How to become a writer?

I have no ambition yet I think I should be a writer

Published March 15, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I'm 27, recently unemployed, living in a "cottage" behind my parents' home, single, in a period of "transition" (career-wise), and for some strange reason I'm in an existential funk that seems so reminiscent of the way I felt back in high school 10 years ago.

First, I'd like to mention my aspirations of becoming a writer. It's something I've only dabbled in over the years, have always received positive feedback in, and I've only in the past couple of years come to the realization that this is my true calling. Everyone I know is supportive.

I studied psychology as an undergrad, enrolled in numerous philosophy courses to satiate my ever-curious soul, read Dostoevsky and Maugham fervently, but I've not the least bit of interest in pursuing a career ... in anything! This may seem a puerile way of thinking, but I'm always asking myself: "What's the point???"

What it boils down to is this: I am not the ambitious type. I truly believe that ambition is an exercise in futility; that Milan Kundera was right on the nose in saying: "Ambition is a poor excuse for not having sense enough to be lazy."

In high school I had a nihilistic disposition, and would attempt to impose this thought process (or lack thereof) onto anyone. I never understood the true importance of anything; never found any inherent value in things that most people feel ought to be valued. This is not to say that I've never had experiences that weren't emotionally salient (i.e., sex, psychedelics, philosophical inquiry, etc.), and I do love my friends and family; but every time I discover a moment of profound significance, it escapes me like my cigarette smoke billowing in the vicinity of my being, only to vanish without a single trace, handed over to the clutches of oblivion.

In case you didn't catch on to the blatant metaphor, this is how I view Life, or whatever ... Death seems to me just a fleeting moment like any other. It erases our memories, and it would appear as though nothing had even happened to begin with; like a shitty movie that everyone forgets about the next day, except no matter how spectacular your life was, it won't be remembered either way. It would be as though you never existed to begin with. (That Zen koan comes to mind: "Who were you before your grandmother was born?") 

Anyone I tell this to finds it profoundly vexing to even entertain such a thought; for it's a major "buzz kill" for anybody who's having a good time in this absurd, nonsensical madness I call existence ...

I love writing, really. It's the one thing that doesn't make me consider Camus' only worthwhile philosophical question. I'm not suicidal, at all  ...  really; just struggling to find inherent value in living this life. Due to the current nihilistic state of mind I've fallen victim to, I feel like I'm stagnating. I don't want to stagnate; but I don't see the problem with it either ...  I'd like to be ambitious, driven; but progress seems to be an illusion in light of infinite. [sic] I'd love to write, it's my passion; but then I'll die ...  and that passion will dissipate into oblivion ...

You've helped a lot of people with your advice column. I'd like to see if you can advise me.

Your thoughts would be much appreciated, honest. Although it probably won't matter ...


In Limbo

Dear In Limbo,

Why not get up in the morning and before you do anything else, write for two hours and then, as Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and teacher Robert Olen Butler suggests, "just do that every day for the rest of your life."

No problem!

Why not? You have time. You have your life. You can choose what to do. So why not do that?

Some of us will say, "I want to be a writer," because it would be nice to sit in a cafe and say, "I am a writer sitting in a cafe." But to become a writer is an act of will and transformation. We look in the mirror, we look at what we are made of, and we say, with this tin, this cheap, durable framework I am made of, with this cheap metal I am made, of I can conjure, I can do magic. I can make something of this cheap metal that is me. What could be more strange and earth-shattering and inexpensive? I am someone of little consequence and no renown yet if I sit in a chair for two hours every morning for the rest of my life I can turn into someone of consequence if not renown or, if nothing else, I can at least turn into someone who sat in a chair for two hours every day of his life.

If you need to do it you will do it and if you do it every day you will become proficient in it.

Not stopping is the most important piece. If you send your work out for a year or two or three or five and it is rejected and then you quit then you will not ever learn why it was being rejected and what you could change. So you will have to send your work out and keep sending it out and when the pain of rejection becomes too great rather than quit you must inquire then, in a spirit of humility, what you are doing that is making your work be rejected and how you can stop doing that and start doing whatever it is you need to do so that your work is accepted. If you keep doing it you will find out all you need to know.

Here is the hard part: We are saddled with being us. No matter what I or anyone else says to you, you will still go back to your cottage and be faced with the problem of you. How to get this unruly self into harness? Can you do the work? That alone determines who will "become a writer" and who will not. Who will make the sacrifices? Who will put other things aside? Who will dedicate himself with something verging on religious fervor to this pursuit, which may seem hopeless at first? -- which may seem hopeless at first and yet carries a near certainty of success if you keep at it because one can hardly do this every day for two hours for 10 years without finding some kind of success, be it of the local and limited variety, be it in some niche such as greeting cards or horoscopes or specialized business reporting, even an Internet advice column.

You only have to begin. You only have to begin today, and tomorrow, and the day after that and the day after that and every day for the rest of your life. You only have to always be beginning. So that is how it is done. You simply begin. Along the way you find out what techniques must be learned. You will get stuck in a ditch and after a few months in the ditch you will swallow your pride and ask someone passing by for help and you will learn something. You find out what tools there are that will get you out of the ditch.

In my 20s I wanted people to behave like people in Henry James novels. I had taken exactly the wrong tack; I had sought fiction in daily life. I had it backward. I now believe that what makes interesting writing starts with what is inside us already; it arises out of our drives and wishes; we give those to characters in fiction and have them try to enact those things within the rules and settings of a fictional environment. That works much better.

So put a character in your parents' cottage. Create that setting, as realistically as you can, by listing all the objects in the cottage and describing the outside and the walls and a little of the history of the cottage, how it was built, how you came to occupy it. That done, you have a setting. Then you need a character who has some yearning or drive or need, and he has to come into conflict with something else, something that stands in his way. It would be easy enough for you to give this character your own wishes and beliefs and set him into motion. Have him go out and suffer. Have him go and try to get what he wants and be thwarted. That should keep you occupied for a year or two. And every time you become uncomfortable, set your watch for another 15 minutes in the chair. Only when you are pleased may you leave the chair. That's a good rule. It's the opposite of what we want to do; it is natural to stay in the chair when it is easy and leave when it is hard; what I suggest is that you leave the chair when it is easy but stay there when it is hard. That will ensure that you take the time to solve the difficult problems that arise. When your character is doing something out of character and something bugs you about it and you want to leave, that is the time to set your iPhone timer for another 15 minutes.

So that's my suggestion as a way to begin. Give your notions and your personality to a character and don't take him too seriously. If you begin this way and do it every day your apprenticeship will reward you and you will blossom.

p.s. I did a Google search on "How to get a writing job" and came up with this. Hmmm. That's my column from April 10, 2008. It's not bad, actually. But still ... it requires doing and that is the hard part.

By Cary Tennis

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