Advice to a young aspiring writer

writing_woodleywonderworks As I love getting email, I respond to pretty much all of it. I mean, fair is fair, and as long as I can manage it, that seems fair.

What I almost never do is share my replies with anyone but the sender. This is not, after all, an advice blog, nor am I an advice blogger. With the exception of my correspondence with actors, most of whom find me via my monthly marketing-for-actors column, and whose questions I solicit for the express purpose of helping as many of their fellow performers as possible, I expect people write to me with the assumption that what we talk about will remain between us.

So when this young, would-be writer emailed me about writing, and without expecting a reply, which is the only way to write someone for advice cold, I began my reply to him and only him. Until at some point, probably 75-85% of the way in, I realized not only that what I was saying to him was potentially applicable to all kinds of other people, but that it was really the advice I wish I'd been sensible enough to ask for and fortunate enough to receive when I was a young, aspiring writer.

Which is why I'm sharing it here. There is no shortage of advice to young, would-be writers, just as there is no shortage of older, somewhat-established writers to give it to them. Most of it boils down to the same thing: write a lot, read a lot, don't quit your day job, pursue your truth relentlessly.

Then again, there are only seven stories in the entire world, yet we seem to want to keep hearing new takes on them. You never know what version of the story will work for you, just like you never know whose Heathcliff will finally make you understand Cathy's despair. (This one, for now.)

For now, I've removed all identifying features. If the young, aspiring writer in question wants to wave, he'll do so; he's been welcomed, privately, in a note with a few additional, private words.

But the message serves even with the particulars removed. At least, that is my sincere hope.

Pass it on.

* * * * *

Dear Young Aspiring Writer:

You ask me how you're doing as a writer. You ask me to review the pieces you sent me (which you sent as links, not attachments, for which I thank you), or one of them, and to give you my assessment of your writing talent.

Essentially, what you are asking me is whether or not you should be a writer, something you have no training in, but a hankering for, or whether you should, as you put it, "stick with business and be mediocre."

I don't need to look at the pieces you sent me. Your note tells me all I need to know about whether you should be a writer or not: you want to write, ergo you should be a writer. Done! (Wasn't that easy?)

However, I suspect you may actually have asking me something else, something along the lines of "Do I have the talent to make it as a writer?" where make it equals getting money, attention, beautiful ladies (or gents) (or both) throwing themselves at you. The answer to that question is, "I've no idea." Most of whether you'll make it as a writer has to do with how much you want it, and how much that translates into you working your ass off, i.e. reading enough (hint: there is never "enough" when you want to be a writer) and writing enough (hint: you should write every day, as much as you can, with 250 words a rock-bottom minimum) and busting through of your own blocks enough (hint: take a good acting class and/or get into therapy).

Also, experiences: you need lots of them. Along with time, to let them stew and simmer together and become a part of your very being. And fellow travelers, both of the writing variety and other folk who are equally passionate about whatever their "thang" is.

If you want to be a writer, you will write. You will write regardless of anything else you're also doing. Being a writer and being a business dude (or lady) are not mutually exclusive, viz. Wallace Stevens, among others.

If you want to be a journalist, well, you will have to immerse yourself in that particular end of the writing pool. And work your ass off, and do all of the things I mention above. As my gal Beverly Sills so wisely said,

There are no short cuts to any place worth going.

But this I will say for sure: no matter what you end up doing with your life, do not go into that thing thinking being mediocre is okay. It's not; it's the worst kind of bullshit. Mediocre isn't mediocre: it sucks. It's close to planned, intentional evil, because it's a pissing-away of potential, a waste of life. And life is precious, young man, not a thing to be wasted.

You can have a survival gig and still pursue your dream of supporting yourself doing something you love more. I would prefer you start thinking of it now as "having a job that is satisfying in some way that writing is not" as opposed to some crap job. Even the crappiest crap job should be feeding you somehow: with experience, with a practice. You can learn a lot about patience or humility or managing up or any number of things from a Stupid Day Job. Sometimes you can learn that and a bankable skill: I learned as much from my job as a low-wage glorified gofer in a media-buying agency as I did from my 10 years as a highly-paid copywriter.

So, again, if you are a writer, you will write. You will also read, voraciously, because that is writer-food. Read crap, so you know what it is, and read in the area you want to write for, but also read the best of the best: the novelists, the playwrights, the essayists, the poets, the columnists, the philosophers who are enduring. Don't ever let me catch you anywhere without reading material. (If it is helpful, think of the world as a giant bathroom, and you as always having to go. You're welcome.) And you must always make certain that a certain percentage of what you read is books. They need not be physical books, the definition of "book" has changed much in the past five years, and will continue to change much in the next five, but they need to be of substantial length, and read offline, with some concentration. This will help your brain knit itself together properly, get those neurons fired up and linking.

Okay, one small note on the pieces you sent me. Well, one of the pieces. Or rather, a part of one of them, I did not get all the way through. Because the one I read a bit of was imitative of a thing you think you want from where you're standing now, instead of the thing you really and truly want, which is to WRITE. To connect with other human beings through words.

That desire, to WRITE, came through clearly and strongly and plainly and simply and compellingly in your email to me. It came through so compellingly, in fact, that I ended up writing you this long-ass reply when, arguably, I didn't have to write you any reply, and when I most definitely had a lot of things to do before I had any business sitting down to write a reply. Any writing that triggers a response that is both passionate and considered I would argue is good writing. Sensationalist writing, the kind that is done merely to incite passion (or to garner attention and page views), is not something to aspire to, unless you're looking for short-term successes and an anxiety-ridden life from constantly chasing something outside of yourself.

Now. A note on imitation. There's nothing wrong with imitating other writers. If you peeked in my old 1980s journals, you'd find writing that reeked of Oscar Wilde or Frederick Barthelme or whatever other writer I was obsessed with in the moment, along with every short-story writer for the New Yorker from 1975 - 1988, emphasis on "reeked." We learn by imitating. Hell, sometimes we learn by outright copying: there's a whole school of Writing Thought that prescribes writing out the contents of your favorite book in their entirety, just to have the feel of making something great. I'm not saying this isn't worthwhile, either; I think there has to be some benefit to copying out The Great Gatsby, if only that it slows you down enough to really take in the story.

But my point is this: imitating other people is the place to start, not to finish. Imitating other people for too long, or as more than an interesting exercise, makes for disposable writing. The work of finding your voice is work. Not altogether unpleasant work, but effortful and time-consuming and...well, weird. Because it's you, hacking through the wilderness rather than you, following a well-lit, well-paved road with plenty of markers and traffic. There's no GPS for finding your own voice except your own inner voice, how things resonate within your heart, and this can be kind of crazymaking along the way. Never fear! Or, fear and sally forth, regardless! This goes for whether you want to write "serious" stuff or what certain stuffy serious writers might call "fluff" or even "crap." There's plenty of fun, interesting writing with a strong voice in pop journalism; that's what makes for great reviews and commentary, for great food writing, for great humor writing, for great sports writing. There is great writing in every genre, although you may have to do some work to ferret it out. (Hint: it's not always what's the most obvious and/or popular.)

So the answer to your original question, Young Writer, as to whether you have a talent for writing, a gift for writing, is really more "who cares?" than "yes" or "no" or "who knows?" It's immaterial. If you have a talent for writing and don't write, you will never be a writer, much less a great one. Whereas if you have no talent for writing, you may well find out that you have a talent for something else through writing, because by really applying yourself to writing, you'll find your truth. And either that truth will be "Hey, I'm a writer!" or "Hey, I'm not a writer!" You won't know until you've slogged away for a bit. As a girl I liked writing and drawing and performing pretty much equally, but over time, it became clear that I was a writer. How? Because I wrote and I drew and I acted, and guess what, I wasn't a draw-er or an actor!

Given the handful of details you've shared in your note to me, especially that you lit on the idea of being a writer at age 9 and gave it up as impractical at 18, I suspect you are a writer. In my experience, the things people believe they are when they're about 9 or 10 end up being the things they truly are. Some of us may take the long way around the barn (raises sun-damaged, vein-y hand), but we circle back to it eventually. I think it might be that at 9 or 10, we have the perfect balance of awareness and freedom in between being a blob-like mass and feeling the need to conform and be sensible. As an adult, you do need to be sensible if you want to keep that Great Finish Line in the Sky as far away as possible.

And that goes double for adults who want to live the long life of a writer. The starving-artist myth is bullshit, as are the myths of the tortured artist, the crazy artist, and the hopelessly-drunk artist. It's the reasonably-well-fed, clothed and housed artist with some love, peace, fun and sanity in her life who makes it to the end. Along with my Beverly Sills quote, I am recently loving this one from Gustave Flaubert:

Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

In other words, yay! for dental hygiene and a good night's sleep. And for day jobs, while we're at it.

For now, see if you can apply yourself to your writing and your day job. Pick a reasonable mix, 25/75, 15/85, and go for it. If you can't do even that much of your own writing on the side, you may need to find another clock to punch. If that happens, try to pick one that will either teach you some valuable skill (there are many!) or that will free up your brain to work ideas out in your head while you do your job (and that doesn't make the world a worse place, those jobs will kill you).

And write, every day. Read, every day. Find support from fellow travelers to build up your tolerance for dealing with people who may be less than supportive.

You can do this. I hope you will.

xxx c

UPDATE(s): My buddha-tea-boy in PDX, Jason, invoked the canonical bit of writer-to-writer handoff advice/encouragement, Letters to a Young Poet.

Also, I just finished listening to an outstanding episode of Back to Work that addresses a lot of this sort of doubt-and-keep-going stuff. It's not up on the 5by5 site yet, but it will be Episode #23, possibly named "Failure is ALWAYS an option" (you'll have to listen for context, and there's a lot of nerd stuff that may or may not be interesting, depending on how you hoe your row. If I listen again, I'll try to remember to mark the salient bit.)

Image by woodleywonderworks via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Cheering the Hell Up, Day 04: Making Breaking Up Less Hard To Do

mourning First off, for you alarmists out there: no, nothing's wrong in Paradise. The BF and I are still happily "The BF and I."

But I recently made a new friend who recently broke it off with a boyfriend and it got me to thinking about my own past breakups, oft necessary parts of Getting To Happy, but not always fun in their own right.

No advice is one-size-fits-all, so consider everything I'm going to say like a pile of stuff at an outdoor flea market that you can either pick through lazily out of interest or ignore wholesale for the smelly, superfluous pile of ca-ca it is.

Also, this advice is mainly for chicks because, despite all of my efforts to be very manly, I am a chick. If you're a dude...well, maybe #3 & #4 cross the gender line, but basically, I don't know. The best advice I can give is go seek out some dude advice. (Do dudes even give advice?)

For you ladies, read on...

1. Do more hanging out with women right now. GREAT women, who inspire you. Not "girls." And especially not catty girls. It is also fine to hang out with gay male friends who love you and will tell you how gorgeous/fabulous you are. It is even fine if they are catty, as long as it's about the right stuff and makes you laugh.

2. Avoid like the plague anything that makes you feel old/ugly/loser-esque/etc. For me, this means all women's magazines and other lifestyle porn (except maybe JANE and Oprah's magazine) and supertrendy L.A. hangout spots. It is also very good to avoid people who are at all unsupportive or even just well-meaning but have their heads up their asses. Keep your force field as clear as you can of human detritus.

3. Ditto news of anything that makes you feel depressed. This includes "important" but devastating coverage of Darfur, chimpy, peak oil, etc. Quickly skim headlines to make sure the world isn't coming to an end today, then move on.

4. Do lots more of what is unusual and fun for you, provided it is of a creative and inspiring and active nature, and not a passive, consumer nature. Consider spending less time (and money) at the store and more at sites like Inspire Me Thursday and 52 Projects. Be with friends (the good ones, the positive ones) but do as much of it alone as you can. Let yourself rock out aloud with the joy of it all.

5. If you haven't yet, consider reading He's Just Not That Into You. Yeah, it's annoying and cheesy and embarrassing for a variety of reasons, most unintentional. But you don't have to buy it; you can read it in about a half-hour standing up in the aisle at the bookstore (after my last breakup, I read it in a Borders I don't usually frequent because I am a gigantic pussy). And like it or not, it distills the truth about women taking crap off of men like nothing I've ever read.

Of course, nothing heals like time. But a bit of awareness during the healing time might prevent future repeats. Sticking your head into a tub of ice cream feels good in the moment, but doesn't do much to evolve you from emotional knuckle-dragging.

Besides, ice cream is off-limits if you're SCD...

xxx c

Image by scottwills via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

It was not ever thus

Tiny infant, bawling Here's the thing to remember when you have been sick or sad or otherwise sporting the cosmic "kick me, hard" sign on your back for a long, long time: this is not who you are.

You are not this collection of aches and pains that consume your body now. You are not this bundle of anger and fear and despair that you feel you are now. You are not these bills, these woes, these slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. These are things that are happening to you? That's just what they are: things that are happening to you.

Your essence lies deep within, possibly being tested to the limits of its endurance, probably pissed off, but there, at the heart of you, is the heart of you.

Have I been tested? Sure. Yeah. Have the tests been as arduous or lengthy as many of my brethren? Hell, no. For as lousy as my Crohn's has made me feel, I wouldn't trade places with anyone. A-n-y-o-n-e. The devil you know, and all that.

But I forget sometimes, and maybe sometimes you do, too. And sometimes when I forget, there's no one there to remind me: it was not ever thus.

So I will remind you and perhaps, the next time I fall down the well and can't see the light, you will lower down a basket with a snack and a comforting note to remind me: this is not who you are, this wet darkness, but something you're sitting in. Maybe you will even find the right length of rope or somesuch to throw down there so I can climb out.

But mainly, I hope you will be there for me, or whomever needs you in the moment, to make sure I do not forget:

It was not ever thus.

xxx c

Photo by Megro, via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

How to get the man of your dreams: make a list, check it twice

heartIt's been awhile since the c-trix blogged about dating. This is only natural, given that she has been blissfully, if somewhat surprisingly, ensconced in a monogamous relationship with The BF for the bulk of 2005. Plus it's the holidays and stuff, people have Black Friday and E-mail Monday and other important issues to wrestle to the ground. At the same time, the management is nothing if not sensitive to the fact that the holidays can be an especially difficult time for those who are single and wish not to be. Hell, the management has spent more than one holiday with nothing but a camera up its ass to keep it company. So when a recent check of the stats turned up an interesting dating-and-the-single-woman blog that's recently linked here (thank you, Dr. Annie), we here at communicatrix were impelled to action.

The post in question raises the question of "dealbreakers": must-have accessory of the self-actualized gal or blueprint for foolish pipe dream?

The post links to an entry on another blog written by a young Adventist Christian hussy (God bless the internets) who very much knows what she wants. In fact, she's enumerated it, in minute detail, for which I applaud her. It can be very scary asking for what you want, but also very, very powerful. I know; I myself wrote a series of these lists in the year before I met The BF. The way I see it, when I finally got the list right, bam! I got the guy who matched the list.


There are two caveats to keep in mind if you want the voodoo to work.

First, you can't be cavalier about the list. The list needs to be a distillation of the things that resonate in the deepest, darkest parts of you. That list needs to be s-e-r-i-o-u-s.

That doesn't mean things like "makes my heart thump from across the room" or "can pound me till the top of my head comes off" can't be on there; they should, if those things matter to you. Anything that really matters should be on the list. It just means you must not sully it with frivolous, superficial bullshit your frivolous, superficial ego has on its shopping list.

So, in this brave new dating universe, "attractive to me" replaces any specific trait you may have found hot in anyone to date (pun intended). "Gets it" replaces a specific level of schooling you think is the benchmark of smart. And be very judicious about your inclusion of lifestyle line items: unless you are a porpoise, best to leave "MUST love the water" off.

Part II of the love juju operation is what most people leave out, and the thing that generally insures against frivolous line items: you, the asker, must be ready for the askee. Not ready as in "I am so fed up with all these stupid mens who don't appreciate my fine self" but with the heightened state of readiness a martial arts master knows his instrument. You have read the books, shrunk with the shrink, risen from the ashes of devastion like a self-evolved phoenix. You have, most likely, spent months or even years at a stretch with naught but your loathesome self (and maybe a camera up your ass) to keep you company. You know humility from false modesty from self-loathing; you take shit off of no one because you have the deep confidence in your choices that comes with time and thought and meaningful action, not because you bad.

In a quick fix world, Part II seems cumbersome, inelegant and tedious. It lacks the can-do, Tools For Livingâ„¢ sexiness of listmaking.

But there is no substitute for knowing oneself, and the alternative, a world full of people with the extraordinary and unprecedented luxury of time for self-evolution who instead choose Doritosâ„¢ and trips to Cabo and other disposable bling of our modern era, is far more horrid to contemplate than even a lifetime alone.

So for the good of the planet, of the rest of us who share it, of the people you and your future love-monkey might put on it, before you make that list of everything you want in another person, make a list about everything you want in a best friend. Or a list of all the traits the most amazing teacher/family member/heroic figure you've ever met possesses.

Take a long time with that list: write, put aside, live your live, come back to it. Rinse, repeat. It is a lengthy process and yes, sometimes a tedious one. But it can also be a thrilling, challenging and even joyful process.

Become that list, and chances are the right person will fall right into your self-actualized lap.

xxx c

Me and my two cents

I'm not prone to giving advice, wait...yes, I am. Well, not unsolicited advice, shit, I do that, too. Sigh...

Okay: I love giving advice. I've been addicted to advice columns since I found Dear Abby on the funnies page (her hipper twin, Ann Landers, was in the Sun-Times and we were a Trib household all the way).

I especially enjoy advice on matters of the heart since I find love fascinating, although as regular readersknow, I spout off on pretty much anything within arm's reach. I loved Em & Lo, the erstwhile Nerve gals who write so well about sex, and subscribed to not so I could keep up with their excellent news coverage but because I got tired of reading the Daily Pass ad to get to my Cary Tennis.

Ironically, though, ever since I actually have had some clue about How These Things Work, I have questioned my right to be an authority on (insert topic here). I'm definitely one of those women who suffers from Imposter Syndrome, as Jory Des Jardins describes it:

(Imposter Syndrome) is a fairly common condition that affects many women, particularly those who are achievement-oriented. It's a belief that one's accomplishments are not deserved, that one has somehow fooled the system and will inevitably be found out for the fake that she is.

As a well under-30 pup selling ads to clients twice my age, I remember having frequent "When Will They Find Out We Are Frauds" discussions with my then-boss back in the go-go '80s.

But, as usual, I digress.

I think that my youthful zeal for offering advice had more to do with my needing to be seen and valued than with any selfless desire to share the wealth. These days, I find it easier to resist offering unsolicited advice one-on-one. I figure if someone wants my goddam opinion, they can goddam well ask for it; if, on the other hand, they're just jaw-flapping, as my ex-husband used to say, and I have an excuse to walk away and not waste my valuable time and energy.

As an avid reader of Craig's List, however, I find my advice-giving buttons pushed pretty frequently, and the lure is strong. Fortunately, they make you jump through so many hoops to reply to a post that my ardor cools in advance at the prospect. In fact, I'm always shocked at how many people will jump on a lame thread in the Rants & Raves section; they must have really, really boring jobs.

But every once in a while, a post cries out to me. The poster seems to genuinely want an answer to a problem that speaks to my experience, and I have an extra ten or so minutes to devote to the issue. I consider it another way of giving back; lord knows enough people have helped me through the dark and murky times.

I won't repost this guy's entire plea for help since I don't have his permission, but suffice it to say he was experiencing some bewilderment on the dating front and, having given up entirely on meeting people in real-life venues like bars, he had now come to the conclusion that even the people looking online weren't really looking for a relationship. Worse, I could sense he was on the precipice overhanging The Dark Place; one stiff wind and we might lose him to the other side.

Here's what I had to say:

You know what? You're absolutely right...and you're absolutely wrong.

I'm a fairly cool chick (or so I've been told by some fairly cool people who didn't stand to gain anything by saying it) and I've met some pretty great guys online. And in bars. And through friends. And even, one unusual time, standing in front of a burning bus.

I've also met some equally heinous guys in each of those places. (Well, I only met the one guy in front of the burning bus.)

Point being, there are asshat chicks *and* cool chicks *everywhere*. If you're really looking for a cool one, why close off any reasonable avenue? Two caveats, though. First, in my experience, you do better if you're open but not Looking. Cool chicks can get a little turned off by guys too much on the prowl. (And nobody likes a needy person.)

And second, if you are burning out on any part of the process or developing any kind of an attitude about a particular avenue, stay away from it until you can jump back in with a better attitude. Don't date angry!

Now, I know Em & Lo would have been way funnier, and that Cary would have done a much more thoughtful job of dissecting the guy's modus operandi and even analyzing his intent. But sometimes, the best "advice" you can give is a little reassurance that this, too, shall pass, and that maybe it's a good idea to cool one's heels until one can approach the "problem" with an open mind and a fresh perspective. Especially when you don't really know the person asking the question. And as someone with extensive experience in online dating who had experienced burnout and the falling rate of return that accompanies it, I felt uniquely qualified, nay, compelled, to speak up. So I'm pretty sure I wasn't talking out of my ass.

Hopefully, I wasn't just flapping my jaw, either.

xxx c