So it’s back-to-school time and right now my heart’s going out, as it does every year, to my youthful compatriots in creativity, earnest young strivers desperate to know that the writer’s path is one they can fruitfully walk. It’s so hard when you’re that age (okay, any age) and you yearn for a life of creative engagement but all these obstacles stand in your way. Can you make it pay? Can you meet others’ expectations (or silence their objections)? Can you stand before the world saying, “This is my voice! It means something to me and I want it to mean something to you!”? (Can you punctuate that last sentence correctly, ‘cause I’m not entirely sure that I have.)
For young people in thrall to such questions it’s a particularly knotty problem. Think of the burden they bear: completely creatively inflamed and pretty completely creatively disempowered. This is the lot of any high school or college student who is being channeled away from (or is self-channeling away from) the writer’s life or any other life of creative pursuit. That’s not what they want. They know it’s not what they want. They just don’t know if what they want is a realistic or viable option.
Let’s say that the writer’s life is a roll of the dice. I don’t personally think that it is; I think that choosing a life of the mind, any life of the mind, is about as sure a bet as you can make in life, in terms of happiness, fullfilment and getting down to the isness of it all. But that’s not how it looks to an earnest young writer. It looks like a big gamble, and what if it doesn’t pay off? That future has disastrophe written all over it.
How can we set that young person free?
There stands a writer, desperate to walk the writer’s path, and desperate to know that the path will be fruitful… successful. What can we say to that writer? Here’s what I’d say.
1/ The path is the path. You’ll either walk it or you won’t. But the decision to walk it – the simple act of saying, “I’m a writer” – opens every meaningful door. If you’re wondering whether you can be a writer, the words “I am a writer” are an epic expression of self-fulfilling prophecy. Say you are and you are.
2/ Get support on the path. Creative people ally themselves with creative people. Once you’re a writer you’re in community, and in community there is strength. So go ahead and self-define as a writer. Once you do that, you can go where the writers go, and discover that they’re just as insecure and crazy and hell-bent as you are. As a writer you’ll need that, so get it.
3/ Put in your hours. If you’re a real writer then you’re really writing. There’s plenty of cocktail party writers out there – people who never do more than talk about what they might one day write – don’t be one of them! Nothing matters but words on the page while you’re serving your apprenticeship, and you’re serving your apprenticeship now.
4/ Don’t be afraid. You have every reason to believe that you suck. Don’t worry! Everybody sucks when they’re [insert your age here]. You’ll get better. Remember, you’re an apprentice. No one expects the apprentice to be a genius. They expect the apprentice to learn. If you’re learning, you’re doing your job.
5/ If you’re learning, you’re doing your job. I know I just said that but I had to say it again because it’s just enormous. You have proposed to have a life of the mind, a life of creative expression. How will you manifest that life? By sucking up experience and spitting out expression. That’s the basic alchemy of creativity. The more you know about yourself, your craft and your world, the better your creative expression will be. That’s just a given, and it means that you’re free to learn and explore, with the clear understanding that all your discoveries feed the machine of your creativity in ways that you both can and cannot anticipate.
6/ But you still have to write! Nothing matters but words on the page. Great words, shitty words, don’t care. Just words, and a whole damn lot of them. Why? Because that’s how we get better: one solid word at a time. Have I driven that point home? I want you to be an artist, I want you to be a dreamer, but I also want you to have a work ethic. It is very important to me that you work hard. Why? Because I’m here to tell you that it is possible for you to making a living doing what you love, and I’m unequivocally encouraging you to take that plunge; however, if you don’t work hard toward that goal you won’t get there, and then I’ll look stupid. So write. Then write some more. And write some more after that.
7/ Shameless plug. I guess there’s one other thing you could do, young writer: read my books on writing. I was passionate about helping writers when I wrote them, and just when I start to think that maybe my passion has passed, I go and write something like this. It’s back-to-school time. Autumn is in the air, and young writers everywhere are wondering if they can be who they really want to be. I say you can. So go, young writer, go! I’m with you all the way!
What do you have to say to young writers that will help them on your path? What did someone once say to you that really made a difference? And by the way, help young writers whenever you can. For the sake of finding their own voice, they really need to hear yours.
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!