Monday, November 10, 2008

Guest blogger Matthew Cheney: "If Only I'd Known: Writing Advice to My Younger Self"

When I was in the fifth grade, I discovered the library had books that told people how to become better writers. I wanted to become a writer, and so I read all the books I could. My parents gave me a subscription to Writer's Digest for Christmas and I read each issue with intense fascination. I even started sending stories to my favorite magazine, Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. The form rejection letters I got back in my SASEs at first gave me great joy because they meant somebody had looked at my manuscript, thought about it, and decided it wasn't quite right for them at this time. (I ignored the impersonal salutation, and I thought the editor's signature was real.)

By seventh grade, I was somewhat frustrated as a writer. I had failed to find anyone who would publish my stories, and I began to think this whole writing biz was rigged. I'd done what all the guidebooks told me to do, I thought. I'd memorized each month's WD (we'd become so close we thought of each other by our initials). Why wasn't I published? What did those other people -- all those published people -- have that I didn't, aside from a few years?

I first sold a story the summer between the seventh and eighth grades, though not to Asimov's. Instead, I had lowered myself to doing what I'd sworn I wouldn't do -- I had submitted a story to a magazine aimed at (gasp!) kids. It was called Merlyn's Pen. One of my teachers had suggested it. The story they published, "The Nauga Hunters", went on to be reprinted in anthologies and even, about fifteen years after it first appeared, was adapted as a "reader's theatre" play performed by a professional company in schools throughout New England.

I sold a few more stories as well as some poems to Merlyn's Pen, but Asimov's continued to reject me. So did everybody else, for that matter. Occasionally, I got an encouraging rejection slip, but mostly I got form letters. I didn't start publishing fiction with any regularity until I was in my late twenties. Some of the reason for that is that I got sidetracked, spending about five years trying to become a playwright, then a few years trying to become a poet. (My genre ADHD frequently proves to be a handicap.)

Looking back, I often wonder: What didn't I know then? What didn't the guidebooks and Writer's Digest prepare me for, or what of their advice was I blind to?

Sure, some things had to do with my youth, but I think a lot of what I wouldn't learn until later could also be applicable to many aspiring writers, and so here are some musings on a few differences between my aspirations, my perceptions, and the realities of the world, some things I wish I could tell my younger self...
1.) Let your weaknesses be your strength.

The lesson I should have taken from the success of "The Nauga Hunters" (a story about two kids in rural New Hampshire) is that writing about what you know isn't as bad as it sounds. I thought my life was boring and spaceships and aliens were more interesting, but I didn't know how to write convincingly about spaceships and aliens. Some writers have a great talent for imagining worlds and landscapes and all sorts of weird stuff. I don't. The things that interest me -- and this is as true of "The Nauga Hunters" as of every story that has been successful for me over the last twenty years -- are language and psychology. I like to explore how people express themselves, how they develop ideas of who they are and who other people are, the stories they (we) tell each other to justify behaviors, the ways words can complexify life, the ways reality is expressed and obscured by how we talk about it.

I could never write a plot-heavy commercial novel that was in any way interesting. I kept trying to write commercial science fiction when I was young because I thought if I just practiced enough, I might get it right one day. If I had put even a little bit of that energy more toward writing about language and psychology, I probably would have gotten more personal rejection slips than I got, and I might have even sold a story or two. I definitely needed to keep writing and writing, because there's no other way to learn to write, but I was trying to claw my way up a cliff when there was a ladder right beside me.

2.) Writing programs are sometimes useful, sometimes not.

I've been to all sorts of different writing workshops over the years. I'll probably go to more in the future. I like being around people who care about writing, and I love talking shop. But when I started going to workshops, and at first when I was an undergraduate in NYU's Dramatic Writing Program, I thought workshops would teach me The Secret. I'd read the writing guides -- heck, I'd memorized them! -- and I hadn't learned what The Secret was, so I figured it must be kept by the teachers of writing workshops.

Here's The Secret: There is no Secret.

I really learned that when one of my NYU teachers, a wonderful writer himself and a marvelous teacher, asked me how I wrote so consistently. I was flabbergasted. "Practice?" I said sheepishly. "I thought so," he said, apparently disappointed. He thought I'd found The Secret and could tell it to him.

Other people have written plenty about the risks and benefits of workshops, so I won't rehash all that. I've gotten the most out of them when I've had the least expectations, when I've kept an open mind, and when I've had the luck to have the right workshop leader at the right time. The most profound workshop experience I ever had was with Barry Lopez at Bread Loaf -- I arrived at a time when I didn't think I should keep writing fiction or anything else, and Lopez convinced me that writing can be a noble activity when done carefully and honestly. Some of the other people in our workshop disliked his approach, because he did not stick to workshop protocols. Instead, he led us to discuss why we did what we did, what we wanted to do it for, and what we expected to accomplish. (Outside of class, we got one-on-one feedback on our stories, but I didn't find that half as useful.) At another time, I might not have been ready for Lopez's wisdom; that summer, though, it did more for my writing than 100 critique sessions would have.

I feel similarly about MFA programs. Curtis Brown literary agent Nathan Bransford recently wrote a post titled "If I Were Running an MFA Program...", and it's worth reading, particularly the discussion in the comments section. There can be a bit of a disconnect between what students think an MFA gets them and what schools intend the students to learn -- most (but not all) MFA programs do not spend a lot of time on the nuts and bolts of publishing, for a few different reasons (one of which is that this information is relatively easy to find on the internet and in libraries), but a lot of students leave MFA programs thinking they now know all they need to know about the industry they've been studying for a few years as an art. There's a difference, though, between the art and craft of writing and the art and craft of getting that writing published. This is something that all the writing guides I read when young really did teach me well -- from an early age, I knew the basics of agents, contracts, etc. The information is out there, and it doesn't require an advanced degree to find it.

3.) Diversify.

My lack as a young writer was not so much a lack of skill as a lack of knowledge of myself and the world. I thought if I could just write nice sentences, I'd win a Pulitzer by the time I was 20.

I desperately wanted to major in playwrighting as an undergraduate because I thought the workshops would teach me the skills to get my plays on Broadway. I was annoyed to find many of my peers at NYU writing pale imitations of Pulp Fiction (the hot movie among aspiring screenwriters at the time), but it took me a little while to realize I was writing pale imitations of Christopher Durang and Samuel Beckett. We all imitated because we hadn't figured out how to tap our own experiences and interests, and our interests and experiences weren't yet broad enough to produce work of much depth. A little bit of this had to do with our age and various levels of talent, but much more of it had to do with our inability yet to tap into the deep currents of our lives. Chris Shinn, who was a couple years ahead of me at NYU, was smarter than the rest of us and figured this out early, writing Four while we were still trying to figure out what we wanted to say. But it isn't a matter of age so much as of personality -- we all discover our subject matter at different times, and bloom at different rates.

If I could go back in time and talk to my younger self, I'd say: "Don't worry about it so much." I thought if I didn't accomplish x, y, or z by a certain age, I'd be a failure.

Actually, I might have been happier if I had been able to give myself permission to study something in college other than writing. But I was convinced the only way to become a good writer was to major in it. Not so. For many people, in fact, the best way to be a good writer is to spend some time doing things other than studying writing. My writing benefited more from my time working in a high school on Manhattan's Lower East Side than it did from the classes I was taking when not at work.

Some of the best writing advice I know appears in the introduction of Barry Lopez's (yes, him again) About This Life:
"Read. Find out what you truly believe. Get away from the familiar. Every writer ... will offer you thoughts about writing that are different, but these are three I trust."
4.) Publication will not solve your problems.

I read Sue Erikson Bloland's "Fame: The Power and Cost of a Fantasy" too late. I had already learned or intuited many of its lessons by the time it was published in The Atlantic. If I had read it when I was fifteen or sixteen, it might have given me some comfort. Or not -- at fifteen or sixteen, I probably wouldn't have understood how much it explained. I wanted to be famous. I wanted the world to love and admire me. I wanted to show everybody ... something:
Many writers about narcissism ... have suggested that narcissism (or grandiosity) is, essentially, a defense against shame -- with shame defined as a sense that the self is deeply flawed or deficient. To feel shame is to experience the self as small, weak, insignificant, powerless, defective. It is the experience of the self as not good enough.
I had plenty of self-hatred as a kid, and I wrote to try to escape it, to try to prove that I was good at something, good for something. I thought being published frequently would turn me into a worthwhile person, somebody other people might even want to be around, somebody people might revere. In my most grandiose moments, I wanted to be a guru -- I wanted people to come to me for advice and wisdom. I sought advice and wisdom from writers, and so I thought if I became a writer, I would then achieve a kind of wholeness.

Alas, it doesn't work that way. Publication can be fun, but I don't think a healthy psyche finds it much more than that. If you haven't been able to find balance and contentment in your life, publishing won't help you, and, if anything, it may hurt. It may encourage arrogance or it may cause new neuroses -- the common fear, for instance, among many successful artists of all sorts that one day somebody will find out "the truth" and prove to the world that you are a fraud.

I really sympathize with J.D. Salinger these days, writing but not publishing. It's not a bad option.

5.) You'll be fine.

There's more to life than writing, but writing can be a way to discover life. Use it for that, and you'll surprise yourself sometimes with what you find. Those occasional moments of discovery make all the false starts, clunky sentences, discarded pages, missed opportunities, embarrassing mistakes, and creative failures disappear just long enough to stop stinging.


Sabina E. said...

that was a nice post.

About Me said...

Very nice and honest post of being a writer, and knowing/ discovering yourself first and foremost. cool.

Maria said...

I always enjoy posts from writers looking back and taking stock of their careers and writing experiences. It's helpful for those of us just starting out, you know? And the advice to diversify? Priceless.

Rebecca said...

I think W.H. Auden was on to something when he pointed out that writing and the arts have a wholeness about them that much of the work most of us do doesn't have. Writing made it very difficult for me to accept the fractured jobs that are generally available out there for women, but then weaving cloth, sewing clothes, and target shooting also make most jobs rather tedious. I think there's a culture myth about writers' narcissism that is a defense against most people's genuine aspirations to have some control over what they do with their lives.

I used to listen to the other adjuncts with their MFAs from second rate schools worrying about getting agents and publishing. None of them wanted to be genre writers because that obviously hadn't worked for me, but they failed to understand that getting a book out wasn't going to change their lives in this culture.

We've traded a rather large amount of autonomy in our lives for security -- and most people accept this for the actual gains they do get from regular paychecks and local stability.

I'm not sure that people for whom this doesn't work can be dismissed as merely fucked up in some way. I think that the saner view of the famous is that they're really human like us, not more or less. We need to believe in their exceptionalism either positively or negatively because of the compromises in our own lives that keep us from running off to war with a camera, that keep us from even taking a day off from work to run off to Denver to see an old friend, say (the friend did in the end, with the help of booze and verbal encouragement, make the trip).

The famous part isn't what the arts are about. What the arts are about is having the pleasure of doing work that's more whole than most work available to us.

The ideal audience is people who do things that impress us.

Rebecca Ore

Katey said...

A wonderfully honest post that I (and no doubt many others) will be far better off for having taken to heart. Thanks for that, it was a great read, practical and heartening at the same time.

richgoldstein13 said...

Everything seems so much easier when you've figured out what you should have done by doing it the wrong way first.

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johnbakeronline said...

This is a great post. Thank you. I know you've spent a lot of time and dug deep to get these thoughts onto the page. They can only benefit any aspiring writer.