Dear Young Writer,
(“Young” meaning where you are in your writing journey, by the way. Not your actual age.)
I may be older and wiser, or I may just be waxing nostalgic, but either way, I’d like to say a few things to you, if you don’t mind indulging me.
First, you are innocent and hopeful, and that makes me smile. You only have the vaguest notion of how books are made, but you know without a shadow of a doubt that you want to be part of making them. You have big dreams and ambitions, and you’re eager to reach them. You’re ready to “starve” for your art, for your career.
But are you ready to work?
Because, my cherished friend, making books takes a lot of hard work. Even if we focus just on the writing part, it’s so much harder than you think. Right now, your writing process is basically just playing make-believe on paper. That’s not a bad thing! You imagine people and places, you watch them in your mind, and then you jot down their stories in a flurry of words. Your only purpose is your own excitement. It’s so pure and self-fulfilling.
But someday it may not feel like enough, I’m sorry to say. More than likely, you will begin to ask each new story, “Why am I writing this? What will it achieve? Will other people like it? Will anyone pay me for it?” Those questions cannot drive a story forward, but they can drive a writer to madness.
It’s so tricky, this business of being creative. On the one hand, you have to be a dreamer, someone who lets their imagination roam, and who enjoys trying to capture those boundless flights of fancy within the limits of language. On the other hand, you have to work within an established system, finding your path through the rules and rigors of publishing, and accepting that not all stories will sail successfully out of the safe harbor of your heart.
To be clear, this is not an either-or situation, and it’s not a battle. It’s more of a spectrum, or a dance. I think most writers exist in constant motion between the artistic and commercial spaces. We try to negotiate the right balance for each story, and for ourselves. We try to forgive that balance for constantly shifting beneath our feet.
Part of me thinks that I shouldn’t mention any of this to you, dear friend, because I don’t want to scare you off. I believe in the value of what you’re doing. Stories shape our world. Please never forget that.
But the other part of me feels compelled to share these truths with you, because I want you to be emotionally prepared for what’s coming. I don’t want you to expect your writing career to go quickly or smoothly, because it probably will not, and if/when it doesn’t, I don’t want that to cripple you.
If you do find yourself starting to lose some of the joy — that spark in your soul that ignites when you’re following a story — try to remember this:
- Ambition can be a good thing, as long as you separate your self-worth from your achievements. Let writing be your companion, not your whole world.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of self-care. Your writing will not get stronger if you are weakened. Take a break. Take a walk. Take a bubble bath. Recharge. Relax. Unplug.
- Living is writing. It all goes into your stories, makes them deeper, richer, more real. So spend time with your family. Hang out with your friends. Explore the world around you. Seek out big adventures, and revel in the mundane.
- At the same time: only writing is writing. People cannot go into a bookstore and buy your daydreams. They cannot read your good intentions. To step into your stories, they need your words to guide the way. So sit down and put some on the page.
Your Future Self
If you were to write a letter to your past self, what wisdom or advice would you share?