5 Things About Writing I Wish I’d Known 20 Years Ago

Last week, I visited California College of the Arts to talk to the current crop of MFA candidates about writing and publishing. I taught at CCA for several years, almost a decade ago, but somewhere along the line I quit teaching in order to spend more time writing. I always enjoyed teaching, though, and it was good to be back there, talking to students who are at the stage I was almost twenty years ago, and who have most of the same concerns that I had at that age.

I hadn’t really prepared anything for my talk, because when you’ve been writing for as long as I have, there’s nothing easier to talk about than writing. It’s like asking a chef to talk about food. It just comes naturally. More naturally, probably, than even the writing itself, which has its good days and its bad days. Some days, writing is like drinking water; it feels completely natural. Some days, it’s like drinking lighter fluid; it feels not only unnatural, but also painful.

I asked the students what they wanted to hear about. Were they interested in the publishing world? They were. I talked a bit about that—how it was when I was coming up, and how it’s changed, and why it’s still important to have both a trusted agent and a trusted reader. The conversation veered a bit, and I found myself sounding something like an old-timer, giving the “what I wish I’d known back then” talk. It wasn’t a talk I’d given before, but it just sort of started to roll off of my tongue, because what the students really wanted to know about was the writing life: how to do it, and how to sustain it, and if it was possible, and how.

The why, they didn’t really need to know, because if they did, they wouldn’t be pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing. The why for any writer comes down to this: if you’re not writing, you’re not happy. Therefore, you write. Of course, that reasoning implies that writing will always make you happy. For many people, that’s not true at all. What I should say is: when you’re not writing, you’re not fulfilled. That’s better. Want to know if you are really and truly a writer? When you go long periods without writing, you feel a bit empty. When you write well, or at least productively, you feel fulfilled, and often, if you’re lucky, even happy.

Thank you for bearing with me. It’s been, I realize, a long and meandering path so far. But that’s what the writing life is like, and that’s why we’re lucky, and that’s the first thing I wish I’d known about writing twenty years ago:

Northern California, photo by Michelle Richmond

Writing Truth Number 1: The writing life is a long and meandering path.

Here’s the good news: we’re not models. We don’t have a shelf life. We don’t have to do our best work by the age of twenty, and, in fact, for most of us, our best work will come much later than that. Are you 40 and you haven’t yet published a book? 50? 65? No worries.

The path is long because it can be. As long as you are lucid, you can write, and you’ll probably get better as you go.

The path is meandering because you will change, and the publishing world will change, and the things you want to write about will likely change as well.

The path is meandering because you will change, and the publishing world will change, and the things you want to write about will likely change as well. When I began writing, I saw myself as a writer of short stories. I only started writing a novel after hearing from many agents, in numerous rejection letters, to get back to them when I had a novel. The way you write will probably change, too. When I was first starting out, I wrote a lot of very long, beautiful sentences, because that’s what I thought writing was about. With each book, however, the sentences get more pared down. I’ve learned to see the beauty in brevity, the startling power of sparse language.

As it turned out, after writing my first novel, I was hooked. So I wrote another one. And another one. And another one after that. And now, I’ve just turned in a revision of yet another one. A couple of my novels sold really well. A couple didn’t sell well at all. There was a period of two years when I published two books in a row, followed by a period of six years when I didn’t publish a book at all, followed by a year in which I published two books in one month. By which I mean to say that the path changes. Sometimes it’s smooth, sometimes it’s bumpy, sometimes you feel lost in the undergrowth, sometimes the vista looks expansive and promising.

What matters is that you keep going.

What matters is that you keep going. Simply that. Don’t stop writing. Well, actually, maybe you’ll stop writing for a few weeks or a few months, because you had a baby or you started a new job or someone in your family needs a caregiver or you’re moving to a new house/new city/new relationship. That’s okay. Really—it is—as long as you start back up again.

And that is the first thing I wish I’d known about writing twenty years ago: the path is long and meandering. It’s okay to have days when you don’t write, and it’s okay to have years when you don’t publish, and it’s okay to have books that don’t sell well. Because there will also be days when you do write, and years when you do publish, and, if you’re lucky and extremely persistent, there will even be books that sell well.

Your job is simply to write. Get on the path. Stay on it, no matter where it takes you.

Read part 2: Writing Truth Number Two

Michelle Richmond is the author of five novels, including Golden State and the The Year of Fog, and two story collections, including Hum, winner of the Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize. She is the creator of The Paperclip Method series of workbooks for writers. She works to discover and promote new writers through Fiction Attic Press.

Get Michelle’s weekly writing and publishing tips delivered to your inbox.