Don't Do It! Not Unless You Have To Extrude.
A few weeks ago I got an email from a former neighbor. We were kids together. Our families were close until both families moved away to other towns. John has held numerous jobs, many interesting. He’s written radio copy and newspaper articles and comedic dialogues for his own standup routine. Now he works in the oil and gas business and wants to change course and become a full time writer. It took me about five seconds to hit reply and type, Hi. So good to hear from you. But as to the question of chucking it all for a writing career? Don’t do it. Then I deleted what I wrote and tried, diplomatically, as any decent working writer would do, to convince John to stay in oil and gas. Was I wrong?
You writers out there know what I’m talking about. The hot face, the sweat pooling on the back of the neck when a friend or family member mentions their son or daughter, a cousin, neighbor, a colleague, or their butcher wants to hang up the clever and dedicate their life to writing. Can you offer some advice? they ask, so clueless that you want to scream in their innocent faces, “Advice? Tell them I wouldn’t recommend jumping off the Mackinaw Bridge, so why would I encourage the wannabe writer to throw herself off into the deep dark waters of a writing career, or, better yet, the hope of one? “Please,” you beg, “tell the butcher it’s easier slicing up a herd of cattle over and over again.”
As one frustrated writer said, “Writing a novel is like putting an airplane together.” Amen. And who wants to do that?
If begging doesn’t work explain that there is no money in it. Your brilliant wannabe will be living on canned soup in a dilapidated apartment in the seamier part of town. Journalists are usually living one pay grade above the poverty level. Only five percent of all the fiction writers on the planet (and there are a zillion of us) can sit all day and ponder plots and weird character tics. Most teach full time and write part time. Not unless you are Stephen King. Stephen King gets to write about dew evaporating and still make loads of money.
If that doesn’t dissuade the butcher, mention that the rejection is endless. ENDLESS. And sometimes cruel. Or just plain confusing.
Dear Robin Gaines: The writing is very solid, but it’s not quite on our tonal frequency. Try us again.
This rejection was scribbled at the end of my query letter sent back to me: A 6-yr old knows/recognizes the smell of greasy bacon and furniture polish? Precocious to say the least! Plot not right. Sorry.
Dear Robin: Evocative piece. Keep us in mind. Sorry we’re not returning your piece. We were showing it around and somehow it got misplaced. Will keep looking for it. (Stamped with a lovely coffee stain the size of a saucer.)
If your butcher stayed in bed for a week after not getting asked to prom or went on a bender of rum and cokes after being passed over for a promotion, she will become catatonic every time an editor, agent, magazine or literary journal says no thanks, not for us. This happens 99% of the time. No joke. You, Miss Writer, are a fart in the wind.
Okay, so she doesn’t mind the comparison to intestinal rumblings, and insists that writing is the only kind of air she wants to breathe, then follow these steps:
1) Slap them silly while shouting, SNAP OUT OF IT.
2) If the wannabe is thick skinned, which she has to be in order to survive in either journalism and/or fiction writing, then. . .
3) Lock her in a dark, dank basement and tell her this is the writer’s subconscious. Ask if she can deal with the scenery. If she doesn’t break the basement door down looking for a warm and sunny room . . .
4) Next, let some spiders loose in the basement then listen for the screams, “I give up, let me out.” If she’s able to stay down long enough to handle the creepy, crawly uncertainty of the art . . .
5) Then, toss a couple of snakes down the basement steps (non poisonous of course, you don’t want to kill her). Casually mention how the subconscious continually slithers up into the conscious mind where the writer’s favorite sound loop, “you suck, your writing sucks, who cares about this story or these characters” is on a constant repeat.
6) If she survives alone, unfed, unwashed, and unloved for a month or more and realizes no one is waiting with bated breath for her wonderful/shitty piece of prose or article or that personal essay . . .
7) Then let her up for air and ask her WHY?
8) And if she answers “because while I was down there dealing with my demons in the dark I came up with the most wonderful idea for a short story (or novel, or poem). I thought about it and thought about it and I can’t wait to get it out of my head and down on paper.”
9) You then give the malnourished, stinky, writer the tools to write. Then you wait. And wait and wait. Until one day you knock on the door asking what’s taking so long and you hear, “This is harder then I thought.” So you laugh and tell her no one cares about books anymore anyway. “Just quit,” you say. To prove your point you suggest the two of you watch episode after episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians because it is a monumental drop in despair to witness how doing nothing and acting stupid begets humongous favor with the masses. “Take it from the sisters,” you tell your wannabe, “they’re rich and famous for doing squat. Isn’t that a lot easier than writing?”
10) You wait for the butcher to ask for her cleaver back, or audition for a realty tv show, but instead she tells you to go away and leave her alone to write.
11) Until one day, when you’ve totally forgotten about the writer in the room she emerges with a stack of pages, weary-eyed but with a smile as wide as the horizon, and says, “On these pages I bore my soul, and I couldn’t feel more alive.”
12) If you’ve survived the aforementioned steps with your wannabe, congratulations are in order. Because you can now believe with certainty that anything you say, anything you throw at her from this point forward will deflect off her artist armor. She’s a writer. And to that you say, DO IT. And then, DO IT AGAIN. Then hug her (because she’s going to need it) and welcome her to the tribe.