Thursday, November 19, 2009

Marie Mutsuki Mockett Guest Post: Advice for Writers

Last month, at Wordstock, Portland’s marvelous gathering for writers and readers, I taught a class on “The True Business of Writing.” I took about 30 class participants through the thorny parts of my career, trying to show them how—creativity aside—I got to the point now where I have a book. I told them that there were plenty of other places where they could go to discuss craft, and the art of writing. I wanted to talk practicalities, the things that no one really wants to discuss.

I showed them my original query letter.

I had asked my agent for query letters she'd rejected from her slush pile and shared these with my class, asking them to try to point out the predictable errors the rejected had made. (In this I guess I drew upon my experience as an SAT tutor, when I would teach kids to look for "predictable errors." It's not a bad skill to have.)

I let them read my own rejection letters from editors, then asked them what they would do if they were in my shoes.

I showed them my submission stats for a short story that ultimately did pretty well (it generated two readings, one of which had an audience of something like 150 people, and a Pushcart nomination). The stats weren’t pretty: I’d been rejected 29 times before someone took the story. Six of those rejections came from editors who said they wanted the story but didn’t have enough room in their journals, which at the time, rather felt like the people I knew in high school who told me they would love to have taken me to the party with them, except there hadn't been enough room in the car . . .

In other words, I tried to share with these writers all the things that I had learned, and wished I’d known before embarking on a real career.

Some problems you can’t foresee. And sometimes it isn’t helpful to arm yourself with a lot of information; it can make a writer neurotic and skittish, unable to write because he’s so worried about what might go wrong. I sympathize. I’m sensitive. But still, if you want to write, then you will and you will find a way out of the problems that you face. It's important to be prepared and to be proactive.

So here is some advice and here are some thoughts I wish I’d known when I had started writing.

1. No, you do not need an MFA.

I don’t have one. I wondered if I needed one for a long time. What you need-in addition to good writing skills-are: 1) persistence, 2) a vision and 3) really great teammates. You will need to be persistent when, as I said above, you are rejected because a journal doesn’t have “enough room” for you. You will need vision when an editor wants you to change your work to fit what “he” sees as important in your writing. That will also make it easier for you when you do meet the editor of your dreams—as I did—who seriously gets you and wants you to be a better you. You will need teammates who tell you when your writing needs work—and who are right. Some of these things you can find in school, and some you can’t. I will always wonder if I might have gotten my act together sooner had I gone into an MFA program. But I know now that it’s not necessary.

2. Write as much as you can.

I had a job for about a year, working for a literary agent. This was back when I had published some short stories, but was always worried about whether or not I had a “real career.” It didn’t take me long to realize that the writers who were doing the best at the agency—aside from the ones who were just lucky and who had managed to develop a large following early on in their careers—were the ones who were constantly writing. They wrote poems, articles, essays, opinions, stories and, of course, books. They never stopped. If the agent was not able to place a piece, they placed the piece themselves. Their names were constantly being circulated and talked about because they constantly had opinions.

And actually, this is a good habit to get into now, wherever you are in your career, even if you have no book. There's a practical benefit to this way of working. If you are feeling low about your writing, it does help if you constantly have at least one pieces circulating. If you always have a short story out there somewhere in the ether, then there’s always the chance that it might be accepted. You are always hopeful about something. You've created your own reason to maintain faith.

Because basically, writers write. They don’t wish they had written. They don’t like the idea of being writers. They treat writing as work and they write. All the time. And one reason they do it is because they are persistent (point number 1).

3. Everyone struggles.

I never thought I’d have anything in common with a model or an actress. But writing is a subjective business and someone will find a reason to discriminate against you. If you are white, you might have written something that is too similar to someone else, and the marketing department can’t figure out how to sell you (I mean, of course, sell your book, but for those of us who write-what's the difference between our books and ourselves?). If you are a girl, maybe you’ve written a thriller and men are supposed to write thrillers. If you are black, maybe the independent bookstore you visited to try to book a reading assumes you have self-published and aren’t a “real” writer (true story—happened to a friend of mine). If you are gay, maybe your story isn’t “mainstream enough” and the field is currently considered too crowded for "gay" writers. If you are from Jamaica but live in the US, maybe the marketers don't know what to do with you because you aren't acting like a Caribbean writer, but like an expat, and that's confusing since only English people get to write "international literature." Maybe you feel that if you were a minority, your work would be taken more seriously, since minority writers look so “hot” to you right now—in a marketing sense. (Again, all of these are true stories).

You might, for example, feel disheartened by the National Book Award news. To which I say, I told you so.

But this is when you have to go back to point 1, and be persistent, hone your own particular vision and find strength from your believers and supporters. And always, always write.

4. Your connections matter.

And it will matter if you have none. So, make some.

Lest that sound mercenary to you—I know it does and did to me—try thinking of the whole “connections” thing another way.

Lots of people don’t care about books and writing. They care more about reality TV or sports or video games (and I write this as someone who cares about some of these things too!). Find people who care about books and writing. It only makes sense. You have this thing that you love to do, and it’s nice to be able to share it with people. There will be days when you'll think about that jerk in high school who is making more money than you because he took over his family’s car dealership and then you'll wonder why you committed yourself to this higher calling that isn’t getting you ahead in life. Your friends, the ones who think that there is nothing more wonderful than a good book, will remind you of why you’ve decided to do what you do (see point number 1 and number 3).

Then, when you have a book or a reading or something to promote, you’ll have people who want to help you.

The important thing about this, though, is to also be helpful yourself. See point number 3, also above. Because everyone at some point has something very unfair happen to them. Yes, some groups are more marginalized than others, but believe me, I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t have battle scars. Hence, the important of point number 1, where you remember to be persistent.

Being a good friend also means being a good reader. It means supporting your local independent bookstores, which is most likely full of people who love books. It means buying the books that your friends write, even if you are super jealous they published before you did. Remember point number 3—your friends still need your help. Publishing a book isn’t the end game.

And on that note, a huge thanks to Aggie at the Well Read Donkey for asking me to guest blog. It's been a pleasure. And thanks to all of you for reading!

1 comment:

  1. This is terrific advice, and a very useful reality check for published writers as well—as you say, it isn't the endgame. Thank you for sharing.