Thursday, June 5, 2014

What do you say to aspiring electricians?

By Steve Weddle

So John Mantooth was on ABC the other day talking about his new book.

You can read more about him over at Keith Rawson's LitReactor interview or over at Publisher's Weekly.

One thing I notice about author interviews is how the different audiences command different types of questions.

If you're being interviewed at a writing site, you'll be asked about craft. If it's a books and publishing site, you'll be asked about, um, books and publishing.

And if you're being interviewed for General Public Consumption, you'll be asked the following:

"What advice would you give someone who wants to write a book, but just hasn't found the time."

The answer you're expect to give is that the aspiring writer should just keep at it, by gosh. You're supposed to say that everyone has a story to get out and, golly, you just have to write it.


What advice would I give? I don't know. Go back in time and deal with the pain of being a feeble, weak ginger by writing stories where smart, dorky looking kids aren't tortured.

Study writing in college. Read three books a week. Make a pilgrimage to the homes of Salinger or Blume or Evanovich. EVANOVICH!!

Spend $53,950 for an MFA you'll never use.

Drive three hours each way to hear David Sedaris read and then chicken out like a weak ginger when it comes time to ask the question you want to ask.

Write. Write. Write.

Get up at 4 a.m. every mother fucking morning and write, even when you have a cold and even when your hemorrhoid has blistered up so bad you have to keep a dishtowel delicately and precisely folded on your chair.

Take classes online to make your writing clearer.

And read.

Join a writing group that meets weekly and rips apart your first drafts as if they were weak gingers on a playground full of jackasses.

And read.

You know the old story about the doctor who says to the writer, "When I retire, I'd really like to write a novel" and then the writer says, "How odd. When I retire I wanted to do some surgery"? Yeah, that writer was asked to leave the party.

What advice would you give an aspiring electrician or mathematician or banker? After all, everyone has a Callan-Symanzik equation in them if they can just find the time.

And, yet, as my pal Mr. Shory points out, you have to be licensed to be a surgeon, right? Electrician. You have to be certified to be a mechanic. You have to install a door "up to code" or claim to have a Ph.D. to teach philosophy.

Heck, come to think of it, I know probably seven or eight writers I'd like to sue for malpractice. But you can't. You can't have your license revoked if you write a story that repeats three of these 10 storytelling cliches.

Electricians and surgeons are, of course, nothing like writers.They're well compensated. Ha. (I haven't used a cheap joke in paragraphs. Lighten up, Francis.)

But why is it that people often ask a writer for advice on being a writer? Is the artist angle? Maybe you'd ask a painter? A musician.

"So, Ms. Hole, what would you say to aspiring guitarists?"

"So, Mr. Picasso, what do you tell aspiring painters?"

My guess is that people think they can write a novel because, let's be honest, we make it look too easy. There you are in the coffee shop typing away and the next thing you know, you've got a book on the NYT best seller list.

When I give a reading and people ask me "how did you get your agent?" they often want to know how they can get an agent. Very few people give a darn how I got my agent. "How did you get published" means "How can I get published?"

See, the question isn't really "What advice do you have for someone who wants to write a great book?"

The question is -- What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a writer.

Because people don't want to practice the guitar; they want to be rock stars.

People don't want to learn how to use Scrivener or co-angulate 19 plot points.

And you can't tell aspiring electricians to electricate, can you? Mathmatize?

See, I can't tell how to be a published author. I can suggest that you play nice with interviewers, understanding that dealing with people is its own kind of fiction, the making a face to meet the faces of the day, as the poem says. I can tell you about AbsoluteWrite and QueryTracker and LitReactor. I can send you a link for how to write a query letter. I can give you the home phone number of Jay Stringer's agent. I can't give you The Answer, though.

Because publishing isn't writing.

If you want to write, though, you can be a writer. All you have to do write.


jack welling said...

Bravo! Author! Author!

Dana King said...

They ask writers because--who else are they going to ask? We at least know what's involved. I used to get asked similar questions about being a musician all the time when I was a musician. People who are interested, but not involved, in an art seem to think there's some alchemy that takes place to make someone a writer, musician, or artist. Pay attention to the expressions and tones of voice of aspiring writers when they ask these questions sometime; "awe" is too strong a word, but it's on the same road.

As for what to tell them: put your ass in the seat and write. No one can even think of themselves as an aspiring writer until they finish something and send it out to people they don't know.

John McFetridge said...

There's really only one way to become an electrician but there are lots of ways to become a writer.

Lately I started to realize that all my favourite writers were probably discouraged from becoming writers, probably told many times by many people to have a "back-up plan," and asked over and over again what they were going to do with an arts degree. I know I was.

So now I think the best advice to give an aspiring writer, or any kind of artist, is to discourage them.

I may love some art that was created by people who were encouraged and supported all their lives, but I don't think it's very much.

Dana King said...

Good point, JOhn. When asked by people what to say to a child/relative/friend who wanted to be a musician, I always said to try to talk them out of it. I then let the shock fade from their face before adding, it's a hard way to make a living, and, if you were able to talk them out of it, they had no chance, anyway. If you tried and they did it anyway, they had a shot. By no means forbid it; that just guarantees they'll do it.

Same with writing.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

I get emails from teens all the time asking me about writing and wanting advice. Most of the time they don't really want advice about the craft of writing because - they know they have to write. Most of them are. I get the distinct impression they all know it is hard. They just want someone to affirm the belief to them that writing isn't a stupid career path. (Well, when you look at the whole of it, it kind of is, but that's a whole other thing.) Most of them have been told to get a real job and their love of writing is dismissed. I think they just want someone to let them know that writing is a real path and that they aren't bad people or stupid or (insert adjective here) for wanting to try.

But yeah - there is only one way to become a writer - write! Then write again. (Cry) Then write some more.