it was Harlan Ellison (though he may have been quoting) who said this when asked how to be a writer:

Write. Write well. Finish what you write.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 10:45 PM on July 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ass + chair
posted by Kloryne at 11:03 PM on July 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


There was a recent fpp about an article by 10+ modern authors about how they became authors, well over half had been Hollywood screen writers for over a decade.

Having been a script doctor and consultant in Hollywood, I'll tell you how they do it. A screenwriter puts down every piece of shit idea he can think of, creates a one page synopsis of each, and then pitches them all. When someone buys a pitch, he writes it. And rewrites it. Over and over.

Like I said, a professional does for money what he would do for no other reason. There are stacks and stacks of unread scripts in Hollywood. Only an amateur writes a script on spec.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:03 PM on July 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


In short, as Mr. micawbef ultimately always said, just do it. A lot

The ongoing mystery for me is what engages some people to do this particular thing.
posted by bearwife at 11:34 PM on July 16, 2011


Ew, this is pretty trite.

"Writer" IS A JOB! A JOB GODDAMNIT JUST LIKE ANY OTHER JOB. NOVELS ARE NOT THE ONLY THINGS THAT WRITERS WRITE. IF YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER APPROACH IT LIKE ANY OTHER CAREER CHOICE/CAREER CHANGE AND YOU WILL 10X MORE SUCCESSFUL THAN MOST OF THE CRETINS PROCLAIMING THEIR WRITER-NESS ON LIVEJOURNAL!!!!

PS IF YOU HAVE STUPID GIMMICK YOU MIGHT GET AN AGENT FASTER.

PPS Also, unless you want to be poor - really poor - for decades, miss out on overseas holidays, consign yourself to renting forever, work university student-style jobs for low wages, struggle to pay for books, art, restaurants, whatever, for the love of all that's holy please get a real day job with some prospect of a career.

Writer is not an exalted vocation - it does not make you better, smarter, more successful or whatever than people who do other things for a living - and there is 100% nothing noble watching your friends and family move forward whilst your life remains hopelessly mired in undergraduate squalor and angst for the sake of a book you may never finish.
posted by smoke at 12:02 AM on July 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


If I had a kid and read this list then I wouldn't want her to be a writer, so mission accomplished? I think so.
posted by Danila at 12:33 AM on July 17, 2011


A lot of this does seem parenting advice rather than writing advice. I'm someone else with a writer father and I would agree about the secrets though. Also, MetaFilter writing group.
posted by paduasoy at 12:53 AM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Writing is the manual labor of the mind. Keep repeating this to yourself.
posted by The Whelk at 12:54 AM on July 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


One of my favourite quotes, which many of you've probably heard, is:

Writing is the art of staring at a blank sheet of paper until your forehead bleeds.
posted by Trochanter at 1:09 AM on July 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


you know you're Writing when being a bricklayer sounds like a really good job.
posted by The Whelk at 1:20 AM on July 17, 2011 [6 favorites]


God yes. Writing without having an intensive background in reading... it's like expecting an aspiring musician to start writing songs without having listened to-- and learned, and figured out the tricks of--the musical canon.

Though I completely agree with you intellectually, I've got this half assed belief that there are some people who just have an instinctive grasp of story, and have the ability to tell them in ways that capture the popular imagination.

In support of this thesis, I offer Jeffrey Archer -- who seems to sell shitloads and shitloads of books, but writes like he's never read anything more challenging than the Beano.

Caveat: I've never actually read a Jeffrey Archer book.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:33 AM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I had an english comp teacher in high school who, on the first day of class, wrote "WHAT IS A WRITER?" on the blackboard and asked us each to answer it on a piece of paper.

He collected our answers and started reading them out loud. "Writers are artists", "A writer is someone who can speak truth to power", etc etc. I was a bit of a romantic at that age and considered myself quite the writer, so I probably wrote something equally douchey like "A writer is someone who can express their soul through language".

After reading our stupid answers, the teacher turned around and wrote on the board: "A WRITER IS SOMEONE WHO WRITES". We all snickered a bit, but he was dead serious and explained to us that he budgets for himself 45 minutes every weekday and 2 hours on weekends just to write whatever comes into his head. He said he didn't necessarily consider himself a good writer, but as long as he was producing original work, he was a writer.

I gave up trying to write around the end of high school and went into science instead, but even though the advice felt hokey at the time it's really grown on me. Part of my self-image is that I'm a basketball player, but can I really say that if I haven't played on a team in a year? Basketball players play basketball. Find a team. I'm thinking of moving from science into software, but I'm not sure how to get started. Programmers program. Find a project and start coding.

It's probably the only thing a high school teacher told me that I still remember, and I dropped his class after two weeks. Go figure.
posted by auto-correct at 2:10 AM on July 17, 2011 [22 favorites]


A voice spoke, chillingly close. "Do not move."

On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.

Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils.


Do not write like this.

Then again, this made Dan Brown rich, so ...
posted by bwg at 2:16 AM on July 17, 2011


Is writing one of the only activities where millions and millions of people will strive at it (usually unpaid), even though they admit to hating it?

I'm not quite sure I've ever seen this disturbing level of commitment with any other kind of activity.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 2:17 AM on July 17, 2011


To add to what smoke said - as someone who still remains a terrible procrastinating type of writer (I only have about 4000 words left to write this weekend. *eeep*)

Two pieces of advice I've received stand out:

1) Write books for the ego, articles for the money.

2) Never, ever, write for free. (aka, don't ever give a friend an article for "free" cause it's unlikely to ever garner compensation while encouraging others to think they can get the writing for free)

And The ____ of Justice, I nominate exercise - I bet you find the same percentage of dedicated "runners/gym rats" as you do "writers" who toil away at something they hate for some mythical goal
posted by drewbage1847 at 2:27 AM on July 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


if it doesn't come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don't do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don't do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
typewriter
searching for words,
don't do it.
if you're doing it for money or
fame,
don't do it.
if you're doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don't do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don't do it.
if it's hard work just thinking about doing it,
don't do it.
if you're trying to write like somebody
else,
forget about it.
if you have to wait for it to roar out of
you,
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you're not ready.

don't be like so many writers,
don't be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don't be dull and boring and
pretentious, don't be consumed with self-
love.
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
sleep
over your kind.
don't add to that.
don't do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don't do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don't do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.

- BUKOWSKI
posted by R.Stornoway at 3:07 AM on July 17, 2011 [8 favorites]


p.s.

also, booze and whores.
posted by Grangousier at 3:11 AM on July 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


I liked this better when I got it from my mom and it was titled "Fwd: FWD: FWD: Fwd: How to be A Writer".
posted by jeffehobbs at 3:13 AM on July 17, 2011 [9 favorites]


"Never, ever, write for free."

Does this include blogs, social media, and the MeFi comment box? I paid five bucks to be able to say this.
posted by Yakuman at 4:08 AM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wallace Stevens was an insurance salesman....he wrote poems walking on the way to work.
posted by eggtooth at 5:01 AM on July 17, 2011


in the 80's I decided to work on my writing, so I filled a bunch of journals. At first, it was hard to come up with something and the writing was really bad...practice, really. After about 10 journals,
the writing got easier and more enjoyable to read (to me). It does seem like a learning to walk kind of activity.
posted by eggtooth at 5:13 AM on July 17, 2011


If you have to ask how to be a writer it's a sign that you haven't really thought through what you want to be. Nobody who ever set out to write the Great American Novel, or be the Next Shakespeare, ever actually did it. Culturally significant writings like that get their significance from quite a lot of circumstances beyond their author's control. The place and time you're writing about just happens to form an ideal microcosm for your culture; all those other authors who wrote microcosmos probably worked at it just as hard as you did, but chose the wrong cosm. The plots and characters you come up with turn out to be readily adaptable to different media that you really had no idea about, and so you made a classic story when you were trying to write sexploitation. None of this means that authors of literary classics are bad writers--they have to write well enough to sell the story in the first place, and then again in the new media--but the stuff that makes those classic authors stay popular is well beyond their control.

Great writers don't get to decide that they're great writers, that's left for the audiences of the future to figure out. If you "merely" want to be a good writer appreciated by a particular audience, that's something you can at least meaningfully attempt.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:00 AM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


One of my kids really really really wants to be a writer. She writes and writes and writes. To include starcraft fan fic.

She has never, EVER asked anyone how to be a writer. She just writes.

I'M the one who wishes she would get a betterpaying day job.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:05 AM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I hope none of my friends are friends with me because they think it'll lead to future success. I mean, not because that'd make me feel used or whatever, but because man are they in for a shock.

Nah, I'm your friend because you have a really adorable demon cat, kittens for breakfast.

All I know, as someone who's written more than a dozen books, and who now publishes other peoples' books for a living, is that unless you're feeling like you're about to throw up because the book isn't good enough, you're not taking this shit seriously.

(And I don't even do novels. I can't even IMAGINE how much worse that would be!)

Hell, I spent most of yesterday avoiding food because of a sour stomach, because these page layouts look crap and we're running up against a deadline and also aaaaaaaaaaaaagh (generalized anxiety). But you know what? I went in to my office, which has no AC and is about 90 degrees or more come afternoon this time of year, and I worked my ass off, and then I came home and drank some gin. And now I'm going to go work some more, even though there are things I would much rather be doing.

That's Writing for you.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 7:06 AM on July 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Never, ever, write for free."

Always, always, write for free.

I'm being contrary just for the fun of flipping the rhetoric on its head. I don't really think ALL writers should write for free. Write for money if you wan to -- and if you CAN -- but consider writing for free at least once.

It's worthwhile for artists to at least experiment with totally separating their art from commerce. I know most artists don't get paid (or don't get paid enough), but that's not what I mean. If you're HOPING to get paid -- or angry that you're not getting paid -- then your art is still bound up with commerce.

I have always loved writing: the actual act of writing, the craft of figuring out what word goes best in each "slot." Then I wrote a few books for money. I feel bad complaining, because I know there are truckloads of writers who would kill for a contract. Nevertheless, I didn't enjoy it. It turned a pleasure into a homework assingment. And my writing suffered.

I got a 4K advance for each book. That seemed like a nice chunk of change when I was holding each check in my hands, enough for some kickass vacations. But when I divided the money by the hours I spent researching, writing and revising, it was sub-minimum wage.

This is just MY decision, but I calculated that -- for me -- writing for money isn't worth it. It doesn't pay well (unless you win the Stephen King lottery or become, say, a full-time, employed copywriter) and it was making me want to avoid doing something I formerly loved.

I am now mulling over ideas for my next book. When I come up with something fun, I plan to write it without any contract or agent or publisher interest. I am just going to write what I want to write, knowing -- and embracing -- the fact that it's not about money. When I'm done, if a publisher is interested... great. If not, I'll self-publish.

Here's my litmus test: am I a writer? What if no one ever wants to pay me for writing? What if I could look in a crystal ball and know, for sure, that no one will ever pay me again: will I still want to write? Will I still NEED to write? If the answer is yes, I'm a writer.
posted by grumblebee at 7:06 AM on July 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


i rote some words

and then i red what i rote

im a riter
posted by LogicalDash at 7:09 AM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


So, I'm a writer. A Tech Writer. Which is to creative writing as house painting is to fine art painting. On the other hand, when I write it nearly always is for pay which at least according to Dr. Johnson makes me not a blockhead.
posted by Standeck at 7:29 AM on July 17, 2011


The most tired guy at my work is a writer at night.
posted by yoHighness at 7:51 AM on July 17, 2011


"I've always considered writing the most hateful kind of work. I suspect it's a bit like fucking — which is fun only for amateurs. Old whores don't do much giggling."
— Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."
— Dr. Samuel Johnson
posted by Rangeboy at 8:53 AM on July 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm not a writer anymore.

I hated being a writer. The worst part, I think, was taking the absolutely amazing life I was living at the time, the fascinating people I was around, and constantly wondering, 'how would I write about this? How would I take this amazing experience, and use it as the basis for a story?'

I cultivated my perspective like it was a rare bonsai, I fed it books and movies and drugs and experiences that I thought would shake it up, would make my way of seeing things unique enough to be interesting on paper. I wrote, constantly, journals and essays and stories; writing was my identity. Hell, it was my destiny; I found out recently that one of the reasons my parents chose my name was that it would look good on a book jacket.

Gradually, I came to the realization that writing, as a profession, sucks. It's incredibly competitive, insanely hard, and likely to result in a living, if you're lucky, that's easily outstripped by most low-level office workers. The romantic notions of what it means to be a writer were established well before the current industry was in place; the dreams I had of what writing was like were complete fantasy. Writers' lives, when I read about them, sounded miserable.

And I'd come to hate writing. Blame burnout, or a nearly-completed English degree (with an emphasis on creative writing, of course.) I wanted out.

So I stopped being a writer, and became a human being instead. I gradually figured out how to stop making observations about my life, and start living it instead. I found a way to make a living that made me happy.

And gradually, I started writing again. Little things, essays, flash fiction, NaNoWriMo... nothing I'd ever want to publish. But stuff that it's amazingly fun to write. And now I remember why I wanted to write in the first place.

It wasn't about the career, the money, the thoughtful look I'd have in a dustcover portrait. It was about the fun. Writing is fun.

I love writing something, putting it up in a few places online, and seeing how people like it. I love the feeling, in the middle of November, of having all the threads of a novel in my hands, knowing how I want it all to work, and having no idea how it will all come together. I love sitting at a picnic table in a park with my battered little netbook, putting together a few hundred words over lunch break.

Writing is fun. Being a writer just sucks.
posted by MrVisible at 9:10 AM on July 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


The whole "don't write for free" thing is not a hard and fast rule, even for professionals. I wrote a music review blog for free; it gave me samples that led to me being a full-time music critic for years. I wrote short stories for free that wound up in anthologies and have landed me a lot of meetings in Hollywood. I wrote a teevee spec script for free and it got me my current job on a television show. I'm now writing a pilot on spec because it's exactly what I want to do and so far I've found writing exactly what I want to write has worked out pretty well so far.

Someone quoted Hunter S. Thompson up there about being a pro, but he didn't pitch Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; he just wrote it. As I recall the story he just walked up and dropped it on Jan Wenner's desk, and I believe the version of the story I heard had him giggling while he did so. Charlie Kaufman was a working writer when he wrote Being John Malcovitch on spec. Stephen King didn't have a book contract when he wrote Carrie even though he was an established short story writer (mostly written on spec). David Mamet walked into a theater with Sexual Perversity in Chicago in his hands.

There's just no single rule that works all the time. I read a lot, but more importantly for me I re-read a lot. There are books I have read twenty, thirty times. That works for me. I have learned the neat trick of channeling my obsessions into my work, which enslaves some of my neurosis so that they're a benefit (James Ellroy is the king of this). But maybe you aren't as weird as me, so I don't know what to tell you.
posted by Bookhouse at 9:53 AM on July 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


Even the adage "Writers write" isn't true: David Milch dictates everything.
posted by Bookhouse at 9:58 AM on July 17, 2011


There's something really snide and passive-aggressive about this piece, along the lines of: I mean, how could everyone *not* understand tacitly what it means to be a writer and how to go about becoming one? Why would anyone ask these silly questions and look for ways of helping a child learn more about the process? Doesn't everyone just know that you can't create good writers; you have to let them evolve?
posted by yellowcandy at 10:13 AM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Nobody ever asks "why be a writer?", do they?
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:48 AM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


The whole "don't write for free" thing is not a hard and fast rule, even for professionals.

It's also boring along the lines of a thing I've seen happen to many a band over time. At first, they're just mad for the music, performing it, connecting with an audience and surfing the cool, wild energy of it all -- who gives a f*** if they get paid? You can't buy a rush like that.

Then some time goes by and you find them their hair thinning and a little plumpness showing around the middle, and they're favorably quoting some bar manager, who couldn't give a shit what a band sounds like, as long as they put bums in seats and help in the time-honored task of selling booze.

Yup, it's a way-cool adult pose but it's also the death of an undefinable and beautiful something. Which is fine because like George the Beatle (and a bumper sticker I recently saw) said, "All things must pass." But let's show some dignity here, folks. Let's mourn the passing, let's own that sorrow. Don't be smug about it. Don't relish it. That's just cynicism and I get enough of that from Republicans.
posted by philip-random at 11:05 AM on July 17, 2011


Someone quoted Hunter S. Thompson up there about being a pro, but he didn't pitch Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; he just wrote it. As I recall the story he just walked up and dropped it on Jan Wenner's desk, and I believe the version of the story I heard had him giggling while he did so.

That might be romanticized a bit. Thompson was a longtime sportwriter, had written features for Esquire, Time, The Nation and the NYT Sunday Magazine, and published "Hells Angels" in 1966. According to wiki, F&L in Las Vegas fulfilled a contract he signed with Random House in 1968 for a different book that didn't materialize.

It started as a piece for Sports Illustrated that was "aggressively rejected;" Jann Wenner "liked the first 20 or so jangled pages enough to take it seriously on its own terms" and published a reworked version of that as a 2 part-er starting in November 1971. The full book came out the next year.
posted by msalt at 11:37 AM on July 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Keri Smith's How to Feel Miserable As An Artist, which can also be applied to writers.

About writing, here's one I've held on to over the years:
"I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too." — Mary Oliver
posted by pleasebekind at 11:38 AM on July 17, 2011


We all write. Some of just better than others. Some of us get paid for it even if what they write is not what "I" consider worth reading. My kiddo writes, reads and teachs. He finished his degree and he is only 26 not enough time in life to have very many tales worth the telling but he has published work, not much but some. So what makes a writer? Who knows......
posted by bjgeiger at 11:40 AM on July 17, 2011


I hated being a writer. The worst part, I think, was taking the absolutely amazing life I was living at the time, the fascinating people I was around, and constantly wondering, 'how would I write about this? How would I take this amazing experience, and use it as the basis for a story?'

Ick, what?

The idea that writers must cultivate a special kind of artistic perspective, and more, must develop a perspective separate from being and that this is fundamentally false and alienating to living a real life kind of grosses me out. I've always thought in two worlds: at the supermarket, walking along the highway in summer. I'd think Dragons are as big as Mack trucks and Who put mermaids in the mixed drinks? This didn't pervert my worldview, make it tiresome. It enriched it. Literally a double life, one foot on either side of the umbra. I wasn't worried about living interesting, because living had nothing to do with this parallel world, these paracosms.

I've seen people like the former-you you're referring to, in graduate school, people who claimed they had to poach their lives for material--worse, people who thought other people were interested in reading that. But they were writers as much as I was, as much as you were, and are.

A writer is someone who writes. Not who writes certain things, or in certain ways.

That being said, if you want to be a happy writer, write fiction. Stretch your imagination past what you're doing right now. Enrich your life through your creativity, rather than sapping it of its strength. Your real life will seep in, of course--just in ways you have not anticipated. Call those your major themes. Act surprised when people buy it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:44 PM on July 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hmm when it comes to advice for writers, there's no beating these rules. The whole collection. One of my favourites is: "Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don't follow it."

I did have the pleasure to hear Mr Elmore Leonard in person speak about his writing during an event at a literature festival, and among other things he also spoke about the routine of doing it systematically every day, and things like that. Things other successful/famous/acclaimed/popular writers have said, not really stating it was the secret to their success, but sort of implying it really. When you're reading it on a page, you may think, why yes, it may sound elementary but it makes sense, I guess. After all it's a set of skills that can be learned and refined. And then you're sitting there listening to someone like Elmore Leonard, watching him speak, and you realise, well, you could write ten books about advice for writers and how to become a writer, but you cannot teach anyone how to become Elmore Leonard. It's not really fair to write a how-to about it. It's all after the fact, isn't it? You might as well tell aspiring writers to do ten cartwheels every morning before sitting down to write, it's just as valid a rule!

Or, maybe not, but, I do think 99% of this kind of advice from writers is rationalisation after the facts. It may work or at least make sense and be useful and inspiring, but it's still something they have come up with specifically to try and explain to the public how they work, it's not how and most importantly not why they set out to do it in the first place.

Isn't it a bit like people telling other people how to be themselves? that's what it sounds like to me.

(disclaimer: speaking only as a reader, no ambition to be a writer really)
posted by bitteschoen at 2:32 PM on July 17, 2011


Don't forget the Fran Lebowitz method of being a writer, which is simply not to write.
posted by Robert Angelo at 3:15 PM on July 17, 2011


Writing is its own reward.

This is so deeply untrue I don't even know where to begin with it.


Kurt Vonnegut:

"To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it."
posted by ovvl at 4:15 PM on July 17, 2011


I had a writing professor in college who gave us an edict similar to grumblebee's advice:
Only write if you can literally do nothing else. If you're not consumed by writing, you won't make it.

I loved writing. But not that much.
posted by guster4lovers at 4:22 PM on July 17, 2011


Heinlein nailed it:
Rule #1. You must write.
Rule #2. You must finish what you write.
Rule #3. You must not go back and re-write that which you have written, except under editorial edict.
Rule #4. You must place what you have written out in the marketplace.
Rule #5. You must keep it in the marketplace until it sells.
posted by Hogshead at 4:39 PM on July 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


You know, I understand how that edict worked for Heinlein and all, but rule #3 is so stupid. I've had some absolutely piece of shit drafts that I would have been embarrassed to show anyone else, whether or not I could have made money off of them as-is.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:10 PM on July 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


People always misinterpret the rule #3. They think it means you can't touch your own stuff. You can. What he didn't want is people rererewriting until they'd ruined their own stuff through overwriting and spend all their time on crap that wasn't selling.

You run into people that are constantly rewriting and resubmitting the same book forever. Put a stake in it and move on if it's dead.

I'm pretty sure Heinlein wouldn't have considered a piece finished without a final edit and polish, but then again he knew he had editors to fix the worst of it.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:23 PM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Margaret Atwood said (paraphrase):

"writer" is a noun; (the idea of being a writer, and saying stupid things on TV talk-shows);
"writing" is a verb; (writing words);

(Phrased with more subtly in her essay: 'An End to Audience?').
posted by ovvl at 6:30 PM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Please don't cite Heinlein as an expert on writing.

He was an, um, interesting writer, and he wrote some interesting stuff, but he had some crazy-assed bug in his pants about his hating editors, and he fraked oot if anyone dare tamper with precious prose, to his detriment.

Despite what Heinlein felt, good editors are... what makes the world go round.
posted by ovvl at 6:40 PM on July 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Nobody who ever set out to write the Great American Novel, or be the Next Shakespeare, ever actually did it.

It bears repeating that the Great American Novelists and even Shakespeare himself didn't set out to do these things. Great Gatsby was written by a miserable alcoholic who died young, while Shakespeare worked his balls off to crank out play after play after play to not starve (at least for his first few years) for people who, on the majority, were there for the swordfights and sex puns AND without ever having any intention of publishing a word of it (so far as we can tell). Nothing was officially published by him during his lifetime because that wasn't how theater worked back then, it was an oral artform. Actor -> Audience, publishing was reserved for forms of artistic expression that didn't take place between whorehouses and bearfighting pits.
posted by Ndwright at 8:09 PM on July 17, 2011


Unlike every other cynic here, I rather liked the blog post. The author is encouraging the mother to ensure her daughter has grist for the mill, fodder for the cannon, etc. Boredom and loneliness lead to thinking and reading, and thinking and reading can lead to writing.

I feel sorry for the people here who see only the money in writing. Writing for money is not a bad thing, but it's not the only reason to write. Writing can indeed be its own reward. Ask the journal keepers, the bloggers, the fanfic writers, the haiku authors, and people like me, who's been writing a novel for 15 years. Yeah, I hope to publish it someday. But if that was my only reason for plugging away at it for so long, I would have given it up long ago.

Read, and write. Those are the only imperatives.
posted by lhauser at 6:52 AM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


The daughter is super smart, great in math and science. She didn't want to attend the program because what she really wants to do is become a writer. [...] inside my head I was screaming "What the heck is she going to write ABOUT???" and "The world needs more women writers in technology!"

Hi, this was me in high school. For future reference, it might be a good idea to say that second bit.

Or as a college geology prof told me, "this field needs people who can actually write something comprehensible." He really tried to encourage me to take more science classes in college, and If I'd been able to hack chemistry, I would've been a geology minor, at the very least. It was a tiny bit of encouragement in a different direction, to combine those parts of myself, and it took a long time before I really understood it, but it did stick, one way or another. Among other things, it helped me take to heart an ethos of bringing writing into everything I do.

(FWIW, am now a web developer, mostly lapsed as a writer of fiction/poetry, but finished one NaNoWriMo. Also, I have two rubbermaid tubs of journals under my bed, from 1984 to the present.)
posted by epersonae at 9:20 AM on July 18, 2011


"A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." — Thomas Mann
posted by Zozo at 12:46 PM on July 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


I've been writing since I could hold a pencil, but I never held onto my high school journals. I feel like that would be looking backwards too much; my writing has improved so much over the years (thanks in large part to better editing) that I don't feel the need to revisit my 'old voice'.

Plus I think it's beneficial for writers to learn not to become too attached to a particular work, as well. I've had successes and rejections, and sometimes the rejects meant more to me personally. Those I kept and reworked, others I tossed to start fresh. In the meantime, the successes brought me contacts and dividends, and more chances to market the stuff that sold. Dwelling too long on one concept can be death to a writer. You have to learn to let go and move on.

Or, you know, you could be Dan Brown and just get lucky writing that one concept over and over with new characters.
posted by misha at 7:36 PM on July 18, 2011


Having said what I said and wrote what I wrote a few days ago (about broad reading being the essential first step to serious writing) - I also agree with PeterMcDermott.

There are the elements you 'either have, or you don't'. A grasp of what makes a great story, an intuitive sense of how to tell it. And - let's face it - language is all around us, whether you read or not. You hear the music, you make it your own. You don't necessarily need reading for that. Which all reminds me of the well worn question at writing workshops: can writing be taught?

Going back to what I'd said, though: reading - deep, broad, serious, and fun - is essential to building *technique* for most good writers.
posted by ferkit at 10:03 PM on July 19, 2011


Which all reminds me of the well worn question at writing workshops: can writing be taught?

No. But it can be learned.
posted by philip-random at 11:04 PM on July 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


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