Where we end up as writers does not always have any correlation to where we began. It is all too easy to imagine, when one is young, the career path. All too easy to believe that one’s work will inevitably be celebrated, awards will flow, and wealth will result from that million dollar sale.
But I would hazard a guess that most don’t imagine the years of sitting solitary, in front of a keyboard and computer screen, doing the writing itself. Or of sitting with a pad of paper, or a notebook and pen, or pencil, and cramping one’s hand while writing word after word, endlessly, then revising them, and then, at last, sitting down to put it all into a computer’s word processor. That part of the dream is boring, and will be glossed over by the unimaginative.
But what if that dream of great success and riches doesn’t happen right away? Does that mean one’s writing has no validity? When I was at university, I knew a young man who was my own age. He was determined to write novels in such a way that his genius would be recognized by the time he was 21 years old. Because his hero had done so. And when that didn’t happen? He was shattered. He declared he would never write again. I lost touch with him soon afterward, and don’t know what happened to him. Maybe he learned that stuff runs downhill and became a plumber. He probably made more in his career than most wanna-be writers ever will. He might own a vacation home, and a boat, and maybe even can afford to send his kids to college. I don’t know.
Another friend from the same period was a serious pianist. He’d been groomed from age 3 to be a concert pianist. His mother poured money and hopes into private lessons, piano camps, tutors, and a first rate piano in their home. He was astonishingly good when he performed. He went off to college, studying piano, and he became much better. But his goal was to be world famous by the time he was 21, because his hero did that. And his mom said to do that. And when he didn’t succeed in reaching that level of fame?
I lost track of him for many years, but through the wonders of the internet some few years ago, was able to briefly connect. He’d gone on to get a master’s degree in conducting, and then a doctoral degree. He as teaching college symphony band, conducting, and playing piano, and was still pretty good. They always asked him to play at parties. He knew all the songs. He married, had children, bought a comfortable home, and made a very good life for himself. Was that not worth the doing, simply because he didn’t live up to the dream he’d had when he was young?
I seem to meet a lot of young writers these days, and I try to be reserved in giving advice. I’m not Gandalf: I don’t have magic dust up my sleeve. If I did, I’d be famous and rich, instead of relatively obscure and on the poorer side of middle class. The only solid advice I can give is to keep writing. Write more. Then write it again. And then again. Write more than one story. Write many stories. And then more stories.
How do you learn and know what you don’t know? Ask a lot of questions. Write down the answers, and find your stories in the answers from others. Ask: What do you do? How do you do it? Why do you do it? What do you think about when you garden? How did you meet your spouse? Why did you want children? In the answers from those people you meet, to whom you ask question about their lives, you will find answers for your writing. No one is born with answers within them. But good writers are born with lots of questions. Writing is answering the questions you ask. Ask good questions.
You might want to read this essay from a speech given by a writer, Andrew Solomon, in which he discuses Advice for Young Writers by Rilke. It is more brilliant than anything I could say.
I mostly did other things in my career than write. I worked with photographers, and artists, and eventually became a photographer. I learned to be a careful researcher, and writer of reports read mostly by senior editors. To get there, perhaps the most important part was learning about the world. In my youth, I worked construction, in a steel mill, in stores, in factories, in restaurants, in libraries, and occasionally for my grandfather, learning to take care of a historic 19th century farm on a mountain. All of that was grist for my word mill, for my word farm; learning to ask questions, and find answers.
- David W. Wooddell