Email to a Teen Writer: You Won’t Be a Starving Artist

I got a lovely email with thoughtful questions from a young writer today. I thought I’d share her questions and my answers for anyone interested.

Dear Ms. Sommers,

My name is [redacted]. I just finished my sophomore year in high school, and I am an aspiring author. I was given your email by [redacted] who helped me with a mock interview at my high school a few months ago.

If it would be okay, I have a few questions I would like to ask…

1) Do you think running a blog has helped you market your books?
2) Do you use your blog as a marketing strategy, a creative outlet alongside your books, or a little bit of both, and has it helped a lot?
3) I read that you went to Northwestern for creative writing. Are there any colleges that you think have better programs than others?
4) Do you think that taking classes for other writing styles would help my creative writing?
5) As a high schooler, I don’t have a lot of outlets to display my writing. What do you suggest on that front?
6) My family is supportive of my writing, but my parents are worried that I won’t make any money. When you were younger, were you faced with that and how did you overcome that? Did you get discouraged by it and if it did, how did you work through that?

Thank you so much!

Hi [redacted]! It’s so nice to hear from you! You have some amazing questions here.

hannah-olinger-549282-unsplashMy blog has definitely helped with marketing– and to connect with my audience who find my blog after reading my book. The blog is a marketing strategy, a creative outlet, a platform to share about issues I care deeply about (mental illness, faith, literature, underdogs), and a way to be real with readers. It’s a good way for me to keep writing and “publishing” material that while I’m working on a longer piece behind the scenes, if that makes any sense. Sometimes I think of my blog as writing “practice.”
I went to the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I loved the program. I think it’s important to learn creative writing from professors with their MFA (master of fine arts) versus their PhD (doctor of philosophy) because an MFA’s specialty is creative writing whereas a PhD’s is literature. Both are tremendously important, of course, but ultimately I think it helps a writer to learn writing from a writer instead of a literature expert. For undergraduate (the first four years of college), you may want to keep your creative writing program supplemented with professional or technical writing classes, which will help you get a great job after graduation. In undergrad, I suggest courses in fiction, poetry (even if you don’t consider yourself a poet– poetry improves your prose!), creative non-fiction like memoir, writer’s style, as well as more professional writing courses like editing/proofreading, technical writing, social media marketing, etc. If you have electives, think about using them for subjects that fascinate you, like history, mythology, science, theology– or maybe those are just my areas of interest. 🙂 Look for a writing program that makes professor and peer critiques a regular part of your coursework, and you’ll especially want to have some sort of writing project– maybe a senior capstone– where you tackle a larger project. Again, this should include a lot of peer and professor critique. My senior project was writing four poems and one memoir piece, and I got one-on-one feedback/criticism from my advisor every week– I also met with the other writers doing their projects every week, and we shared feedback too. At my school, this was a rigorous, MFA-level critique experience. It can be harder to find at an undergraduate school, but for me it was so incredibly valuable. It was what prepared me for later critiques from my agent and editor.
As a high schooler, I think it’s okay that you don’t have a lot of outlets to display your writing. Two thoughts here: firstly, you should find a way to show it off in SOME way, whether that is with your school newspaper, starting a literary magazine at your school, starting a blog, or even just sharing with your friends. You may also want to find others who are interested in writing and form a group that meets monthly to encourage each other and give feedback on each other’s work. Secondly, as you head into your junior year, I wouldn’t concern yourself TOO much with where to show off your writing. Smaller, more intimate experiences like the ones I listed can be so helpful, but it’s too early to pursue publication yet. Focus first on your craft. Publication will follow as your writing continues to improve, and as you experience more of life. This is NOT to belittle the high school experience– in fact, as a young adult author, that’s what I write about! I personally (and many other authors agree) that life experience is just as important in writing as actual writing skills. You will continue to learn and change and grow; you won’t be the same person today as you will be ten years from now, and that’s a good thing! You have meaningful things to say right now about life; you will have different meaningful perspectives in ten years. Fill all ten years with writing. 🙂 (Please don’t misunderstand me here– I only mean that our writing grows as we grow, and as a teenager, you have a lot of that in front of you. I’m 36, and *I* have a lot of that in front of me. Life experiences influence our writing in beautiful ways, so make sure to experience life.)
It can take a while to break into publishing. I graduated from college in 2003, won my first major writing award and was offered a book deal with a major publisher in 2013. Ten years!! So, what do we do during those years? You can tell your parents that I, along with most other creative writers, had no interest in being a starving artist. 🙂 The good news is that every business in every industry needs excellent writers– and those jobs are often very high paying! Before you have a book contract, you will need to work on your first novel on your own time; but while you are at it, you are highly employable. We think that writers must have jobs in places like publishing, marketing, book stores, etc., but writers are needed everywhere. I have had friends write for the corporate offices of major coffee shops, friends write for technical industries, friends write for journals and magazines that are about subjects they may not be passionate about (one friend wrote for an agriculture magazine, haha!). The highest paying jobs, I think, are in technical writing. I had a friend who did technical writing for Boston Scientific– the company was creating life-saving health devices, and she was writing instruction manuals for how to use them. Even as an intern back in the early 2000s, she was making $33/hour– after graduation, they hired her full-time– and this was a girl whose passion was writing fantasy stories about dragons! She would do her technical writing during the day at her high-paying job, then work on her novel in the evenings and weekends. The first novel you write has to be completely finished before you can pursue publishing anyway, so this is honestly the way that most authors write their first book. As for me, I work at a university in the admissions office. I do a lot of professional writing, marketing the college to families, and then in the evenings and weekends, I work on my creative projects. For nearly ALL of my friends in publishing, this is how they began. Please read my blog post about this (https://jackieleasommers.com/2017/01/11/writing-careers/) and perhaps share it with your parents as well. Writers are highly employable and are often the smartest people in any room they are in. 🙂 Yes, it is true that it may take you 5-10 years before you will have a book contract, but you will be working during that time. When people ask, “What can you do with a writing degree?” my answer is “Anything you want.”
I hope this is helpful! Keep writing! The creative life is so meaningful and fulfilling, isn’t it?
All my best,
Jackie

 

 

Thoughts on Writing: Navigating the Road to Publication

thoughts on writing 3So, you’ve sent out your query letters, signed with a literary agent, and secured a book deal. Your dream is in writing, in the language of a contract. Now what?

REVISIONS

The Mighty Scope

I swear HarperCollins purchased my book based on its potential. My editor’s first request was to rewrite the entire ending, beef up a handful of characters, and completely change the chronology of the book. In six weeks. 🙂

The Editor-Author Partnership

Up till this point in my life, I’d had two critique relationship experiences: in college, where if my professor suggested something, it was in my best interest to make those changes; and with my writing group of peers, where I collected ideas and feedback, but it was fully my decision whether to implement them or not. Working with my editor at HarperCollins was different– she was not my professor, though she did have more experience with writing and with story than I did; and she was not my peer, though she treated me with respect and genuine warmth. It was just a new scenario. We were partners in this project, and I had no idea what that was supposed to look like.

Ultimately, I learned to try everything she suggested. Usually I ended up loving it. If I didn’t, I would talk to her about why it wasn’t working, and we’d scrap it. There were very few things that we completely disagreed on, and in those 2-3 things, she let me win.

The Panic

The anxiety that followed my book deal was so intense and unexpected and alarming that I ended up back in therapy.

And so it goes.

COVER ART

I’m often asked how much influence I had on the cover of my novel. I had always heard that an author had zero input— but that wasn’t quite true in my experience.

First, I was asked for my thoughts:

We will fill out a form to share with our designers—who work serious magic and make the best looking books in the industry—but we want your thoughts, too. What sort of design or image do you picture for your cover? Photographic or iconic? Is there anything you absolutely don’t want? Are there other books whose covers you admire? As much info you can give us will help us—and the designers—create the perfect look for TRUEST.

truest-doodlesI was later shown eight choices and asked for my opinion again. They ended up going with my second choice (although by the end it was my absolute #1 favorite!), and let my thoughts guide multiple changes.

To see the detailed evolution of my book cover, click here.

MARKETING

A couple months after my publication day, I made some notes about what I learned:

  • I loved my street team, but I did everything too early and put too much money into it. I tried to come up with enough swag to entice readers to join the launch team, but I think the people who joined it would have joined it for less. In future, I will probably do a street team, but I will a) give them only the ARC plus some exclusive content, b) do everything within a month of the release date.
  • I would absolutely dish out the money to do a couple book tours during the release month. I’ll be doing a couple of those here in November and December, but I really wish I’d had the foresight to do them in September. Newbie!
  • At every event (except maybe the launch party), I would also promote other books that I enjoyed. I really want to give back in this way, plus I want bookstores that host these events to sell more than just my book.
  • I made a handful of promo materials. I probably should have just come up with one incredible idea, made a ton of them, and then given them out EVERYWHERE.
  • Here’s one that might shock you: I would have been more spoiler-y in my flap copy (i.e. the text on the inside flap of the book). A story about three teens in the summer isn’t particularly compelling, but once I mention that one of them has a disorder that causes her to question whether she’s in real life or just dreaming, I see lightbulbs go on. Every time. I’ve been looking at the flap copy of other books, and theirs is open super spoilery … and it doesn’t hurt the experience of the book. I think this was a big mistake of mine.

PUBLICATION

Celebrate Like Crazy

I will never regret having a huge launch party on the day my book came out! It was so much fun and so special to have people I love from so many parts of my life come together to celebrate my book … and to celebrate me. I had heard from so many writers that their launch day was “just another day,” and I wanted so much more than that: a celebratory climax to the day I’d been counting down from for nearly two years (or my entire life, depending on how you look at it). YES to release day parties.

The Magic of Kind Words

It’s hard to explain just how special it is to hear words of praise about your book. In the midst of fear and reviews and silence, sweet words at the exact right moments are each like a miniature rescue.To hear that you’ve made someone rethink things or that your book changed their life or became a new favorite or that they connected with a character or that it gave them hope during a particularly hard experience … it makes it all worthwhile. Please tell authors when you love their work. It’s like fuel, an instant battery-charge, strength to continue. I have an Instagram comment that has taken up permanent residence in my heart, ringing like a little bell.

THEN WHAT?

You get back to work.

This is the writing life.

 

Did you miss the other parts in this series on writing?

Part One | Part Two

thoughts on writing 1thoughts on writing 2

Thoughts on Writing: Query to Contract

thoughts on writing 2In part two of my Thoughts on Writing series, I wanted to share with you the details around getting a book deal.

As a young writer, I thought it went something like write a manuscript –> mail it to publishers –> if someone liked it, they would make it into a book. Voila!

Here’s the reality:

Querying
Very, very few publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts, and you’re told the way to get your story in front of an editor is via a literary agent, who will serve as a liaison between you and the publisher. So you begin your research, looking for agents who represent the kind of book you’ve written and whose brief wishlist on their website makes you think they might connect with your story. You start to think weird thoughts, like maybe you’re making a real connection with someone’s … online profile. Like maybe the matrix is glitching on you as you read this one because this is the one. You make a list of 100 agents, telling yourself that if all 100 say no, then this book is simply not ready for publication.

Meanwhile, you write a query letter, trying to be both professional and creative as you summarize your entire book into one paragraph, then into one sentence. You run hooks past all your friends to see which ones grab them, and it’s really impossible to tell because these same friends are so intimately acquainted with your story already that they are not at all objective.

(I’ve written in extreme detail about querying over here.)

On Submission
You start sending out the query letters– almost entirely via email, though every agent wants something different: query and synopsis and the first ten pages. Or query and chapter summary and the first three chapters. Or query alone, and you hope that one-page letter can find its feet.

It’s an emotional roller coaster. Some are interested, some are not. Some are silent and you won’t hear back from them until six months after your book has been published. Some ask for more chapters. Some ask for the whole manuscript. Some politely say no.

But someone says yes.

You sign with that agent, and– guess what– you get to keep your seat on that emotional roller coaster while your agent pitches your manuscript to editors. Rejection is likely, and you knew that, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still sting.

But then, one magical day, you get a call from your agent saying an editor loved it and has made an offer.

Everything feels surreal. You stand on the veranda outside of your office and call your dad and say, “I got a book deal.”

Contract
The contract comes later, so much later than you’d have guessed. It takes four months before you sign it, and even though you’ve already started on revisions with your editor, inking your signature onto those papers makes everything seem real. Maybe up till now you thought this was a trick or that you’d say something annoying and they’d call it all off.

Now it’s binding. You breathe a sigh of relief.

But relief doesn’t last long …
Next week: revisions, how advances work, choosing cover art, copy edits, ARCs, marketing, and release day!
Also in this series:
thoughts on writing 1
Part one 🙂

 

Thoughts on Writing: 14 Steps to Getting Started

Blog readers repeatedly tell me they want to know more about the creative process, the road to publishing … and through publishing … and life on the other side of publishing, especially in regard to working on a second book. They ask where I get my ideas, how I plan, how I execute, how I get over writer’s block.

And here’s the thing: I don’t feel like an expert, by any stretch of the imagination. So sometimes it feels pretentious to me to offer advice when I’m such a novice myself. With that caveat, I am always happy to talk about creativity, so let’s dive in.

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MINDSET

1. Do you have to write? Is it in your blood? Is writing a part of your identity and calling?

If it’s not, why start? Writing is deeply meaningful, yes– but it’s also hard and painful, it’s slow work that is very unlikely to make you rich, and true creativity requires you give so much of yourself to the task.

George Orwell said: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

2. The journey is probably going to be longer and slower than you think. 

You might never have your work published. If you write because you have to write, because you’re a writer in your bones, then this won’t matter. (Or at least it won’t matter enough to stop you!)

3. Don’t quit your day job. Yet. 

If you are a talented communicator, you will be able to find work, work that puts food on the table, pays the rent, renews your prescription meds (you think I’m joking, but I’m not). Having your basic needs met will allow you to pour more of your energy into your creative pursuits. In that sense, you may not even want your day job to be especially creative– many of us have a limit to our daily creative energy; for us, it’s better to use a different part of our brains during the work day and save that creative energy for writing.

GETTING STARTED

4. Read extensively. 

I knew a man who wanted to be a novelist, but he claimed he didn’t have enough time to read. This is like someone saying they want to be an Olympic athlete but don’t have time to use the weight room.

Read like crazy: everything [good] you can get your hands on, but especially in your genre. Poetry too; it will improve your prose.

Stephen King makes it clear: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Annie Proulx says: “You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.”

5. Write extensively, even when you’re not inspired.

As many have noted before, amateurs wait for inspiration; everyone else just gets up and goes to work. Might as well. You need to put 10,000 hours of practice into something to become an expert. Better get started.

6. You don’t need anything fancy: just a word processor or a pen and paper. 

I know people who swear by Scrivener and others who use something like WriteRoom or DarkRoom to limit distractions, but ultimately, all you need is a way to record your story. Some people choose to write by hand first, then transfer it into an electronic document later, and there are studies that say writing by hand does slow a writer down, which can have many benefits. As for me, I use a computer for that exact reason– I don’t want to slow down while I’m writing. But later, when I need to solve issues, figure out plot holes, brainstorm new scenes, I sit down with a notebook and pen too.

7. Do your research, but don’t let it become procrastination. 

I have friends who are brilliant writers– but who will spend so much time plotting and planning and world-building and researching that they never really get around to writing their stories. I admit everyone is different here (some writers plot extensively a la J.K. Rowling, some writers write by the seat of their pants a la Ray Bradbury)– and research and details are important— but don’t let anything keep you from actually writing. The research should propel your project forward, not stall it out.

8. Learn the craft. 

I know that some of the greatest writers had no formal education in it, but as for me? Well, I needed a bachelor’s degree in writing to give me roots and wings. Set aside some money to take a course or attend a writer’s workshop. Read books about craft (my favorites: The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass and The Anatomy of Story by John Truby) and the writing life (my favorites: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield).

9. Solicit feedback and revise.

Join a writing group or find some beta writers. Better yet, do both. Make sure they actually know what good literature is. They should be good writers themselves or at least good readers. And do take their advice or at the very least try it out.  No one said you have to keep your revisions. Take their feedback, make revisions, and then decide whether to take it or leave it. It goes without saying (I hope) that all this should be done without putting up a fuss. You need feedback to make your writing sparkle. Well, at least most writers do.

Jeanette LeBlanc says: “Never get too attached to the first draft of anything – this includes writing, art, homes, love. You will revise and revise and revise. We are always in the midst of our own becoming.”

THINGS TO REMEMBER

10. Genres have word count guidelines. 

Debut authors should be especially aware of this. Many literary agents won’t even bother with a manuscript that falls outside the genre word count guidelines. (Not that it has never happened– but it’s the exception, not the rule). There’s an excellent, detailed post about this Writer’s Digest.

11. Screw trends.

Write what you’re passionate about, not whatever is trendy in your genre. By the time you finish your novel about [insert trendy, current topic here], the topic will probably no longer be trendy or current.

12. The only true practice for writing a novel-length book is to write a novel-length book. 

Short stories are their own separate beast, in my mind, so if you want to write a book, you have to DO IT. Does that mean your first book has a high chance of being not-so-great? Well, yes. I and most of the writers I’m friends with did not publish the very first novel that we wrote. I always say I had to write a book to learn I could do it before I could then write a good one.

13. You have all the permission in the world to write an awful first draft. 

In fact, in the writing community, we commonly refer to these as “shitty first drafts.”

Hemingway said: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

Anne Lamott spends an entire chapter of Bird by Bird discussing “shitty first drafts”: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.”

If it helps you to look at the flip-side, consider Jane Smiley’s take: “Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist.”

Whatever way you look at it, remember that you have permission to write something that will not be the final something.

14. Perseverance and talent are both important in writing; if you want to publish, perseverance is more important than talent. 

Maybe that’s a bold thing to say, but I really believe it. The writer-friends of mine who are published who wrote a first terrible-to-semi-awful first book? After they did that, they set it aside and wrote a second book. A third. A fourth. They didn’t stop after being rejected once or twice, and– say what you will– to spend years on a manuscript that never sees the light of day, then turn around and do that all over again without any guarantees? That’s gutsy. That’s driven. That’s why I said what I said in the first point of this post.

Thanks for reading, folks! In my upcoming posts, I’ll talk more about querying literary agents, getting a book deal, and what comes after. Stay tuned.

And please do leave a comment! I would love to have a discussion here; I’m not interested in being the only voice.

 

4 Myths about Writing Fiction

old books isolated on whiteMyth #1: You won’t have to research. 

Ha. Ha ha ha. HA. Once upon a time, I thought that only non-fiction writers and historical novelists had to do research for their books. If someone wrote contemporary fiction, well, she would already know how life works … and anything else she could make up, right? Gosh, that was so short-sighted, it’s comical to me now. Of course, we often hear the phrase “Write what you know” (sidenote: I much prefer my writing mentor Judy’s “Write till you know”), but for most of us, that’s about one book’s worth of content. After that, guess what, you have to write another one. And it has to be different. Full of things you might not know. And even that first book … look, you’re still gonna have to research. I have read books about Greek mythology, philosophy, string theory, antiques. I’ve watched YouTube videos to learn about carpentry. I ask questions every single day to my wide network of friends, am super involved on Quora, and spend hours researching the finest details– details that, if done right, the reader will not even notice.

Myth #2: You must plot.

Nah. Sure, many writers do. But many don’t. Each writer has his or her own proclivity toward planning or “pantsing” (writing by the seat of one’s pants). You may have seen J.K. Rowling’s hand-drawn outline for Order of the Phoenix. Then again, Ray Bradbury said:

When you plot books you take all the energy and vitality out. There’s no blood. You have to live it from day to day and let your characters do things.

pantser (1).jpg

There are tremendously successful books on both sides– and some that employed a combination of tactics. With my WIP, I pantsed the first 6-12 months, then– after I knew my characters better– ploted it out before revisions.

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Myth #3: You must know what you’re doing. 

You just need to not give up until you get there. This can take years and years … are you willing to invest that time? Do you feel called to it?

That said …

Myth #4: Anyone can do it. 

Here I defer to Ann Patchett, who shares this story in her book This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (it’s sooooo good … I briefly reviewed it here):

…my husband had told her I was a novelist. Regrettably, I admitted this was the case. That was when she told me that everyone had at least one great novel in them.

I have learned the hard way not to tell strangers what I do for a living. Frequently, no matter how often I ask him not to, my husband does it for me. Ordinarily, in a circumstance like this one, in the Masonic Lodge in Preston, Mississippi, I would have just agreed with this woman and sidled off (One great novel, yes, of course, absolutely everyone), but I was tired and bored and there was nowhere to sidle to except the field. We happened to be standing next to the name-tag table. On that table was a towering assortment of wildflowers stuck into a clear glass vase. “Does everyone have one great floral arrangement in them?” I asked her.

“No,” she said.

I remember that her gray hair was thick and cropped short and that she looked at me directly, not glancing over at the flowers.

“One algebraic proof?”

She shook her head.

“One Hail Mary pass? One five-minute mile?”

“One great novel,” she said.

“But why a novel?” I asked, having lost for the moment the good sense to let it go. “Why a great one?”

“Because we each have the story of our life to tell,” she said. It was her trump card, her indisputable piece of evidence. She took my silence as confirmation of victory, and so I was able to excuse myself.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman, not later that same day, not five years later. Was it possible that, in everybody’s lymph system, a nascent novel is knocking around? A few errant cells that, if given the proper encouragement, cigarettes and gin, the requisite number of bad affairs, could turn into something serious? Living a life is not the same as writing a book, and it got me thinking about the relationship between what we know and what we can put on paper.

Slow, Blessed Work

I’m writing as much and as hard and as fast as I can, but it’s still painstaking, slow work.

I can’t help but think of how Annie Dillard described it:

At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then – and only then – it is handed to you. From the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way.

This feels like blessed work. Slow slow slow. But I can sense the narrative arc taking form; right now I am climbing with it.

Spare a thought for me.

The Art of Avoidance

Goal:
Work on novel.

Instead:
A girl has gotta eat, right? Better make some lunch.

And you can’t write while you eat, so maybe just one episode of New Girl. Ok, two episodes.

Speaking of food, I need to get groceries. I should make a grocery list.

Man, I love lists. What else do I need to do this weekend?

I really need to dedicate time to brainstorming. Add that to the list. Brainstorm about marking, book research, and blog.

Wow, the blog. I should blog. Yes, and that will get me warmed up to work on the novel.

Book research. I should read those library books before they’re due.

And then take notes.

And then brainstorm over the notes.

Maybe I should actually write a little bit about what I learned from the library books. That’s still progress, right? Short assignments?

I just need to run to pick up my prescription, and then it will be time to write.

Except Target exhausts me. Just a tiny nap. A short one. Well, okay, an hour. Two hours.

Crap. I napped three hours. Now I feel like a bum. And I still haven’t written. I should write.

And I will. I just have to wake up a little bit. Let me just eat some dinner, and then I’ll attack the novel.

Chipotle was not a good choice. I can’t write with my stomach hurting like this. Plus I have a headache. I’ll take some Ibuprofen, drink some water, wait till I can focus. I can’t focus when I feel like crap. No way. No one would expect me to.

Know what? ENOUGH. I HAVE TO WRITE. Write for one hour.

Writes for three.

That felt good. Tomorrow I should start writing earlier.

Sleep.

Wake up and avoid all over again.

exhausted writer

 

Bird by Bird, Buddy

I’ve been actually scared of writing, fearful of my manuscript, avoiding it at all costs. Some days it’s hard for me to understand how this could have happened: that I have learned to fear that which I once loved.

But deep inside, I know that I still love writing. It is all the other things that have added fear into the mix: deadlines, critique, even– in some ways– being paid for it.

Again and again, I have had to return to the advice of writing guru Anne Lamott: bird by bird, short assignments, shitty first drafts.

Bird by Bird

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Short Assignments

“Say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look, honey, all we’re going to do for now is to write a description of the river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman he will marry. That is all we are going to do for now. We are just going to take this bird by bird. But we are going to finish this one short assignment.”

Shitty First Drafts

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.”

And with that said– or remembered– I’m off to work on my novel. Think of me.

Love,
Jackie

P.S. If you haven’t read Bird by Bird, man, are you missing out: get it here.

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Sacred

Last week was so incredibly productive. I had to take my laptop and write in my bed, since my office somehow seemed too overwhelming, too formal, too demanding. 

So I wrote in my bed. It was a simple measure I could take to feel safer. I don’t know. Am I alone in this?

It makes me think of Virginia Woolf, of A Room of One’s Own, of how I, at 18, was so idealistic about writing that I wrote not one but two research papers meant to disprove Woolf’s claims, and how, a decade later, I would wonder, Maybe she was right.

Man, writing is hard. I saw this posted on social media today. I felt it.

I’m not complaining. Or I’m trying not to, at least. I have a calling on my life, and I am rising to it. No, my writing life isn’t easy, but it is sacred.

Writing & Careers

It’s true that creative degrees usually get picked on, at least in my experience both as someone who studied creative writing AND as a college recruiter who interacts daily with college-bound students and their parents.

Creative writing– what are you gonna do with that?
You’re a theatre major? So, like, a future homeless person?
You study art … because you want to starve?

It’s annoying at best. At its worst, it usually looks like a parent insisting their artistic student choose a “safer” major– like business.

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I have so many thoughts here.

Many jobs simply require that a candidate has a bachelor’s degree, doesn’t matter what it’s in. Honestly, humanities-type majors help students learn how to think critically, which is something every employer wants. Many of the arts degrees teach students how to become incredible communicators– again, a highly regarded skill.


Some jobs (like mine!) don’t even align with a particular degree, just a certain skill set. To be a recruiter at my university, you need to be a strong communicator, have great people skills, and love higher education. My colleagues have degrees in a wide variety of areas: communications, biology, youth and family studies, music, psychology, exercise science. My supervisor was a PR major; his supervisor studied business.


It’s important for young artists to remember that their artistic goals will take years to accomplish. In general, most young writers don’t get a book deal with a Big Five publisher the summer after college graduation. There’s so much work to be done: a continual honing of one’s skills, reading all the books you wanted to read during college (ha!), coming up with a great idea, writing the actual book, most likely not selling that book, starting over again … in the meantime, you will still be employable.


When I talk to senior English majors at my university, I ask them what their ultimate dream is. If their dream is to publish, then I tell them, Make sure you are writing. Here’s what I mean: many writing graduates pursue highly creative careers. There’s nothing wrong with this in and of itself– but most of us have a limit to our daily creative output. If you work a very creative job, will you be willing to go home and write all evening too? I tell them to go ahead and take that creative job if they want, but every couple months, they need to ask themselves, Am I still writing? If not, then something needs to change.


I think, for college graduates, there is a certain pride that comes along with “working in the field.” They are more eager to say that they are doing copy editing or freelancing or writing for an organization than to say that they got a job as a bank teller or … well, a college recruiter. But the two things you need to ask yourself are these: 1) Does it pay the bills and cover your loan payment? and 2) Do I still have enough creative energy for my personal artistic projects? If so, then you are on the right road. If being a Starbucks barista pays the bills and leaves you with enough creative energy to go home and work on your novel, then you are doing it. If working at a publishing house pays the bills and is in your field, but when you go home, you have nothing left to offer on the altar of creativity, then you need to make changes.