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How to have a career: advice to young writers
August 23, 2012 7:50 PM   Subscribe

"Be relentless. All over the world, people are working harder than you." Unsentimental advice from poet and memorist Sarah Manguso about building a career as a writer. (via FSG Work in Progress.)
posted by escabeche (42 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
Good advice, all of it. Especially the first point.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:59 PM on August 23, 2012


Drinking and drugs interfere with clear perception, which you will need in order to make good work

I agree with a lot on the list, but would seem to exclude many of my favorite works and authors.
posted by deanklear at 7:59 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


it's a parody, and a v. dry one--took me until the family section to get that.
posted by PinkMoose at 8:02 PM on August 23, 2012


Drinking and drugs can lead to experiences which abstinence does not. There's such a thing as too much drinking and too much drugs and the person who can't tell how much that is, but deep purity in art frequently arises from messing with the surface layers to find the truth beneath.
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:17 PM on August 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


it's a parody, and a v. dry one--took me until the family section to get that.

I don't think so. The whole set of ideas fits in with what she says in this interview, e.g.:

In a magazine feature I read years ago, a mathematician was quoted as saying "I am a machine that turns coffee into equations." And at the time I thought, "Oh, I'm a machine that turns coffee into poems." I live a regimented life. I work in a little box, a little room at the back of the apartment, and eat lunch at the same time every day. I'm a simple machine.
posted by shivohum at 8:18 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


it's a parody, and a v. dry one--took me until the family section to get that.

Hm, I'm not sure: is the part you're referring to "Avoid all messy and needy people including family"? I think it's just ambiguous phrasing and means 'avoid all messy and needy people even if those people are family', especially because the second time family is mentioned it's in the context "Don’t expend energy in writing and publishing that would be better used in your family or community."
posted by capricorn at 8:19 PM on August 23, 2012


"Write a book about writing. Those sell better than most."
posted by "But who are the Chefs?" at 8:26 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Who wants to read words written by a simple machine?
posted by lilboo at 8:40 PM on August 23, 2012


Whatever they we re doing last year to sell print space, no, try this new thing!
posted by es_de_bah at 8:49 PM on August 23, 2012


or should I re-calibrate my sarcasm and empathy directors?

hope it's the latter?
posted by es_de_bah at 8:52 PM on August 23, 2012


Wow, shivohum, that interview is gold: e.g.

Q: I always make the assumption that books are always autobiographical.

A: As one does.

Also, the "machine that turns coffee into theorems" line is variously ascribed to Erdos and to Renyi.
posted by escabeche at 8:53 PM on August 23, 2012


New York Times bestselling author Joni Rodgers responds in the comments:

Oh. Sugar.

Would love to hear back from you in 20 years or so. If I’m still around, I’ll be curious to know how all this worked out for you. And if you find yourself at all messy and needy at that point, please know there are people who’ll love you anyway. There are people who are kind without agenda, institutions that grow unexpectedly into being of consequence and enemies who turn out to be more misunderstood than malicious.

As a writer whose career has been an amazing surprise party for which I’m extremely grateful, I’ll tell you this simple truth: In all the days and hours I spent tethered to an IV tree in the chemo ward, I never once heard anyone rue the day they ate too much and worked too little. Mostly there was a lot of “What an idiot I was for taking myself so seriously.”

Peace be with you, kiddo. You’re a wonderfully talented writer.


The freshman in me agrees with much of this advice, so I'm pretty sure it's wrong.
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:55 PM on August 23, 2012 [19 favorites]


it's a parody, and a v. dry one

I very much doubt that that is the case.

This Believer interview between David Shields and Sarah Manguso is very good. It's not online, but it's worth paying for.
posted by oulipian at 9:09 PM on August 23, 2012


A whole section on Enemies and how to handle them? You're a poet, Sarah, not the Holy Roman Emperor. Perhaps you're a hair less superhumanly stoic than you're leading us to believe.
posted by Nahum Tate at 10:11 PM on August 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


Where's the part about writing?
posted by TwelveTwo at 10:15 PM on August 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sounds like a recipe to be the most tedious writer in the world earning a reasonable wage.
My version: Be lucky and meet interesting people. And walk to work. Change job or move to a different city but being able to walk to work is the single best investment you can make in your self, in terms of time and well being. Live in a rabbit hutch on a roof if you have to but nothing in your life:children, health, partners is better and a 10 min commute on foot.
posted by Damienmce at 10:23 PM on August 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm the first to agree that too many people who fancy themselves as writers view it wrongly as a statement of identity, rather than a vocation or heaven forfend a job, and their incessant posturing disguises the fact that work and network is far, far more important than talent - which so far as writing goes is, imho, almost irrelevant, as the legions of highly successful and highly average or even terrible writers would attest. There are way too many pretentious gits out there who don't know anything about being a writer and think they do.

But - and I say this as a once, if not successful at least bill-paying, freelancer - these dead-eyed, ambitious, career-making, relentless, cold mother-fuckers ("but also be kind!" thrown-bone or no) were the colleagues I hated the most.

Yeah, you gotta approach it as a job. For sure. But if that's all you approach it as, you're missing out on a lot of human good stuff, and make no mistake, you'll prop your talent up on the pyre of your ambition one day, cause it's the "right" choice.

Her stuff about nuturing the best, that's great, but it's just as much idealistic nonsense as the non-writers who call themselves writers. Sure you do it sometimes, sure you don't tit-for-tat with favours sometimes. But your relationships, your bills, your expediency, and your kindness obliterate these neat moral lines about what you can and can't and should and shouldn't do - at least in my experience, I suppose I'm not a poet.

I dunno, I think there are many different ways of being a writer, just like there are many different types of writing. Making up rules is lawyers. Like any job, you gotta be able to respect yourself, and I think you can go too far in any direction and hurt the chances of that happening.
posted by smoke at 10:31 PM on August 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


That said, whilst the interviewer in that linked interview seems insufferable, and she's not totally helpful, I did love this exchange:
Obviously inspiration is never pure joy or pure pain, but when I think of my favorite writers they were always suffering.

Who isn't? Everyone suffers. One of my teachers said in response to some fussy little poem, "You know, stupid people are feeling things just as strongly as you are."
posted by smoke at 10:38 PM on August 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


This is stupid. Do what you want except pay for a dumb MFA, writers.

/a writer
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:53 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Too cold clinical careerist and ultimately gives off the scent of a spiritual cowardliness. Messy and needy, she says to avoid all that are messy and needy and who the fuck that you love and who might love you isn't messy and fucking needy. The whole race is built on messy and needy, it runs on messy and needy. Birth, love, death ----All fucking messy and needy and brutal, and so what the fuck is this lady writing about at the end of the day, her coffee machine?? Middle Earth? Flights of cerebral masturbation??

Other than that little complaint, I guess she knows how to be politically safe and even and not get into any senseless energy-wasting confrontations, which is, you know....a pretty good skill to have.
posted by Skygazer at 11:11 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Full disclosure: I love a good coffee machine way more than I should.
posted by Skygazer at 11:13 PM on August 23, 2012


... and talent, you need talent. And a plot, you need a plot. Oh, and believable characters with believable motivations.
posted by mattoxic at 11:36 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I feel like I've met this kind of person bunches of times. Quite a few of them even produce good work. There's a sort of collusion of ambition with talent that sends them energizer-bunnying over obstacles that seem to way-lay the majority of people. I always respected the ability to stay that focused on an essentially abstract objective.

Secretly, I always thought the reminders to not be a dick (the be kind and the back and forth of favors business) was something that most people just knew as a matter of course and I had to work at.

Still, good advice - and free!
posted by From Bklyn at 12:08 AM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Drinking and drugs can lead to experiences which abstinence does not.

Or as Norman Mailer commented, "If there is anything better than sex, it's sex on marijuana."
posted by three blind mice at 1:43 AM on August 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Where's the part about having something to say beyond "Look, I'm a writer!"? That's a bigger problem than where you drink your coffee.
posted by thelonius at 2:33 AM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or as Norman Mailer commented, "If there is anything better than sex, it's sex on marijuana."

I can attest this is true, but everything in moderation! Back when I got my creative writing degree, "just say no to drugs" was a big message hammered home to us time and time again (although half the professors, who were published authors, drank like fish, and the other half were recovering alcoholics).

There is this idea that drugs help writers write better, which is false, kind of like the assumption that there is no need to revise, and feedback from others in workshops and then from editors is detrimental to one's art.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:27 AM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


All over the world, people are working harder than you.

They can have it. I'll work enough to feed myself and afford the occasional toys; someone else can kill themself fighting over the rest of the pie, thankyouverymuch.

And I have to agree with PinkMoose - This either counts as a parody, or the insane ramblings of someone dangerously clueless.
posted by pla at 6:11 AM on August 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


Two-thirds of this missive would be perfectly at home as part of Patrick Bateman monologue.
posted by echo target at 6:17 AM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Or as Norman Mailer commented, "If there is anything better than sex, it's sex on marijuana."

Or as Alvy Singer said, "Yeah, grass, right? The illusion that it will make a white woman more like Billie Holiday."
posted by octobersurprise at 6:53 AM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


So that you may not be the martyred slaves of Time,
get drunk, get drunk,
and never pause for rest!
With wine, poetry, or virtue,
as you choose!

posted by ersatz at 7:01 AM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


In all the days and hours I spent tethered to an IV tree in the chemo ward, I never once heard anyone rue the day they ate too much

Her experience probably would have been different if she spent those days and hours in cardiac rehab.
posted by Jahaza at 7:07 AM on August 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


This might be the most narcissistic thing I've ever read.

"Here are some mundane details about the way I've organized my life. In a stunning coincidence it turns out that they also constitute the one and only true and correct way to live."
posted by enn at 7:24 AM on August 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Bleh, the exhortation to remember that there are other people working harder than me is really really bad for my creativity. It reminds me of that scene in the West Wing, where Josh comes in at like 4:30 and Donna complains or something and he says something to the effect of, "somewhere in japan it's 3:00pm, some guy has been working all day and I'm just getting in to the office".

For me, that concept is the opposite of motivation; it makes me think I will never work hard enough to make something good enough and so I shouldn't even try. Granted I'm a heavy depressive / anxious type, but hot damn that's just poison for me. I have to get myself into a vacuum world, where I am the only one working and my work exists just for me. Then finish that shit and get it out there, comparisons be damned.
posted by lazaruslong at 7:39 AM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Jahaza: "Her experience probably would have been different if she spent those days and hours in cardiac rehab."

Heh, though to be fair, if she was in a cardiac rehab, lovingly recalling working too hard and the accompanying stress might also be unlikely.
posted by lazaruslong at 7:40 AM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think most of this is actually pretty solid, uncontroversial advice: work hard, stay healthy, cultivate positive relationships, eschew toxic ones, don't be a dick. Good advice for any profession.

The only part that rings false is "When asked about an ad hominem attack, pretend never to have heard of the attacker." People should never do that. It's always obvious that you're lying, and it makes you sound petty and condescending. It's far more classy to acknowledge the attack, without retaliating.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 8:32 AM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can slim this down.

1, Don't be a writer.
posted by devious truculent and unreliable at 8:38 AM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, the "machine that turns coffee into theorems" line is variously ascribed to Erdos and to Renyi.

I'm pretty sure Erdos said that he got it from Renyi, so I usually give Renyi credit, although I have a T-shirt that attributes it to Erdos.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:51 AM on August 24, 2012


The only part that rings false is "When asked about an ad hominem attack, pretend never to have heard of the attacker." People should never do that. It's always obvious that you're lying, and it makes you sound petty and condescending. It's far more classy to acknowledge the attack, without retaliating.

Writing, like academia, can be incredibly petty, with incredible personal attacks from all sorts of people. Often an attack is just a way to get better recognition for oneself. Denying that recognition would seem to be a good idea.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:13 AM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm a machine that turns eggs into farts.
posted by Snyder at 1:00 PM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is not advice. It is a manifesto, of the high-horse type. The writing just doesn't seem very self-aware.
posted by polymodus at 3:06 PM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I read that list again, and this is the one that's really stayed with me:

Do good work and treat people kindly, and strangers will reach out to help you.

Because this demands the hardest thing I think, and that is faith in one's work and ideas.

Just execute...execute...execute, really...
posted by Skygazer at 8:44 AM on August 25, 2012


Too cold clinical careerist and ultimately gives off the scent of a spiritual cowardliness.

I wrote that in my first comment and I'd like to take it back as I've had a change of opinion in that, some people need to speak to themselves in such a very clear opportunist manner to separate the work from the business side/the external side of things, to keep things very clear and focused and it's a good idea. There's already so many variables in the creative aspect that you should try and nail down as much else as you can to create right environment to get work done.

Although, I'd temper it, this attitude Manguso, gives off with the idea that a bit of compassion for oneself is not a bad thing. And by that I mean don't treat yourself as a over-whipped farm horse.
posted by Skygazer at 8:52 AM on August 25, 2012


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