Please welcome Louie Cronin back to WU today! Louie’s debut novel, Everyone Loves You Back, has been named a semi-finalist for the 2017 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award and a finalist for an Indie Excellence Award. A little more about her:
For 10 years, Louie Cronin (a.k.a. “Cronin the Barbarian”) served as Car Talk’s traffic cop, producing the show and ensuring that every call was entertaining. With an MFA in creative writing from Boston University (and a keen eye for the absurd!), Louie is a recipient of the Ivan Gold Fiction Fellowship from the Writers’ Room of Boston and has had fiction and essays published in Compass Rose, The Princeton Arts Review, The Boston Globe Magazine, and on PRI.org. Her short stories have been finalists for both Glimmer Train and New Millennium Writings awards. Louie has been awarded residencies at the Ragdale Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center. Currently she works as a technical director for PRI’s radio show, The World.
Stupid Advice I Have Taken about Writing
When I was 31, I retired from a “good” job as an audio engineer at ABC in San Francisco to write a novel. (“Good” for an engineer, hell for a writer.) I was the first engineer across the US to take ABC’s seemingly generous offer: one year’s salary to get lost. How could any writer turn that down? How could it take longer than a year to write a novel?
Right after I retired, I got on a plane to Boston. (The novel could wait; first I had to visit my parents.) The shaggy-haired, famous-looking, cigarillo-smoking man seated next to me asked what I did for a living. (Funny how men were so interested in my career back then.)
“I just quit my job to write a novel,” I said, beaming.
He raised an eyebrow. “Really?” Turns out he had connections in the writing world. Lucky me! I was so excited I forgot to press him for details.
“Have you written anything before?” he asked.
“In high school,” I said. “And a little in college.”
“Do you write every day?”
Did he have any idea what the life of an audio engineer at the networks was like? Of course I didn’t write every day. I barely slept every day.
“I’ve got bad news for you,” he said. “If you haven’t already started writing, you’re not going to do it now. Real writers write. Every day. They can’t not write. You’re just kidding yourself.”
I was such an idiot, I believed him, this random man on a plane. If only I hadn’t sat in the smoking section!
I did try to write during that ill-fated year (at the end of which I broke my leg at the skating rink and spent the remainder of my year’s salary on a walking cast, physical therapy, and an orthopedic brace.) But writing was hard. I was out of practice. I didn’t really have an idea for a novel, just the longstanding urge to write one. I kept hearing this stranger’s voice in my head. Real writers write. You should have started earlier. You’re too old.
I was 31.
At 35, I tried again. This time in New York. I threw myself into it. Classes, a private coach, a writing group. I wrote on the subway platform, on the train, in coffee shops, on my lunch hour. Words spilled out of me. I reveled in the writing life. And I was so happy to be admitted to the club, that when a teacher advised me not to tell anyone at work I was a writer, I believed her.
“No one wants to hire a writer,” she said. “They’ll think you’re not committed. They won’t take you seriously. You’ll never get a promotion!”
So I hid it, which wasn’t that hard. It’s not like my name was appearing in The New Yorker or the New York Times Book Review. And I was good at concealment. I was working at ABC again, never mentioning that I’d already retired from there once, afraid they might demand their money back.
As predicted I did get some pretty negative reactions from employers who figured out I was writer. (Hoarding a month of vacation days to head off to a writers’ colony was probably a tip off.) One boss accused me of “not owning my job,” another of “treating my job like a job.” Well, duh!
And I’ll admit, I did run screaming from job interviews where I got a whiff of exploitation, like the one at the hippie, progressive school where the teachers wore cultish, calf-length skirts and bragged about how much unpaid overtime they put in. Unpaid overtime? My whole writing life is unpaid overtime.
I finally came out as a writer when I applied for my current job, at The World, as an engineer filling in for a maternity leave, a five-month gig. At the interview my boss warned me, “This isn’t permanent, you know. She’s coming back.”
“Perfect,” I said. “I just finished a novel. I don’t want to be tied down right now.” (It had taken me 28 years to write that first novel. I imagined in five months I’d be jetting back and forth to New York for lunch with my agent and editor, and then on a multi-city book tour, trying to sandwich in interviews with The Paris Review and Terri Gross.)
Every so often my new boss and coworkers at The World would ask if I had sold the novel yet. When I said no, they’d wish me luck, cheer me on. The maternity leave ended. I stayed on for a while longer. And then a little while longer. My boss kept asking if I sold the novel, at first excitedly, then politely, then ironically. After a couple of years, he stopped asking altogether.
Five years later, out of the blue, I won a contest and got the novel published. Everyone at work was shocked. You’re a writer? How did that happen? Turns out my big coming out never really took. They thought of me as an engineer. I am having to come out as a writer all over again.
But guess what? That long ago teacher, whose name I don’t even remember, was wrong. My colleagues are happy for me. They take me more seriously, not less. My new boss and my old boss each read my book on vacation. Everyone keeps asking what the next one is going to be about. And the big surprise, lots of my colleagues confess literary yearnings of their own.
So I let a total stranger and a teacher I can’t remember mislead me. What is it about the lure of the writing life that makes otherwise sane people follow these commandments like they came down from on high? Is it that the whole process is so opaque, the chances of success so slim, the rewards so few, the challenges so very hard?
Or is it that when you have no control of the outcome, you get a little superstitious?
In any case, from now on, I intend to IGNORE all writerly admonitions, including, but certainly not limited to:
- You have to get up before the sun rises to be a writer.
- If you enjoyed Stephen King, you can’t be a writer.
- If you need to go to a colony to get work done, you’re not a writer.
- If you love to sleep, you can’t be a writer.
- You can’t write a novel without an outline.
- Real writers don’t binge watch.
- If you’re over 22, forget it! All the readers at journals are 18.
- You have to enjoy poverty to be a writer.
- No one reads anymore, so don’t bother.
- If you can give up writing for a week, you probably should.
My advice to aspiring writers: ignore all advice.
One final note: When I was in my 50’s, I decided to take a jewelry-making class. No one said to me, you’re kidding yourself, if you haven’t already made jewelry, you won’t do it in the future. Or real jewelers solder ever day. Or don’t let them know about your jewelry habit at work. They just welcomed me with open arms. We writers could learn a lot from those jewelers.
Have you ever received bad writing advice? What was it, and how long did it take for you to realize it was well worth ignoring? Conversely, what’s the best advice you’d pass on to an aspiring novelist, based on your unique experience?