The thing about advice you get from writers is just how much it doesn’t focus on the middle part of the writing life. The middle part being, of course, the struggle.
Sure, it’s not hard to pick up a book or find an article about the habits of successful writers or about how to start a novel or develop to a point where you’re submitting stories—but what about that in-between? What about what happens when you’re no longer a “beginning writer” and certainly not an established one.
After I earned my MFA the director of the program asked me to come back and speak to the next cohort of students about life after graduation. I realized that the majority of what I had to say dealt directly with this middle bit—this moment after your formal education (if you had one, which is a whole other topic) and before your first big break. I spoke about the daily grind of being a writer and not earning a single dime from it. I talked about submitting and writer’s groups and the whole kit-and-kaboodle that comes with choosing this activity over others.
What I’d like to do in this article is condense some of what I shared with those folks (I was tempted to say bright-eyed but in all honesty they were looking at their laptops for most of my talk. Later one student explained they were writing down what I was saying, but let’s be real honest with each other). Some of this you might already know, but consider that I’m writing it from the perspective of someone who is living that magical writing life that takes place after, before, and sometimes during the 9 to 5.
1. Find a strong writing group and keep it strong. There’s this idea that writers are solitary things—and for the most part we are. Honestly it’s one of the reasons I enjoy saying I’m a writer. People tend to think of you as elusive and moody, which helps with getting out of parties and social frivolity. But even if you’re burned out on writing groups due to an MFA or local everything-is-great-you-write writing group, make sure you find some people to do workshop with.
A strong writing group is one that doesn’t let you get away with shoddy writing. They don’t start with “this is good”. They end with “this is good” after tearing your story apart for every lazy shortcut you thought you could sneak in. They hold you accountable for getting better even when you don’t think getting better is possible. They’re people who you can say exactly what you’re thinking and they don’t consider you a jerk for saying it.
In my case, the writing group I’m a part of doesn’t meet in person—it’s all online. Occasionally Chris DiCicco will stop by Lancaster and we’ll have a few beers or write together the whole day, but we aren’t doing the writing group thing. The other fella (Daniel DiFranco) I don’t see except for when we meet up at writing events our MFA puts on. Our writing group is vibrant and helpful, and we do it all through Google docs.
The benefit of a good writing group is that you’re putting some outside pressure on yourself to commit, and that pressure is what most folks need to actually produce. It also satisfies the inherent need I think we all have for instant gratification. You produce work and then you submit that work to people who are going to read it closely. For a writer in the wild, a good writing group is just as important as actually producing work.
2. Next, build up your writing skin. I talk about this a bit more in detail over on my site, but generally, you need to become impervious to rejections, failures, and critiques to make it anywhere in this business. Your “skin” needs to become as thick as a rhino’s, so thick that you pretty much feel the same about a rejection as you do about an acceptance (okay, not really, but a rejection should stop feeling like a failure, which it certainly isn’t).
Lots of books on becoming a writer explain how rejection is a part of the writing life, but they don’t necessarily explain it effectively enough: rejection is the writing life. It’s huge, and if you aren’t getting rejected you aren’t doing it right.
Your writing skin is what gives you the power to read in front of audiences and be brave enough to say you’re a writer. It’s what pushes you to keep submitting your work because you know it’s good enough to be seen. It’s what gets you into those great writing groups and lets you take in all that criticism without getting frustrated with the critic or yourself. I’m still working on mine (a rejection doesn’t hurt, two in one day does a little, and three in one day hasn’t happened yet but it’s going to be bad).
3. The final point I want to make is about the little big world of writers. For this I turn to Twitter, of all things, as my example of diving into the writing community at large. A big part of writing is reading—and supporting other writers who are reading your work in turn. The term, for better or worse, is literary citizenship, and it’s something that all of us need to be aware of. It means not only pushing out and shouting about your own work, but finding other writers and doing the same for them. I try to do this through Twitter as much as possible: retweeting publication messages, interacting with writers, and just generally participating in the conversations that happen between people.
This is a really easy, fun way to build up a team of people who will act as your megaphone whenever your next story comes out—and even more importantly, will be the first wave of people who are itching to buy your work when it’s up for sale. I cannot stress how important it is to support this community in your own hometown (if you’re lucky enough to have a hometown writing community), but it’s just as important to make that community online and support it there, too. It doesn’t take much, and the payoff is tremendous.
There are so many other points to make about being an up-and-coming writer, but l figure that this is enough for you to start with. Like I said, I still have a day job and I’m still just only starting my writing life, but I hope some of the advice above strikes home for where I suspect many writers find themselves.
Matthew Kabik’s work has appeared in Structo Magazine, Pithead Chapel, WhiskeyPaper, and Sundog Lit, among others. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Arcadia University. Follow him on Twitter @mlkabik or visit his website for a complete list of publications: www.matchstickcircus.com