In an interview, someone recently asked what was the best advice I received about being a writer. They also asked what advice I had to give to authors starting out. In the season of giving, I will share that advice with you. Though I give you fair warning—it does not feel like a gift. These truths, when they came to me felt like a burden. What would feel like a gift: a magic button, a secret cave, a cache of money-making writing tips. I have none of these for they do not exist. But them not existing does not stop any of us from wishing it were so. As one of my characters observes in a new story: Learning that something is a lie doesn’t stop it from taking root in your heart.
Truth: I will continue dreaming of the secret combination, the gold plated book, the project that will give me a lifetime of royalties without lifting a single finger. But while I’m awake, I’ll be working. For that is where it begins and ends. The advice given, the advice received, the reality that keeps me moving forward is the work.
The best advice I received in my writing career was a hard dose of reality from the authors who mentored us at Clarion West. From Octavia Butler saying that you can’t survive on short stories to Jack Womack saying although he’s got multiple novels he keeps his day job to remain financially stable, what I most needed to know about being a professional writer is that it’s hard, it’s a marathon, and nothing is promised you. Their advice exposed what a writing career actually is vs. my idealized, romantic idea of it. Hearing those hard truths taught me that it’s about the work—your work may earn you a living or it may not, your work may be lauded or it may be ignored, regardless it’s about the work and you do what you have to to make the work. Success is extra—or lagniappe as we would say in New Orleans.
Regarding the advice I would give to an author at the beginning of a writing career, I give it knowing that it is most likely unusable to a writer at the beginning of their career. Of all the advice needed at the beginning of a writing career, almost none of it is absorbable by a new writer. That’s because new writers usually see the oasis and are ill-equipped to see the jagged peaks of the mountain. You don’t begin a path with these hard truths weighing down on you, you pick them up along the road as you build up callouses and harden the soles of your feet. Regardless, the advice I would give can be distilled into three points:
1. Publishing isn’t magic: Having something published doesn’t mean you will have a career and be able to pay the bills with writing. Not having something published doesn’t mean you aren’t a writer nor does it mean that you don’t have talent. Having something published doesn’t mean you’ll get something else published or the next things you publish will succeed. Being told “no” you can’t publish doesn’t mean your work isn’t valuable and potentially a bestseller. We publish because it is a means to get the work out to the public. Don’t mistake it for: validation, a magic pill, insurance, assurance, truth, proof of value, certainty for your future. Do it however you can and however you must. Follow your own path to bringing your work to light and make adjustments as necessary. Publish to find your audience, but find your own value in the doing of the work.
2. Be willing to hex yourself: So many artists (not just writers) spend more time bemoaning their issues with their work than actually doing the work. It’s not good enough, it’s not deep enough, you don’t have enough time, you’re too tired, you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s not original, and on, and on, and on. In addition to voices these excuses and insecurities, we invest the might of our certainty in their truth. If someone tries to challenge us on our issues, we put more energy into proving how much of a failure we are than into taking the assist and using it to get into action. Success is based on your willingness to put your issues to the side and be focused on progressing. There will be obstacles: some of them will be mental (self-doubt, etc.), some of them will be logistical (lack of time, etc.), some of them will be external (rejection, etc.), but you must be willing to prioritize progress over failure. You must proclaim that you will put more faith in forward motion than in the reasons why you can’t. You must be willing to look your issues in the eye with a cold, objectivity that dissects and problem solves. So you can’t write in the morning: when can you write? Figure it out and do it. So you don’t like your writing, what about your writing do you like? Figure it out and focus on that. No one will publish your work. Put in the energy to workshop your work and improve your craft and keep moving forward. There is no reason explaining why you can’t write that is original or true. It comes down to your willingness. Which path are you willing to commit to?
3. Honor your voice: It does no good to wish you were a different writer than you are. You are here with a unique voice to tell a unique story. There is no voice like an authentic voice. Comparison is inevitable, but the fact is there is no writer like you. Time spent lamenting that your voice isn’t like someone else’s is time lost from the essential work of honing your voice. Time spent forcing your tone or plot to be like someone else’s is time spent running away from your destiny as a writer. We are not here to live up to our idea of who we should be as writers. We are here to live up to the full possibility of our own unique selves. Sure, you trust your judgment. Sure, you are convinced that you know what is good writing and what isn’t. But when the writing is yours, all bets are off. It is virtually impossible to be objective about your voice. What comes naturally to you, what is valuable about your unique expression, will most likely be invisible to you. Regardless of whether there is something about the way you string together words, or form the arc of your plots, or structure insight and themes, you don’t need to know what’s fantastic about your work. All you need to know is how to be true to your work and your voice. Be true to yourself consistently and unwaveringly and you will bring something valuable and unique to literature.
The world of writing is tough to crack. You don’t have to go far to find manuals and blogs and advice columns and magazine articles that tell you how to get it done: how to finish a novel, how to plot, how to find an agent, how to self-publish. It can be tempted to get distracted by what’s selling, who’s selling, who’s stopping you from getting published. Getting the work out there is a major undertaking and none of us are promised success. But the piece of knowledge that is essential to carry with you as you grow as a writer is: the industry doesn’t get to define your identity. What makes you a writer is not how welcome or unwelcome the publishing industry is toward your work. The urge and dictate to write is a contract between you and your soul. It is your job to protect that contract from the material world.
As writers, it is our duty to figure out how to do the work—and to trust that the writing will evolve as we put in the work. That is the only way to define your identity as a writer. Whether you have a piece of work that succeeds or fails, the next step is the same: do more work. Learn how to surf rejection and not let it stop you. Don’t let inequality, bias, and personal hurdles distract you. What matters most is to keep yourself working—it matters more than the industry that supports the work; it matters more than the work itself. For the only way to grow and evolve is to continue to write.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam