In honor of Thanksgiving last year we published a compilation of some of the very best advice that had been printed on these virtual pages. Now we are featuring a repeat-performance. Last year you got the advice pre-Turkey; this time we offer up our gift of thanks post-tryptophan.
And so, with no further ado…
THE BEST ADVICE OF 2012
There are great reasons for working full time. One is to have an income, two is health insurance, three is you have a family to support, four is you just want to live like a fucking grown up. All those things are great reasons, but doing it because you feel like, “Well, I’ll find time to write in between…”
All these things are sacrifices one way or the other, the question is just where you can make sacrifices. And, at the time, I was on my own, I was okay with living pretty broke, and that was my equation. Everyone has a different equation and there are just pluses and minuses to everything along that path.
There is no better life than the writing life, if you are a writer. Don’t give up and do something else because someone needs you to. There are plenty of times in a writer’s life when you could give up and go do something else because something else is invariably more lucrative and possibly easier.
But if you are going to lie on your death bed and wish you had written books…that is sort of what kept me going throughout the years. I couldn’t imagine getting old and not having become a writer, not having written, not having shaped my entire life around it. And that’s something you have to do. Every choice has to be toward that shape of the writing life.
Even within the experience of acceptance, there’s rejection. With my editor for Wild, there’s been, “This scene is not working, Cheryl,” or “You come off like a braggart and an asshole in this scene.” Well, she didn’t say it that crassly. You have to take that criticism and lick your wounds and keep going. You learn to accept it. So yeah, I was rejected a lot, and still am and will be. I’m sure there’s a lot of rejection still awaiting me.
Experiment, play, dare to be really bad, fool around, and just notice what an incredible luxury it is to be in this formative, uncertain, experimental phase, one where you learn and discover new things very rapidly but also haphazardly – you don’t know when and how it is going to happen so it is crucial that you try different things and weird things, and that you read very unexpected things and glom onto influences that are uncomfortable but fascinating. Because you know, later, if you persist and become a writer, the rate of change will slow down, expectations that you produce from within and expectations that are produced from without will tend to slightly concretize this task for you, it will become something more professionalized, so make sure you relish this period that won’t come again. It belongs only to you, for the time being.
For me, one thing was finding myself as a reader. What kinds of things do you like to read? Are there books that you wish you had written? Who are your models? There are great books that everyone loves that I also love, but I’m thrilled when I find something obscure that I love that no one else has read—or that I would not have read had it not been sticking out of that cart at the used bookstore. I’ll still be strolling with my family and if there’s a bookstall I’ll be like, “Hold on.” You never know: there could be something there that will be a lot of fun to read and also change the way you think about what’s possible. My students know that my syllabi always mix in lesser-known things that I feel passionately about. If you let these books into your life, they can help you write in a way that you didn’t know you could. To discover yourself as a writer, you have to read interesting stuff. It’s strange to me when people who want to write seem not really to want to read. It doesn’t have to be highbrow—just something that activates your imagination.
Competence is what you should strive for. If you come to your desk every day, and you work hard, and you try to put together honest, competent work, eventually the muse will visit you, but you shouldn’t spend your time chasing after some kind of transcendent state. You have no control over it. But you do have control over writing honest, competent work. The transcendent state will come when it comes. You just have to be at your desk and be ready to receive it. I really did spend time in my twenties, a lot of time, being so frustrated, because I couldn’t get into that state of mind. Without that state of mind, I thought my writing was worthless, and that’s not true.
The kindest thing that ever happened was when an editor said, “No, this isn’t ready yet.” And as painful as that was, sometimes it was extraordinarily good news. You want someone to say no, this can be better.
Sometimes you need to figure that out for yourself. I wanted some editor or outside reader to tell me exactly what to do. It can be difficult when you just hope there’s this doctor on the outside who can cure what ails your story.
But he doesn’t exist.
No. You have to figure out a way to manufacture the medicine from within.
I think I wish…I don’t know how to put it, but I think I would just say: Be nicer.
Do you think you weren’t nice to yourself or to others?
A little of both, a little of both.
Read. Press on. Perseverance is all.
Go forth. Create, believe, and work your ass off.
The Days of Yore