A third of this is tongue in cheek. You’ll have to decide which third yourself.
I’m not a writer; I’m just someone who reads and writes a lot. So you may take all of this in a “credit only to the man in the arena” sense, and I wouldn’t blame you. But I’ll tell you: there are advantages. Not being a writer is a wonderful salve for your writing. I sometimes read things that writers have written and say to myself, if only s/he wasn’t a writer, s/he’d be going places.
Consider not telling anyone. I have just found that a lot of people I know have told anyone who will listen, “I’m gonna be X,” and then every day they don’t become that, they slowly suffocate. “I’m writing a screenplay,” I’m 90% sure, is as self injurious as huffing paint. “I’m going to be a writer” is not something to drop lightly. They will eat you up with judgmental eyes if you fail, and you will almost certainly fail. It’s not like saying “I’m gonna be an actuary.” It’s more personal than that. That’s why you want it.
More than anything: yes, people who are great at things tend to be convinced that they are great. But many, many people get the causation backwards. Remember that the person who wrote the worst novel ever was convinced it was treasure.
You probably can’t make it as a writer. That’s the very first thing you should understand. Start every day by looking into the mirror and saying: I’ll never write that novel. I’ll never write that novel. I’ll never write that novel. Hopefully after you’ve gotten it through your skull you can get to work on something that will put money in your pocket. (Spoiler: it won’t be a lot. Within a rounding error of $0 is a nice, conservative assumption.) You might, if you aren’t too hung up on writing that novel, write a novel. There’s a small chance someone will buy it, once you’ve written the one that isn’t the one that you think about writing that gets in the way of your work. There’s even a remote possibility it’ll be good. Even really good. But probably not.
I’m not saying that in some reverse-psychology, “this is a test,” I’m-being-superficially-discouraging-but-really-think-you-will-make-it sense. I’m saying it in the “you will try and are far more likely to fail than to succeed” sense. In the time it took you to read the last paragraph some 48-year old was laid off by The Village Voice, and they’re smarter than you and have lived ten times what you’ve lived and can write so much better than you I actually almost feel bad for you, and now they’re on the same job market trying to scramble for the same shitty 10-cents-a-word gig recapping a show about couponing for the AV Club in the hopes that they can bang out some soul-destroying tedious bullshit so that a pack of talentless losers in the comments can pick their words apart from the safety of their beige plastic cubicles as they try to distract themselves with pop culture for long enough to keep their all-devouring self-hatred at bay. You might get that gig over them but if so it’s only because you’re young and cheap and stupid and the scuzzy editor thinks he might be able to fuck you after the Christmas party.
You almost certainly can’t make it as a freelance writer. I’m not trying to be a jerk. I’m saying: you almost certainly can’t make it as a freelance writer. I think the essential thing to understand is that the next level, the really lucrative stuff that you get after you “get your name out there,” doesn’t exist. The little publications can’t pay and the medium publications want to con you into thinking that publishing for them for next to nothing will get you a piece in one of the big ones and the big ones figure just giving you the platform is payment enough. You can’t live on publishing in the New York Times and The Atlanticthree times a year. Look: a lot of the supposed freelance writers you know of either come from money or work as shills on the side. Everybody’s gotta eat, I’m not judging. But many or most freelance writers aren’t. Ask other writers, preferably after a couple drinks. They’ll tell you.
They’ll also tell you who they think sucks. Oh, how they’ll tell you. And trust me: every writer you have ever read thinks many, many other writers suck. That’s the cliche, after all, and it’s true. They all think they’re better than most everybody else. (And you should never, ever read one who doesn’t.) When they tell you, don’t repeat it. I don’t mean to play to my reputation. But it’s an ass-kissing business. (Protip: all businesses are ass-kissing businesses.) Spend a day on Twitter and just count how much of it is writers congratulating other writers. Like I said: everybody’s gotta eat. Lord knows I’ve spent enough of my real life life shining the right shoes. Sometimes you have to eat shit in your life, so you eat it. It’s just a question of what you can accept and what you can’t. Just understand that you will be regularly required to say that pieces are good which you know to be bad, to say that people are talented that you know to be shit, that publications are cool which you know to be Thought Catalog. Do it if you have to, I won’t judge. Just be mindful when you do it.
Buzz is nothing. Getting your name out there is nothing. All of the positive mentions and trackbacks and Facebook hits from that piece you did for somebody’s vanity project website are nothing. Money isn’t everything. But you can use it to buy food. Want to call yourself a writer? Get paid. Eat. Pay the rent. Never doubt that a generation of young “writers” is publishing endlessly, never getting paid, convinced that tomorrow some magazine will call and they’ll get to sign the Rich and Famous contract like from The Muppet Movie. Those people are idiots. They are also your competition.
Jack Kerouac said that you are a genius all the time. He was out of his fucking mind on speed when he said it.
It’s a fact of life that writers, who always aspire to speak with specificity and go in fear of abstraction, tend to give the most vague, useless advice on writing. “Use concrete language! Write about what you know! Listen to criticism!” Thanks, coach. They mean well. They really do. But “be specific in your writing” has as much content as “make a profit in your business” or “score more points in your football game.” Useless. All useless.
Don’t mistake noble sentiment in offering constructive criticism for accuracy of feedback. Many writers are terrible at giving feedback on specific pieces of writing. They misidentify what’s wrong and misapply what’s right. They tend to give criticism that is actually a reflection of what they fear is wrong with their own writing and give praise that they secretly think they deserve themselves. Likewise, don’t mistake ignoble hating for inaccuracy of feedback. Blind, ugly haters who are motivated by a mere desire to denigrate often give the most accurate criticism.
Still if it remains important to you to know real criticism from mere hating, trust this: only a hater cares about the novelty of what he or she is saying. Someone giving criticism out of a genuine desire to help— or, at least, to tell the truth— doesn’t care if they are the first or thousandth person to give that particular kind of feedback. A hater wants to sting in a novel way and grows disillusioned when they learn that you’ve heard it all before. And if you’re serious about this and you’re any good at all, you’ve heard it before. So: are they right? Fix it and ignore the people who wanted so badly to be the first ones to tell you.
Get your prose right. Sift through the words around you like an autistic child on the beach, picking endlessly through grains of sand until he finds one of pure glass.
Writers love to heap praise on editors. They do both because editing is absolutely valuable and absolutely necessary, and because nobody ever remembers the editors, nor should they. Plus, they sometimes send you checks in the mail. Editors have power over you, but while they’re editing you, they know that you are the writer and they aren’t. Both are reasons to be nice to them.
The royal “we” is to be used only in the sentence “we are a fucking poseur.”
Maybe you’ll get yourself a sweet little gig at a magazine with an “alternative revenue stream.” Or maybe you’ll write ten posts along the lines of “24 Koalas Who Would Rather Be Tasting the Rainbow with New Tart ‘N’ Tangy Skittles” a week and get to recap the latest pretentious bullshit from HBO twice a month. Or maybe you’ll get a sweet gig writing blog posts for WaPo and incidentally teaching three of the nation’s most affordable GMAT classes a week. I hope you do, I really hope you do. But you probably won’t. Seriously.
Nobody gives a shit that you used to cut yourself. Nobody gives a shit that your parents divorced. Nobody gives a shit that you have cancer. Nobody cares. Can you make them know what it’s like to be you for awhile? Then, they’ll care. But it’s always on their terms, through their own metaphor. That’s the deal: you write the words. They make it about themselves. If you can’t give that stuff away for them to play with, save it for your diary.
Go ahead and put this in Autotext now: “Congrats to * on the new gig at *! * couldn’t have picked a better (wo)man for the job!” In related advice, buy a bottle of gin. It’ll help.
If you catch shade from another writer, someone more respected and established, remember that they’re bullshit and their work is bullshit and they only got successful because they sucked enough dick, metaphorical or literal. And remember that when it comes to relentless, soul-crushing insecurity, writer are like actors, only less attractive. It’s true. Think of that insight like a fireman’s axe behind break-in-case-of-emergency glass. You don’t have to know what you would possibly do with it to know it can cut people to ribbons. It’s for emergencies, for a rainy day.
Writing rivals sprinting or ballet in its inegalitarianism. Many people simply do not have it. You can work your ass off every day and still be terrible. More likely, you will work your ass off every day and be serviceable, while some pretentious jerk with half your dedication can toss off something in 15 minutes that blows your shit away. Yes, you need to read a lot. Yes, you need to write a lot. Yes, you need to practice your craft. You can do all of that religiously and still suck. That’s life. It’s like Bad News Bears: you can love it, but it doesn’t have to love you back. Sift around in your mind for awhile and find every spare concept like “unfair” or “should” or “deserves” and toss them on the fire. Those are liar’s words. They have nothing to do with adult life and nothing, nothing, nothing to do with writing. I don’t care what Malcolm Gladwell says; 10,000 hours of practice might be better spent playing Snood. That’s the gamble.
Every time you write the word “swagger,” you lose 5% of your writing ability. Every time you use it to describe yourself, you also lose 5% of your self-respect. And you should.
Remember that they only cultivate active dislike of you if they are deeply stung by what you write. The people who leap at every chance to criticize you are the ones you should treasure; you’ve affected them more deeply with your writing than you could have hoped. That guy who sees your @ on Twitter and has to complain about you? He’s been moved by you. That’s rare and valuable. Cultivate what you have with him. A real, reflexive response like that— that’s worth celebrating.
Your ideas are the single cheapest thing you have to offer. No editor ever spent 15 seconds worrying that they didn’t have enough ideas to publish. There are many rare and valuable things in this world but ideas are neither rare nor valuable.
None of this, by the way, means that I don’t think you should write. What else are you going to do? I can’t sleep at night, and I don’t like the drugs they prescribe. So I write. There are worse things. The decision to try and be a writer is a different equation, but I suppose it’s similarly physiological. So do it for awhile and if you don’t make it find something else that’s good enough. Then you can get all nostalgic about when you tried it out. I’m a romantic at heart, and it’s a beautiful thing to attempt.
Sweet people tell you sweet little things that you want to hear. In their telling, everything is possible.
If anyone gives you shit, tell them I said they can go to hell. Just remember that, odds are, you aren’t very good. But you can tell them to go to hell either way.