“All the work necessary to learn how to write
boils down to reading and writing.” — Scott Raab
I’ve been paying my bills with writing since the mid 80’s. I went freelance in 1990 and, at this point, have pretty much zero skills to bring to the job market. I’m unemployable — because, you see, I’m a writer. People buy my books, offer me contracts for work not yet written, and often schools pay for me to speak to their students. I actually get on planes, stay in hotels, so I can talk to students about my books and, more or less, my life as a writer. So it’s natural for folks to ask me, “What advice do you have for young writers?”
And one of these days I might come up with an answer, instead of doing my usual stammering thing. I mean, I must know something. Right? So for me the problem is that temperamentally I don’t like acting like I’ve got all the answers, especially when most days I feel like this . . .
And it’s also because the answer is just sooo dull. The words come out of my mouth and thud to the floor. They don’t sound wise or insightful. There’s no penetrating insight, no secrets to reveal. I’ve got nothing. Nada. Or, at least, nothing that gets anybody sitting upright, shouting, “Eureka!”
The good news: I recently came across a short piece by Scott Raab titled “Writing” where he tackles the same question. And I loved the tone he set, his directness and utter lack of bull, the way he nailed it to the wall, a nice guy sincerely trying to tell it straight:
I get asked for advice by young writers and never know what to offer beyond a few things that sound absurdly simple. I don’t want to be discouraging. I don’t want to be overly encouraging, either. Print may or may not be dying, but writing isn’t. People still want to become writers, hope to make a career of it, think of it as something special — all that jazz.
I think the fundamental force behind writing is passion. The writers I know are insane. They don’t know how NOT to write about stuff. It’s like pro athletes often say about their sport: They’d play for free. Writers love to write — and not because it’s easy. Getting it right isn’t easy at all, and that challenge is a big part of why writers love to write. It’s a high, working on your game, a way of being in the world that feels absolutely honest and true.
Raab continues for a few paragraphs more, and you really ought to tap the link for it. Ultimately, Raab doesn’t offer shortcuts. I’d say he “refuses” to offer shortcuts, but that would be wrong. I’m sure he’d give you a shortcut if he knew a faster way to get out of the woods — but there is no shortcut, that’s the deal in a clam shell. And the dirty truth is, that’s exactly the opposite of what most people want to hear. “How did you get published? How did you become a writer?”
As if I could scribble a phone number on a slip of paper and whisper, “Ask for Lori, mention my name, she’ll take care of you.”
And by the way, you don’t become a writer. You are one, or you aren’t. You write, or you don’t. And that’s perfectly okay. Quick story: I’ve been reading a biography on Kurt Vonnegut, and old Kurt had a rough time of it for many years. It was hard to get published, a trial to make money. His books didn’t sell, quickly went out of print. There was zero acclaim. So sometimes, down in the dumps and ready to give up, he’d complain. And one time his fed-up agent (or editor) snapped back, “Nobody asked you to be a writer!”
The world didn’t owe him anything.
I quoted my favorite line from the Raab piece up at the top. You want to be a writer? You want advice?
Write, read, rinse and repeat.