MICHELLE TEA GIVES YOU PRACTICAL ADVICE ON HOW TO BECOME A WRITER
I want to be a writer. What should I do?
If you want to be a writer you should write. That is what makes a person a writer – not how many literary journals you’ve been rejected from, how many other writers you’ve had affairs with at writers’ colonies, how many blurbs from Salman Rushdie you got for the back of your sixteenth and newest novel. Writing makes one a writer. So, write.
Don’t I need a Room of One’s Own to be a writer? I live with five alcoholic roommates / my mom / my lover in a studio apartment / thirty-one cats who need my attention always.
It really helps to have your own cork-lined room to recall the smells of formative pastries whilst creating, but that’s not always a possibility. I just moved into my own place scant months ago, and I have written much, pretty much always while living in crowded squalor. Two words of advice: 1. Do not believe your own superstitions of what you think you need in order to write. More on this soon. But, you don’t need your own room to write, so stop it. 2. Get out of the house and into the world! Cafes are great places to write! I look for ones with lots of electrical outlets and a late closing hour. If you need a late late closing hour, bars are wonderful libraries, too. Writing outside your home has a million benefits. You won’t get lazy and distract yourself with a sudden cleaning binge, or decide you’re hungry and start a pot of coq au vin. Though there are people all around you in a café, they are not your roommates and will not bother you (unless you are female, writing in a bar, and then men who feel lonely at the sight of you and need to be part of your action will ask you annoying questions and call you a bitch when you don’t want to answer them because um you’re writing. An upshot of this ; that man could become part of your story. Being out in the world writing let’s the world into your story. Amy Fusselman, in her brilliant book Eight: All True, saw Adrock from the Beastie Boys walk by the café she was writing in every day and now he’s in the book and the book is better for it. Don’t put off your work because of your housing situation. It’s just an excuse. Places I have written include: sitting on top of a jukebox at a dance club; writing on the back of pledge slips while working at my job as a telephone fundraiser for the environment; the bus; on the spare bed in my spare room the night me and my boyfriend broke up and I could no longer sleep in our shared bedroom; sitting on a curb; millions or bars and cafes; in a van; at the free breakfast in hotels; in the teachers’ lounge at a high school; I could go on, because I have written everywhere, and dare you to let yourself do the same.
I don’t have time to work on my book. What should I do?
You do have time. Keep a journal of how you spend every waking moment for one week. Write it all down – how long was breakfast, your commute, your job, watching tv, hanging out with friends, having sex, working out, going to parties, taking baths, sleeping. At the end of the week go back and see what you can get rid of, or add writing to. Breakfast? Why not write while you eat your oatmeal? Your commute? Take the bus instead of drive and write while you ride. When can you unwork on the job. Can you ever? Daniel Handler wrote his first novel while pretending to work at a day job. I know lots of writers who Robin Hood hours on the clock to give to their art. If we lived in a better, non-capitalistic culture where artistic exploits were valued, you would not have to do this, but you don’t and you do and you should. If you really, really can’t write on the job, take those 15 minute breaks labor activists died fighting to win for you and write. What, you ask, can I accomplish in fifteen minutes???? More than you would have if you spent that fifteen smoking a cigarette and chatting with a coworker you have nothing in common with. As important as it is for you to be producing chunks of text (and it is important) it is also important for you to be building and feeding your sense of yourself as a writer – noble, dedicated, romantic. Someone who dedicates every spare minute to their craft, I dare you. Anyway, back to your list: Watching TV. Don’t get me started. You CAN NOT complain about having no time to write AND watch TV. I will not talk to you. Next: Taking baths: write in the tub. Get one of those things that kind of stratch across the tub like a tray, you know what I’m talking about? Writing in the tub – how decadent! Otherwise, take a freaking shower, don’t make such big deal about it. Stay dirty. Who cares. Write your book. Hanging out with friends: overrated. Find friends who are writers and write together. Have a friend drop by the first half hour of the four hour writing date you made with yourself at a café. Half hour is up, she leaves, you work. Or tell your friends: I know I’m going to be scarce for a while but I’ve got to finish this book! Please support me! Anyone who doesn’t is a jerk and has won a place as the inspiration for the antagonist in your next book. Having sex: You will always get to have more sex. I have learned this, through a lifetime of fearing every roll in the hay will be my last. It won’t. Here’s the thing – people like having sex with one another. So the opportunity will present itself again, especially after you have completed your novel. You will be so much more attractive when you’ve completed your work! I am not even kidding. Here is why:
1. Confidence. You will radiate belief in yourself. People think that is hot. People will want to be your friend and have sex with you and both at the same time.
2. It is so magical to write a book! In spite of how relatively easy it is, few people do it, so in this way you will be special, and people will want you.
3. Eventually your book will get published and people will think you are famous. Even if you are not famous, people will insist that you are, because people are attracted to fame and they want you to be famous, so that they can hang out and have sex with a famous person.
4. You will have unintentionally played hard to get by taking all this time away to write your book, and most people are game-playing chumps with intimacy issues so they will want you more than ever.
5. The considerably smaller but infinitely more attractive pool of ‘healthy’ people will be drawn to you because you have your own thing going on, and healthy people like that, because they tend to have their own things going on, too. Plus you will now be a person with discipline and focus, and healthy people like that, too. They don’t want to be anyone’s momma, know what I mean?
Okay: Working out: Write at the gym. I mean it. Schedule that writing time into your workout. Yes, your workouts may be smaller. Are you really prioritizing the strength of your triceps over the strength of your writing? Don’t do that. Sleeping: You’ll sleep when you’re dead. Wake up and hour or so early, go to be an hour or so late. Sure, you’re supposed to get eight hours of sleep, but studies have proven seven is just as effective, and you can totally get by on six a couple days a week if you need to, and if it’s a matter of finishing your book, you need to.
What about self care? you cry! Is this any way to live? I need to take care of my nemtal health, etc etc etc. Listen – It’s not for the rest of your life, it’s for right now, just until you finish your book, and the faster you adopt these guidelines the faster you will be done and can get back to lolling in your bathtub watching Real Housewives on your computer while simultaneously Facebooking with people you don’t actually care about on your hand held communication device, like you really want to. Finishing your book is self care. It will increase your mental health. All your excuses just make you sound crazy. Get to work.
Should I be part of a writing community? How?
Yes, totally. Being part of a writing community helps you to really understand yourself as a writer. It reminds you all the time that you are in fact a writer, the way going to AA helps alcoholics remember they are drunks. You get to learn about your strange writer nature. Writers are unlike other people but they are very much like one another, and you gain a lot of self-knowledge of your strange condition by fraternizing with your own kind. Most writing communities are somehow structured around the actual production of writing, which is cool. You can go to open mics and read your work and watch as brave people de-mystify the terror of public performance. Reading series are always populated by fellow writers and you will meet them if you turn up at them. Writing groups keep you producing work to share, as do workshops, and those social connections last beyond the duration of the class. Writers from a class I taught over a year ago are still writing and throwing literary performance together. Together people help you keep your commitment to your writing and your sense of your self as a writer. To get involved you can: volunteer for literary organizations, attend readings and befriend the organizers and writers, take a class, join or start a writing group, start your own reading series, volunteer for a literary magazine, start your own journal, work at a bookstore. Some cities, I have been told by despondent would-be writers, have no literary community at all and it is impossible to create one. Hmmmm. I am generally skeptical at the word ‘impossible’, but I now our earth has some truly hellish corners totally devoid of culture and nice people, so I do believe some of you writers may be stuck in one of them. Thankfully, my advice for you is simple: MOVE. What the fuck are you doing sticking around there??? Get OUT OF THERE. Make like Madonna and move to New York City! What, you have no money, your mother is dead and your father is an asshole who won’t help you out? THAT DIDN’T STOP MADONNA. In addition to New York you may also move to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland. People will tell you to move to Seattle but I won’t be one of them. However, it is definitely better than staying where you are. In fact any city with an independent bookstore and a University will do. Not for you to go to the University – just to add a frisson of intellectualism and good coffee shops. Louisville, Olympia, Athens, New Orleans, Asheville. You can find kindred spirits in these places. I do not want to hear about you not having money to move, either. Give yourself a date to move by, save up all your money, live on ramen, don’t drink or smoke – this will save you LOTS of money! Listen if you can handle turning tricks, turn some tricks, it’s easy money! That is how I got out of dodge, so it would be simply irresponsible of me not to mention this as a viable option. Another viable option – maxxing our your credit cards. There ain’t no debtors prison – heeeeeeey! Forgive me for being so ANY MEANS NECESSARY about your LIFE. It is, after all, your LIFE, as in, THIS IS IT, and I am of the mind that extreme moves should be made to put you where you ought to be, doing what you ought to do. Writing.
How do I get published?
Excellent question! And, increasingly difficult to answer! Before I try, let me ask you a question: Is your book finished? If not, please scroll back up to the ‘I don’t have time to write my book’ portion of this lecture. If you do – hmmmmm. I used to believe that if you wrote a book, it would find a home. It is less and less easy for me to say this with conviction, for the publishing industry has become even more conservative and bound by ‘formula’, and we have lost a lot of the smaller, indie presses that took better chances on newer, weirder writers. Still, publication is possible. Agents can be helpful, but I have published most of my books without an agent’s help, and the one that she did assist with I still had made that contact on my own. You don’t need one, but they should have better connections than you, and they are helpful with getting you the money you deserve and out of any dumb contract stipulations. Ask writer friends to hook you up with theirs OR read the acknowledgments writers you admire list at the start of their novels – they always thank their agents! Hunt them down! Find out if they are accepting new clients! Send them your book! Also, see what indie presses are publishing work in the same vein as your own. Find out if they are accepting unagented manuscripts. Send it in, and follow up with emails and phone calls. Don’t be afraid to nag, just do it with style, humor and good cheer! Indie publishers are a harried bunch – there often is little more than just them running the whole outfit. Make them remember you! The cliché about the squeaky wheel really works here, as do many other clichés I am sure.
What about literary journals?
What about them? And, for that matter, what about college? And writers colonies and all that stuff? Reader. All these things must be a delight to many writers or else they would not exist. Having partaken of none of them, I can’t truly speak to it. I have only once submitted to a journal, and it was Zzyzzyva, and I only submitted because the editor specifically asked me that I send him a specific piece her had heard me read, and once I gave it to him he ripped it apart and so I was like, Hey Buddy, Fungo, I’ll make my own literary journal, it’s called a zine, eat it. I know more people who have been rejected by journals than published by them, so keep that in your sensitive little writerly heart if you go that route. College – I say go to college for writing if you want to make contacts. That is what it is good for, schmoozing. You can get better as a writer through reading and practice but I do not believe college and its attendant debt can really teach you how to write. I have come to regard it as a mental illness – you are either afflicted or you are not. Go to school for something else if you must, something cool that will fill your head with things you can later use as metaphors in your writing! Study sociology or archeology or marine biology. Writers colonies – the value of the time and space is undeniable, even though, as I have pointed out, they are not required. They are a luxury and I believe in luxury. Do it! Good luck. If you do not get in, do yourself a favor and get a cheap motel on the outskirts of town and have your OWN fast food trashy writers retreat. I bet your material will be BETTER than if you’d been lounging in a meadow being fed artisinal snacks for a month.
Well jeez there is really no end to the amount of advice-giving I can give on the subject of Being A Writer, so I am going to hold off for now. But I am your servant, my public. If you have any writing-related advice questions – any at all! – please mail them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond to them here. Au revoir.