Therese here to introduce you to today’s guest, M.L. Swift. Mike has been a follower of Writer Unboxed for quite some time, but it wasn’t until I heard him read his fiction at the Un-Conference — work he’d produced just that day — that I realized he’s also a powerhouse writer. What a unique way with words he has, what a clear voice, and what a quick mind with its quirky and spot-on sense of humor. Of course I wanted you to get to know him a little better.
In his own words:
M.L. is a lover of words who squanders away his afternoons arranging them into sentences which, when combined, resemble fiction. A caregiver for over ten years, he has written several articles for The Alzheimer’s Reading Room, and plans a novel on his experience. He lives in the Florida panhandle with his two dogs, Rameses and Buster, and spends his nights fighting a losing battle to reclaim his side of the bed.
And now for the main attraction…
Six Things Every Writer Needs to Succeed
When Therese asked if I’d like to scratch out an article for Writer Unboxed, I literally — in the most figurative sense of the word — stood up, turned around, and knocked the gold bricks out of my chair. Did I read her note correctly? Would I like to write an essay for the website I’ve worshipped for over three years, and — e’en if for a day, ere I’m shown the door fore’er — dispense Parker-esque aphorisms to the most respected minds in the industry, while at the same time, make a complete and utter fool of myself? Would I? Would I? I pounced on the keyboard: “Does a bear sh—?” Wait. Breathe. Backspace and delete. Respond as if it were as commonplace as “You want fries with that?”
“Why, yes, Therese, that would be lovely.” There you go. Classy. Mature. Professional. Kiss, kiss; hug, hug. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?
By dinnertime, my euphoric ride on the Cumulonimbus9 had ended with a belly-flop to earth, leaving me stranded in the middle of nowhere, dusting off rainbows and gnawing my thumbnail like a piece of beef jerky. “Mike, what in the world were you thinking?” Actually, if you really want to get down and velveteen about it, I used a much more colorful, less Hogwarts-friendly expression.
You see, that very morning, Sharon Bially had written a post listing six criteria for an impressive writer’s resumé, and according to the stats, I was batting zero. Even worse, I didn’t foresee three of the six items making my five-, ten-, or twenty-year plan. Her suggestions, in order of my probable attainment (from “most likely” to “you’ve got to be kidding”) included:
- Submitting your work for prizes.
- Publishing short stories in literary magazines.
- Seeking blurbs and endorsements from established authors.
- Teaching writing at a respected (damn that respected clause!) organization or university.
- Having a career with a literary organization, like a magazine, agency, non-profit, or publisher.
- Getting an MFA.
Jiminy Crickets! That’s a far cry from my engineering and architectural background at Virginia Tech. In contrast, my literary experience looked more like this:
- Summer reading certificates from the neighborhood bookmobile, grades 1-6 (with gold seals, not silver).
- Founder and Editor of the Altama Elementary School newspaper (The Anaconda), grade 4, asking such questions as: “Do you prefer ‘Macaroni and Cheese,’ or ‘Cheese and Macaroni?’” In the 70’s, this was cutting-edge journalism.
- Scoring a 730 out of 800 on my verbal SATs.
- Working on the high school newspaper.
- Working on the high school yearbook.
- Getting stoned and writing bad poetry in college, fascinated by the “nge” sound in words like grunge and unhinged. “Grrr-uuu-nnnggge. Unhh-iii-nnnggged.” I’d say them for hours between mouthfuls of chili dogs.
- This article.
That’s about the extent of my writerly resumé, other than the little stuff from daycare to kindergarten. Oh, yeah, and I’m a team player.
Needless to say, I didn’t comment on Sharon’s post. At the time, I was too intimidated, which, if you know me, isn’t one of my natural states. Who was I to opine with this learned lot of literati? And for a brief moment, the bony finger of self-doubt poked and prodded, trying to probe its way in. Who am I in this highly competitive, MaFiA-ruled world?
I’m Mike Swift, that’s who. Better yet, M.L. Swift, if you want to get all nom de plume about it. I am nobody and I am everybody.
If that sounds brash and a bit arrogant, it isn’t meant as such, and has nothing to do with a sense of entitlement in this new and seemingly open-gated world of publication; I’d feel the same if I were a writer in the nineteenth century. Nor is it meant to diminish the respect I have toward the holders of Fine Arts degrees and established publishing careers. I wish I’d have followed my dreams and pursued my passions rather than the almighty dollar — but as my mama always said, “If wishes were horses, poor men would ride.”
I’m simply of a different belief system: one that places equal value on life experience, and, when combined with a decent education, sets the stage for fantastic storytelling. I don’t need a piece of paper to tell me that. This is a belief I must hold, if I’m to succeed in this business. I also believe that the path which brought me here was the path I needed to tread — complete with every rock of Sisyphus and head of Medusa — to gather the stories I needed to tell.
I believe the six commonalities of good writers — sheepskins and wineskins and Rumplestiltskins aside — are:
- A desire — nay, a need — to be heard (the brash, arrogant trait, as witnessed above);
- Something to say (life experience);
- A way with words that isn’t necessarily teachable (talent? a gift?);
- A willingness to fall down and pick yourself back up (perseverance);
- A little luck.
- And don’t forget hard work. Lots of it.
I could continue with examples of writers who had no formal education, or pursued medicine or law or other professions before claiming their writerly identities, but you could probably go tit-for-tat with writers who studied the craft, and frankly, I didn’t want to do the research (actually, I did, but this article is lengthy enough already).
My closing advice is this: if you’re here, chances are you’re a writer or interested in becoming one, even if you don’t have the credentials. Claim that title. Embrace it now, whether you’re published or not. You write, don’t you? How will anyone else accept you as a writer if you haven’t accepted you as a writer?
Now, in order to become a good writer, look inside and examine your weaknesses. Turn them into strengths. I know, easier said than done, but start by confronting the things that scare you the most. Explore. Dig. Deeper. Deeper.
If you have the time, money, and willingness to pursue formal education, by all means, do it, but if not, find other sources from which to learn. Never be the master; it’ll close your mind. Read, write, and then read and write some more.
Of course, for the moment, all this is merely my convoluted, self-indulgent theory and has yet to be proven by Neil DeGrasse Tyson (or Neil Gaiman, for that matter), but at least it looks good on paper and helps me sleep at night. I’ll keep you posted on my progress. Until then, to the rainbow socks!
What do you think a writer needs to succeed?