Last week, I sat down with a young woman who, maybe, potentially, wants to be a writer. She just finished her freshman year of college, and is interested in short stories and poems but, as she told me, she knows that’s kind of dreamy. She knows, as she says, that she’ll need to get a “real job” too.
We talked over lunch about what she’s reading, what she’s writing, and how one goes about getting a book published. In many ways, she reminded me of me, and upon thinking about our conversation, there are some things I wish I had told her. The same things I wish someone had told me.
First, writing really is dreamy. Literally. You can escape into the fantasy worlds of your dreams, or relive your most treasured memories, or date Prince Charming, all on the page. You can write the story in which the younger you exacts revenge on all the high school mean girls, or give your favorite character the perfect family you’ve always wanted. But writing is also a real job. It involves sitting in front of the page even when you want to be watching Grey’s Anatomy or going out to dinner or joining your friends at Six Flags. It means getting rejected sometimes (and by sometimes of course I mean lots of times), and dealing with various bosses who have their own agendas. It means doing the work you sometimes don’t want to do, and dealing with the people you sometimes don’t want to deal with. It is a real job, and one that can pay bills, if you treat it as such.
Also, if you want to write, WRITE. Don’t let anyone—your parents, your professors, the crabby reporters who say nobody reads anymore—tell you it’s not a worthy pursuit. Stop thinking about if you can do it, or if you should do it, and do it. And if you want to be published, you need to pitch your story. If getting published isn’t important to you, and you want to write for the love of writing, great! Really! But if you want to get published—in a book, a magazine, a journal, a website, a newsletter, whatever—you need to send your work out into the world. Start a blog. Send an essay to HelloGiggles. Check out Medium. Prove to your parents that writing is worthy by writing, and show them you’re willing to do the work to get other people to read your writing.
And another thing: When people ask you what you’re reading, don’t say Ernest Hemingway if you’re actually reading Candace Bushnell. There is no shame in reading Sex and the City. You’re reading, after all, which—don’t you read those crabby reporters?—is more than most people. If you’re reading Fifty Shades of Grey, own it—and then start a conversation about the craziness that is the Fifty Shades phenomenon. It’s so much better, and smarter, than spitting out the first “smart” name you can think of. Believe me, I made that mistake once. I was in a journalism class and a teacher asked me my favorite magazine. I said The New York Times Sunday Magazine. It made me sound smart, I thought, and I did like that magazine… the few times I’d read it. The correct answer, of course, was People. And when the professor subsequently asked me who was on the cover of the Times magazine that week and I said, “Was it, uh, that girl?” I did not sound smart. I sounded like a person who just got caught trying to sound smart. People is just as worthy an answer. There’s a reason it’s been in print for 40 years.
And, finally. If you want to be a writer, and you meet with someone who is there to give you advice, and she mentions books you might want to read, authors you might want to look up, or websites you might want to pitch, do not smile and nod and say thank you. Write it down. Then smile and nod and say thank you.