By Sandra Novack
I began writing seriously in 2001, when I entered my MFA Program at Vermont College. I began publishing short stories in 2003. Looking back, it seems that, over the years, many people have dispensed good advice. Some of my favorites have been: “Don’t go into poetry; you’re much better at fiction!” (Advice taken, though, translation: Your poetry is really pretty bad!) Or, “When you can write a story that appears in THE NEW YORKER, then you can criticize the stories in THE NEW YORKER.” (Advice also taken.) Or, “You really seem to excel at longer forms; have you considered writing a novel?” (I did that then, to pretty great success.) Or, my favorite, from my agent: “You’re one of the most self-critical writers I know. Be kinder to yourself; this is great stuff!” (Advice I still always seem to struggle with, every single day.)
Probably one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve gotten is also the most basic. You want to be a writer? Then write. After whatever comes next? Keep writing. Here are some other bits I’ve gleaned over the years, which I hope may prove useful.
1) There’s no one path to “success”. Though many of us share similarities, in terms of ups and downs, high and lows, the truth is our writing/life paths, our learning curves for any given book, our routines, our schedules, our luck, our creative impulses, our processes etc., are all highly idiosyncratic. Examples: I started off studying psychology and philosophy and had no intention of becoming a writer. I didn’t attend a traditional MFA and had zero connections, but I landed a powerhouse agent on an 85-page partial and had that partial picked up, in a two-book deal, at auction in NY. My first novel came together in a year, with very little revision from Random House.
In contrast: I’ve written a whopping, polished draft and decided (and was essentially told) it wasn’t as commercially viable as I thought. My new novel (which I’m told IS viable) has taken several years to write, and I’m still working on it! My husband recently reminded me: “Not every work unfolds in the same way.” (Just like people.)
2) You’re only really in competition with yourself, on any given day. Seriously. To be fair, I’ve never really suffered from writer envy short of once, back in my MFA, but it was so terribly self-destructive then that I decided I wouldn’t go there again, and have done a pretty good job with that since. Still, I know many artists—writers, painters, actors etc.—who seem to dwell there. (PS Don't hang out with them; they will bring you down.)
Don’t look to the fact that so-and-so’s book came out before yours. Your book might come out later, and do better. Who knows? Don’t think that this writer had a book 1.5 years after his previous one, because he’ll be the first to remind you that book three, written back in 2000, had a seven-year lapse in publication. When you look at the fact that, for as idiosyncratic as all our paths are, we’re still really all in this together, then it only makes sense to be happy and supportive of one another's efforts. Be your best self. Your best self is pretty goddamn awesome.
3) The notion of “success”, or of having arrived at success, is a total and utter fallacy when you are actually serious about your craft. This one I HAVE fallen victim to, again and again. When I hadn’t yet published, I said, “If I publish, I’ll know I’m a real writer and am successful.” Then it was, “If I publish again, in an even better place, then I’ll know.” Other things I’ve said: “If I get my short story collection published (which are notoriously hard to publish at all);” “If I land a powerhouse agent;” “If a major house is interested in my novel;” “If I get starred reviews;” “If I get book-of-the-year;” Yada, yada, yada. The list goes on and on. I’ve had all of these things happen, and guess what? I still feel like I’m not particularly successful.
Why not say instead, “I want to feel productive each day. I want to do something to contribute to this thing I love, called art.”
4) Remember to enjoy high moments. ENJOY THE RIDE, particularly those moments when you’re “up” and things are happening at what seems like uber-fast speeds. Recently my agent said to me, “You don’t even realize how well you’re doing, do you?” You know what? I honestly couldn’t say that I did. This is not what the writing Gods want from you, Friends. Pat yourself on the back, once in a while…geesh, at least that!
5) Writing is already hard, so don’t make it harder by constantly doubting or self-criticizing everything you’re doing. There are more than a few people out there (genuine critics, and, god help you, the general public and more than a few “artsy” friends and family members) who are willing to tell you all the things they think you didn’t do well. Why be one of those people, with your own work? You do the writing; you do your job. Show up. Let those people do what they do. My personal opinion. Frankly, those people aren’t really yours to own.
6) As always: Write, and keep writing.
Sandra Novack is the author of PRECIOUS (2009), a Booklist Best-of-the-Year winner as well as a Reader’s Circle Selection. She is also the author of EVERYONE BUT YOU (2011). Both are available from Random House. Currently she is working on a new novel, which she hopes will be titled The Peacock Angels (if the name sticks with editors and agent!). Visit her at: www.sandranovack.com.