You know, it does tend to suck when a mentor starts taking an active disinterest in your little victories. She makes a sarcastic remark about slumming. “So you’re a self-help writer now. Interesting. Honestly, I couldn’t stomach churning out that crap.”
She takes a sip of her wine, looking away as those words slip out of her mouth. As if she can hide behind a Pinot.
Her comment stings a little, but it’s also a sign. You’ve graduated. You’re a Jedi now. You just don’t feel like one yet.
But you can’t worry too much about that.
A meme went around a while ago, when Leonardo DiCaprio finally won his Oscar. Every writer needs to frame this thing:
Yeah, this meme reflects how anyone tends to feel after finally achieving a certain level of success and security in their career. It takes such a long ass time to get there. Lots of false starts. Lots of failures. Most importantly, lots of mirages — moments where you thought you’d made it, but didn’t. Those moments probably feel the worst.
So let me tell you how I wound up here. By “here,” I mean the moment where my mentor dismissed me over drinks. Fair warning, it’s a deeply cynical story —with a moderately happy ending.
I’m not writing this to complain. No, honestly. So what’s my agenda? To show new writers just how much disappointment, angst, and despair you have to endure on the way to your summit. As Leo has proven, success sometimes requires you to get mauled by a giant bear. And stabbed. And to be left for dead by the people you trusted.
An office at Barnes & Noble.
Some of us start out with ambitions nowhere near reality. We have no idea what we’re getting ourselves into.
Me? I thought I’d just crank out a best-selling literary novel at the age of 21 and become the next prodigy. So I started spending half my day at Barnes & Noble, reading journals without buying them.
As long as you keep paying for coffee and scones, nobody seems to mind. The bathrooms, however, are filthy. This is why you occasionally splurge on a literary magazine and take it to Starbucks. Much nicer bathrooms. Oh, and you’re here because you can’t afford home wifi. Well, not wifi and coffee. Life always makes you choose.
“You’re a perky little thing.”
You change your major from Economics to English. And you start hanging out at prose and poetry readings. You try to network, but nobody even listens to you — unless you’re kissing their ass.
Famous authors visit your campus all the time. You read their books, and try to ask smart questions.
One of them calls you a perky little thing. He fawns over you during a three hour dinner, at a restaurant you’d never afford on your own. Everyone in your program watches, with a mix of amusement and disgust.
Later, another famous author asks you to fetch his coat for him. And you do it with a bright smile, because the coat must possess magic powers that transfer to anyone who touches it.
That’s not a good sign.
The perky little things never get anywhere in publishing. They become an MFA professor’s mistress for a while. Publish a handful of short stories or poems. Then they age out. Or they finally develop some self-confidence and report someone for harassment.
Either way, they get used up and replaced every 3–5 years. It’s just like Hollywood. Except even more boring and pretentious. Don’t let yourself become the perky little thing at the poetry reading.
Not everyone’s cut out for journalism.
Lots of writers begin their careers at a newspaper, or a magazine. At least, they used to. Some still do, probably. Journalism can teach you a lot about style and brevity. You have to get to the point quick.
You might work for your college newspaper, for free. And you might intern for some local ones, also for free, and even develop a decent side hustle as a freelancer. Know this. They pay is always terrible. Forty bucks per article. Or a few hundred for a featured piece that probably takes 30 hours to research and write.
But you’re only 22. You’re not doing this for money. You’re investing in your future, so you believe.
You become a so-and-so.
And it’s true, all the writing you do does help. It’s great training. You develop a kind of mental endurance.
But you might get tired of interviewing local politicians. Your editor might start sucking the meat out of your stories, and injecting them into the staff writers’ pieces. You lose bylines. Your name shows up at the bottom, as “So-and-So contributed to this story.”
You finally make it, though. At 23, you find a job as a staff writer for a weekly newspaper. But they slowly go bankrupt. Your editor calls you in for a meeting. He says he loves your writing. You’re basically producing half the paper at this point. But he can’t afford to pay you anymore. Will you still freelance for him?
So you hurl yourself back onto the job market. Editors set up interviews with you, and then cancel them when their niece applies for the job. One editor even tells you, “I was going to give you this position, but then someone I really like applied at the last minute. Sorry.” At least he’s honest. Anyway, you get fed up and start looking into MFA programs.
MFA programs and instant regret.
Just add water; bring to a quick boil. You don’t regret your MFA because you got kicked out, or someone scorched you at a workshop. Totally the opposite. All of your professors predicted a bold, bright future ahead. They loved your work. That’s the problem.
And also, you regret carrying around some book like Infinite Jest for two years. “I’m trying to get into it,” you tell everyone.
You regret all the lies you told yourself about what kind of literature you enjoy reading. You regret trying to write like David Foster Wallace. There can be only one DFW, and he lucked out big time. Sorta.
Success at an MFA program means nothing.
Praise from your creative writing professors doesn’t matter. They promise to send your thesis to their agent, and they don’t. Some of them can’t even send letters of recommendation on time. They unleash their diva tempers when you email them reminders about deadlines.
You waste three years thinking their opinion carries weight, instead of learning how to write for real people. You know, ones without MFA degrees. Ones who don’t pretend to love James Joyce.
You discover that agents don’t care about some creative writing award you won at your school.
Here’s what an MFA program does. Nobody will read your shit. So you pay thousands of dollars for 12 people to pretend they did. In reality, they skim your short story the morning of and tear it apart, in order to impress an established writer who can’t sell their book.
You don’t matter as much as you thought.
You follow all the advice about networking. You cozy up to mid-list authors. Buy their books. Review them for local newspapers. Interview them for magazines. In your own small way, you contribute to their success. You even chat with them at book festivals.
Finally, your novel comes out with a small but noteworthy press. All your so-called mentors couldn’t care less.
Your friends don’t seem to take much interest, either. That one guy who’s had a crush on you since college? He skips your book launch party for his afternoon workout. He’s training for a triathlon. If only you’d slept with him. Maybe he would’ve shown up.
Your first book tour bankrupts you.
You think a starred review in someplace like Publishers Weekly is going to catapult your career. It doesn’t. Everything that can go wrong does.
Newspapers misprint the dates of your readings. They also get the title of your book wrong, over and over. They schedule glowing reviews but run out of space or time or both. People show up for your signings on the wrong day, but stay and buy someone else’s book instead of yours.
Most of the time, you sit at a book festival booth watching the line for Audrey Niffenegger swell like a cancerous snake.
Meanwhile, here’s you:
Those authors you reviewed and interviewed for years? They can’t remember your name. Some of them promise to invite you to their campus for a reading, and then back out later.
Over six months, you spend hundreds of dollars on other writers’ books. Gas. Hotels. Finally, you run out of money. Your credit card has ballooned. You have to take on an extra job tutoring online just to make your rent. Look, suffering is good for you. But it can’t go on forever.
You decide to take a break.
Creative writing has lost its thrill. Now, you can’t sit down to write without feeling a little nauseated. A dozen literary agents have contacted you, and then sat on your second book for three or four months before sending a form rejection. You thought you were getting somewhere.
But here you are, back at sea level. On top of that, some of your friends seem to enjoy watching you fail.
So you stop. You focus on your academic career. It goes well. Over time, the bitterness of your past failures fades. You meet someone and get married. Start to live, for a change.
You start to self-publish.
Because seriously, what do you have to lose at this point? You’ve run the gauntlet, and you’re no longer sure editors and agents always know what they’re doing.
One summer a memoir just comes gushing out of you. A fictionalized one. You publish it on Amazon. It tanks. But you don’t care.
You’re just happy to do some creative writing again. Turns out, a new genre gives you the outlet to say what you’ve been meaning to this whole time. Writing novels wasn’t your thing.
You start a blog.
Not because you want to get rich. You just want to keep writing. It helps you work through all the unprocessed emotions you’ve been dumping into a landfill in the back of your mind for the last twenty years.
Your first blog kind of sucks, though. And yet you keep updating it for almost a year. Then you hop over to a new platform. You heard someone talking about this website called Medium. Can’t hurt to try.
After a month, you start seeing traffic you didn’t even think possible. A thousand views for one post? Cool.
You keep writing about your problems. The way you write about your problems resonates with people. So you decide to open up. Write about stuff that used to embarrass you.
You stop caring about what doesn’t matter.
After fifteen years of struggle, you finally start to understand yourself as a writer. You know what you’re doing now. So it doesn’t matter so much when friends or mentors make dismissive comments. It doesn’t matter so much when some random troll stops by to trash your writing.
You get better and better, and meet other interesting bloggers. Turns out, some writers do appreciate it when you support their work. And they return the favor. You build a community.
This restores your faith in humanity — a little.
And then the site starts actually paying you to write. You tell yourself not to get too excited. Just see where it goes. Well, you’ve been seeing where it goes for almost two years now. So far, so good.