The writing life is hard. There, I said it. Having graduated from a respectable MFA program about five years ago, I’ve watched several of my former classmates publish books, continue on as teachers, and regularly contribute to literary journals. As for me, I’ve taken the slow route. For a while, I had trouble finding a job I loved, so my writing suffered. However, one of the most helpful pieces of advice my MFA thesis advisor gave me sounded like this: “Don’t rush.”
With that, I give you five pointers on how to thrive as a writer—rather than merely survive.
1. Find a job that utilizes your creativity
I tried teaching and wanted to make it work, but—honestly?—I hated it: horrible administrators; endless testing, grading, and lesson planning; students who would rather be anywhere besides school. Unfortunately, those were the rules, rather than the exceptions. And after a while, I wasn’t willing to be a martyr for the cause, anymore.
Don’t plan. Write. Do it now, and do it well.
Now, I have a job that allows me to utilize my creativity, problem-solving and research skills, and my writing. I’m no longer crippled with anxiety over the next day’s lessons or classroom management strategies. And here’s one of the best parts: I get to leave my work at the office. After I clock out, I come home and write for myself. This brings me to the next point.
2. Make time for writing
If you’re going to publish your book before you die, you need to put time into it. The things you spend time doing are what you become. If you write every day, you are a writer. If you watch Netflix every night, you are a couch potato. Both activities involve sitting. However, the former will help move you closer to your goal; the latter will not. So decide now: Do you choose to be a writer or a couch potato?
Making time for writing involves saying no to invitations out on the town—likely more often than you’d like. If you’re like me, you might have trouble saying no to your friends’ event invites. In that case, one solution is to simply turn off your phone. Another solution is to find friends who support your goals and who may even want to join in on the fun! Unplug as much as possible. Proceed by finding some ambient music and getting to work. That manuscript isn’t going to write itself—but you knew that.
3. Be inspired and set goals
Everyone’s goals will be different, depending on where you are in terms of your career and education-related plans. However, I’ve found it’s useful to start small and concrete. Are you writing as often as possible? If not, when can you fit writing into your day? What are your publication goals?
If you haven’t yet done so, begin submitting your work to journals, online publications, and writing competitions. If you’re still in school, check out student-run publications and journals on campus. Community colleges offer many opportunities for students to share their writing. And the term student usually applies to both full-time and part-time students, so if you’ve ever wanted to take a writing class in your spare time, community college is the way to go!
If your college days are a thing of the past, how do you remain inspired? Do you seek out ways to “follow your bliss,” as Joseph Campbell famously advised? It’s amazing what you can discover while having fun browsing and milling about your local book store. You may be like Cormac McCarthy and be largely fascinated with books on physics, chaos theory, or history. Just because you write poetry or fiction doesn’t mean you’re tied to your chosen genre in terms of your reading list. Some of the most interesting books I’ve read are fiction written about philosophy, like Sophie’s World, or poetry written about science, like Katherine Larson’s Radial Symmetry.
Nobody ever wrote well without being inspired by something or someone. Look around you and see what catches your attention. The answers could be hiding in plain sight! Like a spiffy, solar-powered gnome I spotted recently in a friend’s garden.
Due, in part, to excessive childhood viewings of “The Wizard of Oz,” I have always gravitated toward woodland creatures and little people such as munchkins, gnomes and elves. My recent garden gnome sighting inspired me to read “Shroud of the Gnome” on my poetry show recently, during a memorial retrospective dedicated to the poetry of James Tate. See? It’s all connected.
Look at David Berman, Patti Smith or Steven Morrissey. All three write outstanding lyrics that could double as poetry—and sometimes do, in Berman’s case with his poetry collection Actual Air. Lately, I find myself thinking more and more about how to incorporate music and visual art into my poetic endeavors, since much of the art that really moves me is auditory or visual in nature. This brings me to the next point.
4. Don’t be a one-trick pony
I have played the piano since I was five years old. Something about pressing keys and singing along is wonderful to me. I used improvisational piano as catharsis and procrastination during my college years, and I still think in songs while hiking or in the middle of long walks down the Boise Greenbelt. I can’t help it—it’s in my blood. But the thing is, there are always words accompanying the music. Some musicians talk about thinking of the music first, then writing the words. I’m the other way around—or it’s simultaneous.
Point being, I’ve been a musical person for much of my recollected life. Words have always been a part of that music, but music has always been there. This fact, at first, made me question my pursuit of poetry. Unlike writing, singing makes me happy. Of course, once I’ve successfully spent a few morning hours carving out a poem, I’m happy. However, the act of singing in and of itself makes me happy—whereas the act of writing only sometimes lifts the corners of my mouth, and usually not until afterwards.
There are also the intersections of writing with other forms, such as theater, film or comedy. Have you ever tried your hand at playwriting or screenwriting, for example? There are plenty of movies about writers and writing, too, if you’re at a loss for inspiration. One of my favorite movies of all time, Wings of Desire, is loosely based on the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. What an interesting and unexpected source of material, eh?
So, the question remains, why limit yourself? Do both! However, oftentimes we are especially well-versed in one art over another. This brings me to my final point.
I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of talented, artistic friends. It tends to be true that, where I live, people in the arts know each other. For example, one oft-frequented downtown Boise block includes a record store, three concert venues, and a community radio station. This means that many local writers are also friends with deejays, dancers, musicians and visual artists.
I’ve been having lots of conversations, lately, about my frustration with the boxed-in nature of my chosen field’s method of display and demonstration. That is, I feel as if there are two types of poetry readings where I live: the “serious & literary” style of reading, and the “spoken word” style of reading.
My question is this: “Why does it have to be either/or? Why can’t it be something different, altogether?” Put together a show with a bunch of different mediums. You likely know people in various branches of the arts: dance, visual art, music, theater, poetry. All of these forms share the common goal of artistic expression. People are bored. Give them something memorable and unique to enjoy on their night out on the town.
To summarize: If you want to write, write.
But don’t do it without giving your all, or it won’t happen. If you’re passionate about writing, remember: Writing is what happens while you’re sitting around plotting the trajectory of your next book. Don’t plan. Write. Do it now, and do it well. Now is the time, and if you have persistence and a good work ethic—in addition to talent—it’s bound to happen sooner than later. Even if it’s later, that’s okay. There’s no need to be in a rush.
Whatever you do, don’t avoid writing because you fear pain and suffering. You will suffer a lot more five years from now, knowing that you could have published your book but didn’t try hard enough. As a famous Jedi knight once said, Do, or do not. There is no try. So do, already.