Thursday, November 29, 2007

Work in Progress: New Year's Resolutions for Writers

I’m the kind of person who arrives early everywhere I go, but this post may be a case of extreme over-promptness. Nevertheless, this is actuallywhat came out when I started to write about something else entirely. So, voila: my suggested New Year’s resolutions for writers. I’d love to run more, so please feel free to send me your thoughts on the matter. After all, we’ve got another month before we have to get serious about these resolutions!

1. Read. If you can believe this, recently I was chatting with a woman at a conference reception. I asked who her favorite authors/books were and she said, “Oh, I don’t like to read. Honestly, I have no idea. I can’t think of a book I’ve read lately.” I couldn’t control the aghast expression blanketing my face, so she laughed nervously and stammered, “Isn’t that strange to love to write so much and not like to read?” I went off to fetch more (much-needed!) wine, but, yes, YES. That is strange. It is strange and it is WRONG. You cannot improve as a writer unless you read widely and deeply.

2. Buy the books you read. Okay, you can go to the library if you must. And students may go to used bookstores. And everyone can go to used bookstores to seek out those obscure, odd, out-of-print books that make our hearts sing. But please, if and when you can, support the writers you care about. BUY their books. Instead of passing along your copy of a beloved book to your friend/sister/cousin/mom, BUY a copy to give to them.

3. Subscribe to literary journals. You want them to publish your work, so you have a moral obligation to support them. Plus, reading the journals you want to be published in will help you determine which journals are right for your work (a little self-interest never hurts). Because there are so many to choose from, I try to rotate my subscriptions around: there are some I subscribe to regularly, some I get after entering story contests, and some I’m curious about. If you don’t know where to begin, a few of my consistent favorites are The Gettysburg Review, Tin House, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, and The Missouri Review. It’s helpful to toss in a good local journal like The Potomac Review or Gargoyle, too. Again, I will take pity on struggling students, who are excused from subscribing if they promise to read these journals at the university library.

4. Attend conferences and classes to improve your craft, NOT to get “discovered.” First of all, it IS likely that classes and conferences will help you improve your craft, whereas it is NOT quite as likely that you will be “discovered.” Second, improved writing is what will catch the eye of that dream agent; no matter how drunk and jolly an agent may be at the post-conference reception, he or she will never be drunk enough to sign up a writer whose work they don’t believe passionately in, whose work they don’t think they can sell. It’s the writers who write well that inspire that passion—in agents as well as in the editors who (metaphorically) sign the checks.

5. Be generous. Help your fellow writers—of all levels—when you can. The writing world is not a pie, only so much to go around. If someone else’s book gets published, that doesn’t mean yours won’t published. Promote others—be happy when your writer friends do well—write notes of congratulation—pass along potential opportunities. It’s a small world out there, and don’t you want to be remembered as a generous, helpful writer? As the T-shirt says, Karma is a bitch.

6. Learn to say “no.” Your time is precious; the creative space in your brain that knows how to spin out a story is valuable. Don’t squander either with social engagements that don’t engage you, with obligations that overly burden you. Yes, you’re allowed to put writing—and yourself—first some of the time!

7. Give yourself a break. Writing is hard. Yes, we all know it’s not like digging ditches…but it’s taxing nevertheless, and it’s hard to keep up morale when your wonderful story has just been rejected by some literary journal intern via a terse, form rejection printed on a scrap of paper the size of a gum wrapper. Don’t constantly beat yourself up for not being good enough/hard-working enough/brilliant enough/lucky enough/connected enough. One of my favorite teachers used to say that for a writer, there is only one question to ask: “Did you write today?” If you did, you’re golden. Doesn’t matter if it’s crap—that’s what revision is for. Just get your words on the page.

8. Write today.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.