How to be a writer

By Anne Lamott
Published September 9, 1996 3:35PM (EDT)

i am going off to teach at a writing conference next week, and am
supposed to deliver a basic hope-to-the-hopeless pep talk. But the hope most
writing students at these writing conferences walk away with is a toxic hope,
because it feeds a lot of lies -- that they will get published, that success in
the publishing world improves most people's lives, that thousands of
freelance writers are making very good livings. And I just can't seem to
write the lecture this time: it makes me feel cheap. I keep picturing Holden
Caulfield up at the podium, or Peter Finch in "Network" delivering the
keynote address, and I think I would rather come across as crabby and
delusional, like a minor Old Testament prophet with P.M.S., than to collude
with the great palace lie of almost all writing conferences.

But I need to come up with something to say. I can only distract them
with a lively analysis of my personal problems for so long. Here's the problem as I see it: I have been teaching for a dozen years
and I have found that very few writing students actually want to write. They
want to be published, they want to be famous. But they don't want to write.
They see it as the one real fly in the ointment -- it's like, please: bore me
later. So most people don't come to these conferences to hear writers talk
about how writing can teach you to pay attention, and open your heart, help
you make sense of human suffering and indeed, learn to be part of the
solution. When you tell them stuff like this, they look at you as if
they're thinking, Thank you SO much for sharing, but one of the AGENTS who's
here says she wants to see my NOVEL, you patronizing cheese-dick.

If you talk about process and the journey instead of success, you get a
reputation. A very enthusiastic group of a dozen or so people will show up
for one of your talks. They will be the odd people, the moon units. And
they will take notes, in tiny cryptic little Unabomber handwriting. But
when the editors and the agents give a talk on margins, or query letters, all
250 students will show up.

I always end up feeling guilty at writing conferences because I know
that mostly the participants will not get published, and no one seems to be
willing to tell them this. I have heard that 1 percent of writers at these
conferences ever get a book published. One percent!

Also, they believe that if they do get published, a wonderful new life
is in store. It will turn out that deep down they are really valuable people
and will have lots of money from now on and really cool people like Ethan
Hawke will be dropping by all the time. But it's a lie. Being a published
writer will make them long to be ONLY as mentally ill as they are now.
Their current level of obsession and doubt and self-loathing will look like
the good old days. Honest.

Getting to write every day, practicing, improving, trying to give people
hope or illumination or at least make them laugh, is a fabulous way to spend
your life. It is, for a writer, where all the real jewels are. But the
people at the writing conferences hear me say stuff like this, and begin to
get hostile and anxious because they think I'm going to make them miss the
lecture on the query letter.

One of my best friends just had her second novel published. It got a
few wonderful reviews, and sold about 20 copies. She's a great writer.
This is what she said the other day: "Having a book published is like being
a little girl all dressed up for the party, in your best dress and shiniest
black shoes, hardly able to breathe with anticipation; and then knocking at
the door where you think the party is, only to discover that there is no

"But GOD; I love being a writer."

So. I truly believe that all the people at writing conferences should
write for the rest of their lives. But I also want to remind them of the old
joke about the lion who is dangling a mouse back and forth in front of his
eyes. He sneers, "You are the weakest, most pathetic creature I've ever
seen." And the mouse hangs its little head, and says, "I've been sick."

Some of the most degraded people I know are writers whose books got
published, and did poorly. I've been one of them. I was one of the lucky
ones who got well enough to try and write another book, and the writing -- the
discipline, paying attention, caring deeply -- saved me. Until the next time.

Five books into my career, I finally started making a decent living.
Now I'm doing fine. Little Annie: Happy at Last.

So. Next week I think I'll deliver the following lecture:
Give up (I will begin.) Go home. Do your job, raise your family, give
the cat a flea dip. And then get your day's work done. There is nothing for
you here. Or at any rate, what you are looking for is not here. A number
of these agents and editors are making it seem like they are desperate to
read your novels, because they know how badly you want to be published. But
I know one local agent who is getting 100 unsolicited manuscripts a
week. She goes to conferences and makes it seem like she is very anxious
that you send her your manuscript, too. She isn't. She's patronizing you.
She can't help it -- she's an AGENT. And she's having a very nice time
vacationing here at the conference, amidst all this natural beauty.

So listen to the agents and editors if you want, but don't let them make
you feel cringey and dog-like in your neediness.

They do not have anything you need. And the truth is that you probably
do not have anything they need. There is the very good chance that the
material you've been fine-tuning for so long is not something they want, is
not something they can sell, something that will make you get to be a gay
Latvian single-father Amy Tan.

I'm not trying to say that I don't think you
have much talent -- wait, wait, wait: I think maybe I am saying that. Let me
think about it for a second: Yes. This is actually what I am saying. It is
quite possible that you do not have an enormous amount of talent. That to me
is not a problem. Write anyway! But I bet -- just guessing here -- that this
is a problem for you. I know you desperately hope that one of us teachers
will read your manuscript and then rush around trying to find a fax machine
so we can get the first 20 pages of your novel to Sonny Mehta in time for
sales conference. But Sonny Mehta does not want them. He did not personally
tell me this, but I know this to be true, because I have read a number of
your pages and even I didn't want them; I, who am a gravely co-dependent
Christian. Believe me -- if I don't want them, Sonny Mehta does not want

You should work on your novels anyway. There are very few better ways
to spend your life. And the other stuff -- agents, publication, sales -- is the
rat race, and as Lily Tomlin put it, the problem with succeeding in the rat
race is that you're still a rat.

You don't want to be a rat! So don't toady up to the agents and the
editors. Here's the best advice I can give you: go read the book of Ezekiel
instead. Trust me on this. Read about him coming upon the dry bones of a
people who had given up, who were lifeless, without hope; until, because of
Ezekiel's presence, breath came upon them, and they came back to life. The
message is, Have heart, don't panic: spirit revives us. A people were made
whole again by breath, by the breeze of attention being paid. That's so
incredible. Find a community of writers with whom you can belong, who will
read your stuff and help you get better. Maybe you can encourage them to
keep on writing, as they encourage you. And pay closer attention to life.
Get your best work done every day. Be the breeze.

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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