Last Lecture: “Am I a writer?”
At the end of the semester, I give presentations in my novel-writing classes about the publishing business. Many students are seniors getting ready to graduate. Hence, they are full of anxieties. The first thing they say is: Why didn’t anyone teach us about this sooner!
This is what I tell them.
Relax. Nobody told me about any of this when I was an undergraduate. And very little of it when I was in graduate school, something I’ve discussed already here.
The reason that undergraduate creative writing instruction is not focused on publishing is very simple: very few of you are ready for it right now. In my experience, a writing apprenticeship is about 5-10 years long. The timer starts the day you start taking writing seriously—meaning you stop thinking of writing as homework and start incorporating it into your daily life.
So, if very few of you are ready for it right now, why am I talking about it at all? Simple: because when you are ready, I won’t have time to explain this to you.
At least once a week, I get an email or message from someone I barely know who says, “I have written a book. How do I get it published?” I hate these messages. It’s like someone emailing a lawyer and saying, “I have decided to represent myself in a courtroom. Will you explain the legal profession to me now?”
“Publishing” isn’t something you can explain to anyone in an email, in 60 minutes or less, or in a blog post (although this one comes close!). And it’s not the responsibility of your teachers to explain it all to you, to “teach you how to publish.” They are responsible for teaching you to write well. Nothing matters more than that. The presentations I give don’t teach you how to publish so much as they teach you how to begin thinking about it.
Why didn’t I talk about this sooner? My God, does your generation need even more reasons to obsess about the degree to which you “matter?”
You say things to me like: “I just want to publish a book and hold it in my hand.” Are you sure that’s all you want? Because these days, you can publish a book and hold it in your hands fairly easily. What I’m trying to talk about are all the different ways to publish. Only you can decide what it means to you to be meaningfully published.
Often, when you say “I just want to be published,” what you mean is that you need the external validation of publishing. You need to be able to show others—your friends and family and your hometown enemies and your ex-partners—that you “made it.” This is a horrible reason to publish, and if publishing is all about proving something, then I predict you will rush things and make a mistake you’ll regret. And that you’ll have a nervous breakdown and/or become an alcoholic.
You say things to me like: “I need to find a job that relates to writing.” When I ask you why, you say, “Because I want to be a writer.” This is when I realize that you don’t know very much about how writers become writers. You don’t “become” a writer because of a particular degree or a particular kind of job, although, yes, being attached to a company or a school makes one feel legitimate more so than, say, selling cars or working in a law office or nannying or house painting or working as a geologist—which are all things that writers I know do (or have done) to pay the bills.
Let me emphasize this: the job you get after graduation has nothing to do with whether or not you are a writer.
Let me emphasize this: applying to (and being accepted into) a graduate writing program has nothing to do whether or not you are a writer.
You say things to me like: “But I just want to know if I can be a writer.” And I want to say: First of all, why are you asking me? Nobody—no degree-granting institution, no teacher, no editor, no association—grants you the status of writer. You don’t need anyone’s permission to be a writer. You have to give yourself permission. It’s an almost completely internal “switch” that you have to turn on and (this is harder) keep on.
You say things to me like: “Show me how to succeed, how to build my platform, how to get an agent,” and I want to say, “That is what I’ve been doing.” Because I’ve been teaching you to write well. All you control are the words on the page. Everything else is a crap shoot. Whether your work is ever published, where it gets published, if the book is reviewed, if anyone reads it or likes it, how your publisher will decide to represent and market it, what they put on the cover—none of that is in your control. The only thing you can do is sit down every day and give it your best. Some days resemble slow torture, but others will bring joy, what the writer Andre Dubus called “the occasional rush of excitement that empties oneself, so that the self is for minutes or longer in harmony with eternal astonishments and visions of truth.”
You say things to me like “How do I know if I am a writer?” and I want you to watch the end of the other Capote movie, Infamous. Harper Lee’s character says:
It’s true for writers too who hope to create something lasting. They die a little getting it right. And then the book comes out. And there’s a dinner, maybe they give you a prize and then comes the inevitable and very American question: ‘What’s next?’ But the next thing can be so hard because now you know what it demands.
I’m 43 years old, and I thought that publishing a book meant I was a writer, but I was wrong. Convincing yourself each day to keep going, this means that you are a writer. The world will be sure to declare, “You matter, but you don’t. Wow, your work is exciting, but yours is old fashioned and dull.” What do you do when someone says, “Eh, you’re okay, I guess.” Do you stop? Or do you keep going? That’s the moment when you know whether or not you’re a writer.
You say things to me like, “Will you be disappointed in me if I stop writing,” and I want to say, “No, of course not.” Coming to terms with whether or not you are a writer might take years, which will surely drive everyone who loves you crazy. Try to avoid this, if possible. If you keep going, you’re a writer. If you decide to stop, simply tell yourself, “Well, I guess that was something I needed to do,” and move on as peacefully as you can.
Don’t be a writer because you have something to prove. Don’t do it because you think writers are celebrities. They are not celebrities. Don’t do it because you think it will bring you a happy life. I’m sorry, but it won’t. You shouldn’t write because you want to create something lasting, although that probably surprises you, doesn’t it? What better reason could there be? I’ve only found one good reason to sit on your ass for four months or four years, one good reason to give so much of yourself for so little in return, one good reason to create something that fewer and fewer people care about—and that’s simply because you want to.
You ask me, “Am I writer?” and I say, “There’s only one way to find out. Write the book. And see what happens.”