Editor’s Note: Tom Coyne’s latest book, A Course Called America, came out last week, adding to a litany of literary credentials that, even back when he wrote this Magazine Classic in 2014, made him an apt judge of what it takes to call oneself a “writer.” That and his Twitter handle, @coynewriter.
Students often ask me when it is acceptable to refer to oneself as a real-deal, capital-W Writer. There is a great deal of creative consternation on this point. When does a scribbler come of age and brand herself a writer, on Facebook or Match.com or a mortgage application? (“Never” is my best advice for the last.) When can one drop this loaded vocation into casual conversation, knowing that pronouncing “I’m a writer” is the equivalent of saying “You may now pepper me with questions, both condescending and fascinated.” It’s a threshold of fear and hope and possibility, and to cross it is to confront the identity crisis of any artist. Am I really that which I say I am? Have I passed through the gauntlet? I must have — I use words like gauntlet.
By the time one feels comfortable with the designation, that comfort has often been earned not by victories but by wounds. You get your creative ass kicked around the block enough times to where telling someone you’re a writer feels more like a surrender than a boast. But that isn’t what I tell my students.
My take on this rite of passage is that calling oneself a writer has nothing to do with whether or not you have been paid as one (the young writer’s common assumption). Rather, it is a matter of discerning between hobby and work. If you are prone to jotting tear-streaked pages in a journal after a bottle of Shiraz, or if you are given to Internet rants about genuine barbecue sauce written in less time than it takes to make genuine barbecue sauce, then writing is your hobby. You write, certainly. But if you write when you don’t want to, if you go back when it’s hard, if you pry open the laptop when you would rather be watching BBC America — if you write when it isn’t fun anymore, and you revise to the point where you can recite every paragraph of your 2MB opus — then you’re doing the job. And you don’t just write. You’re a writer.
In adopting this label, students should be careful what they wish for. I caution them that along with this writing life comes a steady stream of questions for which they should be prepared. There is a thrill in finally having a genuine answer to, “So what do you do?” But part of being a writer is possessing thoughtful and pithy replies to the litany of inquiries that will plague the rest of your awkward social career. If you choose to wield the moniker, ready yourself for the following:
“Really? You’re a writer?” It will be spoken as if you had told someone you were a milkman or a lamplighter. “Can you make a living doing that?”
The answer is always Sometimes. Sometimes strikes the right balance between authorial arrogance and economic hopelessness. You want them to think you need enough support so they will buy your book in hardback, but you don’t want them to know you spent your entire advance on a bed frame. Sometimes is also vague enough to give the impression that your book is selling as if you titled it Hotcakes. Grab such pleasures when you can.
“So, what do you, like, do?” you will be asked, as the questioner imagines you seated in a book-lined attic, sharpening pencils and browsing the app store on your phone. “Do you write every day?”
Always say yes, even though it isn’t true. If you say not always, then you have confirmed their prejudgment that you really do crosswords full time and still live with your parents (if you do, there’s no shame in it, but you should begin referring to your parents’ ranch house as the ancestral estate). By telling another person that you write every day, you just might guilt yourself into doing so.
“Is writing hard?” Of course it’s hard. It’s pounding your head on a granite countertop hard. It’s a soul-crushing, salvation-stealing, staring-into-the-abyss endeavor rife with rejection, self-loathing and unshakable self-doubt. But nobody wants to hear that at a cocktail party. They envy you, remember? So your answer is: “It’s hard. But it beats digging ditches.” Everyone will smile and laugh politely while you swallow your glass of chardonnay and wonder if they still have movie night at rehab.
“How do you write a book?” The stunning stupidity of this question may leave you blank for a response, but you will be asked it, and you should have a reply. There’s usually a keyboard involved or some sort of marking implement. There’s paper — not always — and perhaps coffee and/or cigarettes. There are always mounds of ego. Coming to believe that your ideas and method of expressing yourself are worth not only your time but the time and money of a complete stranger takes whole storage units of self-love. No matter how insecure writers might seem on the surface, their egos have their own egos. But your reply regarding the book-writing process should be a modest, “You just sit down and do it.” This will make you seem not only humble, but the unsatisfying simplicity of such an answer will make it seem as if you are a magical creature living amid the unwashed. Which, as all writers know, we are.
I tell my students that being published means many things, but more than anything it means that for the rest of their life they will be asked, “How do you get published?” Or, if they should have one, they will be asked how to get an agent and if they wouldn’t mind forwarding something along. There are books toward which a published writer can point a hopeful one in either case — suggest a simple Google search, and you’ve saved yourself a lot of breath and probably alienated your brother’s new girlfriend. No matter. You need to steel yourself for what comes next — and I assure you, it is coming:
“I have this great idea for a book.” Or more terrifying, “I have this great idea for a book that you can use.”
There should be a general understanding that writers are too busy wrestling with their own mediocre ideas to spend time spit-balling someone else’s. But it happens. All the time. And it can feel like you’re a poodle being asked to do show tricks for the guests. Wouldn’t this be great! Take it and do your writer thing! Most ideas will be lifeless and callow and easily dismissed with a smile (or it will be an idea for a children’s book— everyone who has ever procreated has a plan for a kiddie opus, so be prepared to eschew children’s publishing as an impenetrable labyrinth of which you have no knowledge). If the proposed idea truly is great, that’s the worst scenario of all. You’re both sunk. Pride and resentment — your two reasons for getting out of bed in the morning — will prohibit you from using the idea, and the teller of the idea is likely to end up in one of your short stories as an adult bed-wetter or as a slumlord with corn in his teeth and an odor of cheese.
The writer’s best response is to embolden the reciter of the idea before he or she finishes reciting it. Assure them that it is a can’t-miss corker. Apologize for being too busy with your own projects and tell them they must sit down some day and write it. They’ll laugh, but don’t laugh back. Sitting down to write is a laughable proposition to some, but not to you.
Tell them to keep the fine story points to themselves — don’t waste them on me! And if they seem open to your DIY suggestion and genuinely curious about what to do next, be generous with your advice. The crowd of people who care about writing isn’t nearly crowded enough. So welcome them in with advice at the ready for anyone eager to go out there and write a bad book they can call their own.
I suggest that one should begin by telling the new author to not talk their idea out. They must fight the urge to plaster a listener with their genius over coffee or martinis. Tell them to not share a shred beyond, “I’m working on something.” More great books have gone lost in the rafters of bars and restaurants than have ever been published. They should hold tight on to that idea — covet it, be greedy with it, and not because they are afraid it will be stolen (the mark of an amateur is constant anxiety that their idea will be ripped off and made a bestseller — writers who write bestsellers aren’t that stupid, and they’ve already got more material in their heads than they have time). They should hoard their idea because if they talk a story out and bring all the stunning plot points to life, arriving at an unthinkable conclusion, then they are finished with it. Done. The magic is gone — they’ve blown right past hand-holding and arrived at another night of leftovers, just them and an unexcitable story. They will have sucked the fun and discovery out of it, and if they can already tell the story, there is little chance they will ever sit down and take on the work of writing it. We are compelled to write books to figure something out. If they’ve already figured it out, compelled has left the building.
Do tell them to write every day. We all aspire to it and fail, and when we’re not writing by a steady clock, we often reminisce about fonder days when we were. It’s the peace of existing in one’s natural state, and how quickly we give up that peace for Phillies tickets or a trip to Home Depot. Tell them to think of writing as going to the gym. The more days we string together, the easier it is to get back on that elliptical and the less time it takes to push our mental gears back into motion. Even if they just stare at the screen or write a few sentences they wouldn’t show to a 2-year-old, it’s better than sitting around watching people debate backsplashes on HGTV. Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22 in the evening hours after coming home from an office job. If they want to write a book more than they want to talk about writing a book, tell them that having no time is no excuse. (If you had more time, tell them, you would elaborate.)
The established writer might continue by explaining that if the budding writer is going to take up the challenge of writing for at least an hour every day, they should make sure to spend that hour writing scenes. Tell them to show, show, show rather than tell, tell, tell. You’ll recall this advice from Creative Writing 101, spoken by a teacher in Birkenstocks who proudly cut his own hair, but show-don’t-tell remains gospel truth. As much as we like to give them, lectures or rants are not what readers want; they want carefully observed moments from a life they can inhabit and experience. We live in a telling world, so it’s hard to resist the urge to explain, but we must. Put people in places and let them do things. It sounds like a simple task, but the reluctance to write scenes is the number one offender when it comes to limp writing. Don’t summarize and explain experiences — create them. Scenes are where all the power is, and if they don’t believe it, tell them to find a book they love and underline everything that is part of a scene. After underlining most of the first 50 pages, they’ll get it.
It would also be wise to remind them that revision is what separates the pros from the part-timers. Non-writers have some imagination of a writer who sits at a typewriter, crossing out or adding a word every few pages, and finally writing The End and firing up a cigar. That’s a fiction no one will buy. Writers slog through draft after draft after draft after draft. Explain that being a real writer is more about being a real re-rewriter than anything else. Along with alliteration.
They should also know that spending more energy on getting published than on writing something publishable is a good way to ensure that they won’t.
At the writers’ conferences where I speak (poorly attended affairs where most of the audience has an historical novel about their grandfather’s voyage from Ireland in their backpack), the questions are almost always about getting an agent or publisher and rarely about the craft. Tell them the best (and only) way to catch an agent’s or editor’s interest is to write something amazing. Three hours on the Internet, and they can educate themselves in everything they need to know about queries and pitches and book proposals. Focus on making great work, not great connections. The latter is far easier.
New writers would also do well to know that being a writer means they are aiming for an audience larger than themselves, their partner and one, perhaps both, of their parents. Being an author is about reaching out to an audience, not reaching inward toward one’s self. There is a word for the latter: Therapy. Writing can be therapeutic, but self-discovery shouldn’t come at the cost of entertainment. This is why publishers would rather you send them an envelope of unidentified white powder than a memoir. Memoir in half-capable hands is indulgent, inward and usually boring as hell. If someone tells you they want to write a memoir, and they didn’t happen to survive ethnic cleansing or weren’t in on the plot to whack Bin Laden, you can tell them you already know something about their unwritten memoir: It sucks. It’s a rude insight, but the writing world needs it. And their parents will thank you.
It’s a lot for a new writer to take in, and nothing can gum up the writing works like writing advice. So a committed writer should tell a beginning one to write fearlessly. Be not afraid. The voices want them to stop and quit and doubt and worry. They want the budding author to click over to Gmail and answer those messages they read but marked unread four years ago. The voices want them to make their beds again and do the dishes and go to law school. It takes great courage and confidence to stay on the creative path, and any fear or doubt will pollute a piece of writing and send readers running from the stench.
In his writing memoir On Writing (an example of exceptional memoir), Stephen King says, “I’m convinced that fear is the root of most bad writing.” So tell the fear to piss off. And say what you want about Stephen King as a literary figure (he is one), the guy knows the craft, and there isn’t a real writer writing who wouldn’t give his fingers for King’s audience and imagination. Same goes for writers like Nicholas Sparks ’88. They are all talent, and their readers aren’t as dumb as we think they are. Writers should want to write for their supper, and these guys sup well. So tell aspiring writers to leave the practice of begrudging popularity to the unpublishable geniuses.
If your time is short — and hopefully it is, because an author has writing to do rather than writing to talk about — just tell them to go out there with all they’ve got and write crap. Write rubbish. Dare to twaddle. The only way to beat the greedy and hateful self-critic is to give one’s self the liberty to write terribly. Assure them that no one will see their first draft. Or their second. If they set out to forge the manuscript that defines our time, they will either be stricken with too much fear to write a word of it, or they will write something drowning in unreadable arrogance (or they will actually accomplish it, in which case, why are they talking to you?). Writing isn’t about perfection — it’s about process. Their book might be bad, or it might not be, but that doesn’t matter. They will have written it. That’s how you write a book — by sitting down with the freedom to write a bad one. And once it’s finished, they won’t have to ask how to write a book as they sit down to write the next one.
Tell them that’s what we do, those of us who call ourselves writers. Then tell them to start a website. And point them toward yours.
Tom Coyne, who teaches creative writing at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, is the author of A Course Called Ireland, Paper Tiger, and the novel, A Gentleman’s Game. His website is tomcoyne.com.