Advice for My Younger Writing Self

Posted on 03 April 2013

In “Dear Younger Writing Self,” Allison Amend advises the writer she used to be not to worry so much when it comes to her writing career. Here’s a snippet:

At the moment, you are worrying that you are not as good as the other people in your MFA program. True, most of them have more writing experience. And yes, some are more talented than you. Some will be more successful than you. Sometimes success will not equate with talent. Life isn’t fair, which is as hard to take now as it was when you were five and your brother got the bigger cookie. But I promise you that you are not the worst writer among them either. And, fifteen years later, half of them will have retired their proverbial pens while you’re still scribbling away. (And no, they did not let you in because they felt sorry for you for being overweight. They liked your work).

In the spirit of Allison’s post, here’s some of my own advice to my younger writing self:

  • You will never forget that writing room you had at college or the fact that it had no internet connection whatsoever. Cherish it while it lasts.
  • You deserved it. Why did you worry you didn’t deserve it?
  • On the other hand, awards and prizes don’t mean as much as you think they do. Stop putting so much stock into them.
  • Writing with the cat Edith Wharton as company will instill in you a lifelong fondness for black-and-white cats. Just understand that the cat you one day adopt will not be as self-possessed or as dignified as Edith was. He’ll still nap next to you while you write, though.
  • Your first novel is not what you think it is. And that’s okay.
  • The years you lived alone in the old apartment by the lake will be a period when you had relatively more time and mental space to write. Use it wisely.
  • Believe it or not, you will one day be able to write in coffee shops.
  • That frustrating writing workshop will lead to an excellent one. Just keep showing up.
  • Go to more local readings. A lot more.
  • After you leave a certain writing group, a woman will email you and ask to meet for coffee, and you will consider canceling because of the storm. Go.
  • You’re not going to get that grant either time you apply, but life goes on.
  • When a particular agent rejects your novel on a snowy day, don’t despair entirely. You’ll turn that moment into a paying article. The same goes for the time you considered quitting writing and for that bizarre literary magazine rejection.
  • After the workshop for your wig shop story, do not look back as you leave the room. Just keep going.
  • When you go to AWP and decide to change your departure plans, do not convince yourself that traveling back on Greyhound will be “completely fine.” It won’t.
  • When you go to Bread Loaf, pass on that last drink at the final cocktail party. Trust me on this.
  • When, late one night, you get the crazy idea to submit to a few story collection contests, don’t waste any time talking yourself out of it. Instead, get straight to work.
  • Don’t spend three full days after you learn your collection won a prize wondering if they meant to call someone else. They really did mean to call you.
  • The book publication process will stress you out more than all your worries about ever publishing a book.
  • Why are you thinking about publishing books when you could be writing?
  • At the same time, don’t be so damn shy about promoting your collection once it’s published.
  • There is no final destination for a writing career. Ever. Not even a book publication. You’re in this for the long haul, so enjoy it.
  • Keep writing and reading and attending those writing groups. It might not always seem like it, but you really are on the way to building the writing life you wanted. Keep going.

In case you’re wondering, I still consider my writing self to be young — so I look forward to the advice I’ll have for myself in another decade or so.

What advice do you have for your younger writer self?

Photo: Christ Fritz


16 responses to Advice for My Younger Writing Self

  • Teri says:

    “There is no final destination” in the writing life. So so true, and so hard to to remember.

    What happened when you looked back into the room after workshopping your wig story?!

    • I made eye contact with someone who took the moment to mean more than it did. A better story to tell over drinks the next time I see you. (Although I must have told it somewhere in some version, because it’s why Averil called me Brunhilde for a while.)

  • Lyra says:

    Yours are so fantastic. I want to hear that story in person!

    -When you move to Chicago and aren’t yet working, don’t think that you can write in the next door bar while drinking a few. It doesn’t work.

    -When you’re bartending, use the time off writing. It takes so many words down before any are any good. Get going now while you have the time.

    -Stop drinking so much and write.

    -Don’t stay in a field that demands so much of your mental energy. The one job you took that led you down the path? Run the other way and take the crap job. Trust me on this.

    -Don’t forget to ask that guy from the running group out for a drink. You’ll leave your lover and he will be the father of your children. You don’t even think you’ll have children but you will. From the first time you talk to him, you’ll never want to stop. Remember that.

    -Your writing is neither as bad or as good as you think it is at the time. The only certainty is that if you keep working at it, it will improve. Strive for that.

    -Accept that you will never have enough time to write. Then use whatever time you have. There is no such thing as a muse or inspiration, only sweat and finger/brain cramps.

    -It doesn’t get easier. It gets better.

    • “It takes so many words down before any are any good. Get going now while you have the time.”

      I know, I know, right? If we could go back in time, we could write so many crappy but necessary words. I’d also discover yoga way earlier, too.

  • Sarah W says:

    –That WiFi connection you think you need? Think again.

    –You know Betsy Lerner? The woman who wrote the writing book you read until it fell apart? She has a blog. Go comment on it.

    –Talk to everyone you meet at conventions. Some won’t want to waste their time with you, but the ones who don’t think it’s a waste will be fantastic people.

    –Just shut up and write already, okay?

    –Quit second guessing yourself. Once is enough.

  • Averil says:

    To my twenty-year-old self:

    You are going to wait twenty years before you write a single sentence. This is not a waste of time so don’t beat yourself up about it. You just didn’t have anything to say for a while.

    • Teri says:

      Yes to this.

    • Love this.

      Averil, did you always think you’d one day write, or would like to write? I know you only started fairly recently (you gem you, with your speedy progress and success) but am curious how you viewed writing during those earlier years.

      • Averil says:

        No, I never thought about writing. I never thought of myself as a writer. But I thought about words all the time. When the right phrase seemed to click into place—a perfect description or a lyrical bit of language, or some overheard fragment of conversation—I would think about it obsessively, like a song that gets stuck in your mind. I have always loved the rhythm of language. And I love to read, of course.

  • Erika Marks says:

    I would love to pull up a chair next to you and Teri for that Bread Loaf mistaken-eye-contact story, Laura…

    Your list is hard to top–number one has me especially think-y.

    I always wonder if I WOULD go back and tell my 20 year-old self that it will take 20 years for that first book contract because I think the joy in the process (which feels more like torture, of course, in those moments) is the sense that the letter/email offer is just around the corner. I think we all need that hope to keep going. Reminds me of hiking last weekend with my daughters and telling my oldest for the last, steepest stretch, that the key is to look down as you go and not up at the incline, because otherwise you get discouraged–sure enough though, if you keep your eyes on the trail, you won’t know how steep it is and before you know it, you’re at the top.

    • You are so right. Most authors have to write one or more (three? cough cough) starter novels before they make it. I can’t imagine we’d keep going with our hearts fully into the work if we knew the outcome in advance. You have to operate on blind crazy faith in this business.

      I love your hiking analogy and will employ it the next time I have to tackle a mountain trail. Thinking “At least this is easier than trying to publish a novel” will help, too.

  • Catherine says:

    Your points resonate with me. I skipped over a few wonderful opportunities when I was young because I was doing other things. This was perhaps unwise. But I guess the living that happened as a result of going headstrong back to Africa has given me more material than I know what to do with. Including changing my attitudes and removing me from my cultural frame which isn’t a bad thing for a writer.

    I probably wouldn’t tell myself much at all, just keep living and maybe be a lot more diligent with editing and sending out. But then these thoughts tend to ruin me so best get back to work.

  • Jennifer says:

    These are so good, Laura. Here is one I would send to my younger self:

    You know that terrible writing group you went to where you met a writer you really admire? Don’t wait until she leaves the group to invite her to coffee. Email her now.

  • -You were right. The conversation you had with the undergraduate poet on the sidewalk in Chapel Hill will change your life.
    -Being a little lonely is good for your writing, sorry. But you won’t be lonely forever.
    -Yes, you can write. Yes.

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