Advice I Gave Writing Students at My Alma Mater
A few weeks ago, I was invited back to my college to speak to writing students and offer advice and insights. It was a really cool, gratifying experience: getting to give back a bit to the place I got my start. Here's some of what I shared.
- •It's ok not to have any idea what to do with your life.When I graduated from Penn, I really was clueless as to what I wanted to be when I grew up. I tried on a bunch of different hats (and different jobs), really stumbling my way into writing. (With a caveat: see below on risk-taking.) The point is: it's totally normal not to have it all figured out. That's what your 20s are for. Trust me.
- •Don't quit your day job.There were a few graduating seniors in the audience who wanted to know how they could support themselves as writers. The hard truth is that it will take years for them to do so. Many established writers I know don't quit their jobs until they are several books deep. Things are just too unpredictable, and really, these days, the money isn't great. Even if you're working at Starbucks, you need to work.
- •Have a thick skin or find another line of work.I'm not sure there is any better advice for a young writer. You will face rejection FOREVER. FOR-EVER. Not just at the entry level with agents and publishers. But with readers and reviewers and Goodreads and emails that people decide they have the right to send you personally. If you can't handle it, please (and I say this with kindness), find another outlet for your creativity.
- •It doesn't get easier.Of course, there is the thrill and gratification of being published. But authors have to prove themselves each and every book, and you are measured by those sales each time. The writing might get easier as you come to understand your strengths (and weaknesses), but the process really in many ways does not.
- •You're never too old (or too young) to start honing your craft.One student asked me when I'd advise someone to accept that he or she isn't getting published. Ever. I was like a) dude, you're 20, and b) who am I to tell someone to hang it up? I know debut authors in their 50s. I really do believe that if you have a story to tell, there are no age parameters to be placed.
- •Pay attention.Someone asked me where I get my ideas from, and I said what I believe to be true about most writers: that we are all just adept observers who can translate that to written word. To do that though, you have to look up from your phones and pay attention to the world, you have to carve out quiet space. This is so critical to me and my brain and my writing and my sanity.
- •Write every day.The students were amazed to do the math that I do when I'm working on a ms: I write at least 1k words a day, usually aiming for more, and that means that in 3-ish months, I have a workable first draft. Writing 1k words a day is doable and less daunting than thinking: I HAVE TO WRITE A WHOLE FUCKING BOOK, and it is really the best way to stay on track.
- •Welcome criticism with open arms.These students have such a mecca of help with their professors and fellow students who are bright and well-read. Constructive criticism is one of the most helpful and necessary tools for a young (and old) writer. Listen with very, very open ears because you will grow to unexpected heights by removing your ego from the equation and pushing yourself to be better.
- •You are going to fail. A lot.Both as a writer and as a human. Getting knocked down as a writer is part of the deal; getting knocked down as a human is part of life. Seriously. I graduated from a top school and ended up temping at Goldman Sachs FOR THE PEOPLE I GRADUATED WITH. So fucking what?
- •Take risks. A lot of them.I don't mean, like, sexually or with drugs. I mean with your writing and yourself. The single biggest thing I did as an aspiring writer was secretly submit my work to an opening for an bi-monthly op-ed column in Penn's newspaper. I didn't tell a soul bc I was terrified and certain I wouldn't get it. I did. I was shocked. I truly believe that if I hadn't taken that leap, I'd never have thought that it was possible for me to be a published author.
- •Take risks part two.During the seminars, I told the students to find mentors or seek guidance from their professors: I then told them that they could always email me for advice. I mean, seriously, if you know me, I'm the least intimidating person, but I could see it from their perspective: many of them were like SHE CAN'T MEAN THAT! I was curious who would take me up on it. About 5 (out of 50) did. I think that's SO awesome, and I wrote them all back immediately and will be here to help them as they go.
- •Take risks part three.Which actually led me to tell them a story of how I read a novel before my own debut came out and loved it enough to want to email the author. Her bio said she also went to Penn, so I figured we had that connection, but I was SO terrified to reach out. I did it anyway. She wrote me right back, asked me to coffee, and 10 years later, she is one of my best friends AND my critique partner (see above about its importance). List App-ers: go for it! Email an author you love! You never know.