What’s the best advice for authors? Ironically, it’s to stop looking for advice.
A terrible burden of being a famous author is that you are constantly dogged by people wanting to know what they should do to be a successful writer.
Luckily, I am nowhere near reaching that stature, thus giving me the freedom to dish out my advice without worrying about the potential harm it might cause impressionable writers, or my reputation.
If you have read W. Somerset Maugham (which I haven’t), you are probably familiar with his famous quote:
“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
This comes closest to the truth about writing in my experience. Forget the folks who tell you to write what you know, or to establish a disciplined routine, or worst of all, that awful, pretentious platitude, to “show, not tell.” The secret to being a writer, though not necessarily a successful one mind you, is the capacity to strip away all sense of self, and order, and eventually any notion of safety and predictability in the universe.
Does that sound frightening? It should. Your personal hygiene will suffer. Your marriage and your friendships will suffer. When you start talking to yourself out loud in public and stumbling into road signs while walking down the street, you’ll be getting close to what I’m talking about.
Some authors get preachy about the nobility of writing. Take Maya Angelou for instance. She gave us the inspirational wisdom: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” That’s true, but what Maya didn’t say is that it doesn’t mean that anyone is going to want to read what you wrote.
I don’t want to lower your expectations, but there’s a good chance that you will be sending out your work and later publishing your work to the sound of crickets chirping. Very few people care about what you have to say. This goes back to paragraph #4 above, which you may remember mentioned plunging into an abyss of depersonalization and chaos.
But really, you’ll be surprised by how little interest the world has in what you write. Your family and friends will ask you about it to fill in uncomfortable silences, but a shockingly small number of the people will actually buy your book. Even the ones who love you. Even the ones you helped move into new apartments two or three times and owe you lots of favors.
Find another source of income. If you can get a job where you don’t have to work too hard and it pays the bills, you’ll be doing better than most of us. The key is to not let your day job interfere with your writing time.
At this point you may be wondering if I advocate being a writer at all or if this is some bitter diatribe from a guy who can’t handle personal failure. What you may not realize is that I’ve been writing for many years while accumulating a boat load of personal failures. That’s not bragging. It’s simply the truth. In the amount of time I’ve been writing, I probably could have gotten a doctoral degree, learned another language, AND organized my closet so that the sweaters don’t fall down from the shelf and bury me when I open the door. Be prepared to answer tough questions.
This brings me to the topic of perseverance. Everyone points out big name authors like Margaret Mitchell, Kurt Vonnegut and Stephen King whose work was rejected hundreds of times before they received an ounce of recognition. I think this is actually what Maya Angelou meant to say when she talked about agony, and it’s the reason that you shouldn’t give up bad habits like smoking, drinking or prescription pain killers.
Last, don’t let anyone tell you how to write. I think it was Ernest Hemingway who shot a man who wanted to give him advice about writing. Maybe it was William Burroughs. The point is you’re not in the writing game to make buddies. Let those self-righteous, well-meaning, meddlers keep their opinions to themselves. That includes editors, by the way.
Would you like to help us shatter stereotypes about men?
Receive stories from The Good Men Project, delivered to your inbox daily or weekly.
Photo: Getty Images