The Writer's Survival Guide: Introduction

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I was seven when I decided to be a writer. My moment of revelation came when I was lying on the sofa in our dining room, curled beside my mother as she took her afternoon nap and I, supposedly, napped too. But instead of sleeping, I occupied myself with my usual anti-nap activity, which consisted of trying to create pictures out of the cracked paint in the ceiling while I contemplated my future. I had long since tired of grown-ups asking, "And what are you going to be when you grow up?" Many were the arbitrary answers I had given: ballerina, teacher, mommy. But I knew in my heart that none of these was true, so I struggled to come up with a more genuine answer. That afternoon, as the sun settled on top of us and the house sighed deeper into its foundation, the answer finally came to me: Aha! I'll be a writer! Somehow I knew — in spite of having written nothing but alphabet exercises so far in my life — that this was not a lie.

I thought, I can do that.

But I had no idea what it meant to be a writer. I imagined it meant writing, pure and simple. That you came up with stories, penciled them down, and then, after passing through several magic chambers, perhaps drinking a secret potion or two along the way, you found those words bound together into a book. People bought and read the book, and then you wrote another.

I began with stories, and over the years added correspondence, journal writing, poetry, lyrics, and novels. I loved coming up with narratives, transcribing dialogue from my mind to the page, making my friends giggle or grow plaintive after reading my work. So what if I wasn't a blonde knockout, or a swift-footed Mercury at the hundred-yard dash? If all my pie crusts in Home Ec flaked like aged plaster and my sculptures in Art class were so asymmetrical they kept tipping over and shattering on the linoleum? I could do something that I enjoyed enormously and others appreciated: I could write.

But as biology extruded me from childhood into adolescence, and I discovered self-consciousness, I began to suspect that I didn't actually know what it meant to be a writer. Clearly, it meant more than penciling drafts into spiral notebooks. It also meant submitting work for acceptance — and the deeper the inevitability of submission drilled itself into me, the more my dread erupted. I just couldn't imagine sending my work away to a publisher. They (and it was an amorphous, mysterious they, vaguely resembling the panel of angels — or was it judges? — at the gates to the great Hereafter) knew so much more than I did. My work couldn't possibly be good enough for them. I could never measure up. As if that fear wasn't debilitating enough, I realized — after a high school teacher sat me down for hours in the dining hall one day and gently pointed out where I could edit each of my short stories — that being a writer meant working hard — harder than I'd thought. It also meant admitting that my stories might be flawed, or, as I put it to myself, "wrong" — that my cinematic references were too obscure to be useful, that my tendency to be unspecific about my narrator's gender was confusing to the reader, that the words I used to describe the hippie candle maker were more intellectual than made sense for that character.

So something was wrong with my stories. "I understand," I muttered to the teacher, slouching with embarrassment, gulping back my shame, because at that very moment, I was making the fatal leap: having something wrong with my work, I erroneously thought, meant admitting that something was wrong with me. Egregiously wrong. Wronger than anyone else's wrong — particularly anyone bold (and talented!) enough to call herself a writer. Wrong enough to quit.

So I quit. Clearly, I wasn't worthy of being a writer. And for six years I did not scribble another piece of fiction.

I now know that this writer's block — as with all writer's blocks — was also connected to my self-image, which was undergoing seismic upheaval at the time. But my fears about being a writer were genuine, and, as I would later discover, similar to fears felt by all writers in the early stages of their development: I can't, ergo I'm not, ergo I shouldn't.

Only years later, after I returned to writing, did I come to understand that being a writer means much more than putting words on a page. Being a writer means pushing yourself up against your emotional limits — and then pushing through. Being a writer means confronting your psychological shortcomings — and continuing in spite of them. Being a writer means facing continual hoops of fire — everything you feel about yourself and think about the world — and after a moment to assess them and determine the angle of your trajectory, launching yourself through, maintaining the faith that you will land safely.

This lesson took me years to see. And it has only been reinforced as I have become a professional writer and teacher:

The biggest impediment to writing is not friends or teachers or editors or anything else external. Not the other stars in the classroom, nor your eye-rolling spouse, nor the denouement that won't get done, nor even the editor who wouldn't buy or promote your book. The biggest impediment to writing is you.

That means your emotions, your beliefs, your defense mechanisms, your conflicts, your self-image, your ability to handle practical decisions — and everything else that goes into making you believe you can't, or aren't, or shouldn't.

Indeed, being a writer means experiencing the whole emotional shebang, from misery to bliss, and becoming intimate with every emotion — the good, the bad, and the glorious. And it means coping with all the associated dilemmas of a writing life — from how to make time when it means you have to say no to your loved ones, to how to remain productive when your best story keeps getting rejected, to how to decide whether to enter a writing program when you're too scared, to how to support yourself as a writer when you don't have a trust fund.

In all my years of writing and teaching, I've seen many talented writers throw in the towel, and seldom is their discontinuance due to an impasse with craft, or even the publishing industry. Standards we can teach ourselves, technique we can practice, and publishing troubles don't necessarily cause the ink in our pens to dry.

Instead, when writers stop writing, it is almost always because of such things as competitiveness with talented others who are sharing not just the workshop table but also the admiration of our teacher; envy toward more prolific authors whose jackets simply must bear the subliminal message Buy me; loneliness from laboring without the validation that, because someone speaks to us in the employee washroom, we do indeed exist; frustration that our exquisitely original voice keeps mating itself to lackluster, clichéd narratives and finales that fizzle; shame over taking three whole months! on a story when our co-workers keep saying, "It's not done yet?"; paranoia over Uncle Merv's withdrawing the invitation to Thanksgiving after he recognizes that he was the model for the nefarious clockmaker with the cackle and downy mole.

This book was written to help writers live the writing life, and understand what that means. By weaving my own stories together with the stories of others, I present the whole writerly journey — what writers can expect to feel, when in the process they can expect to feel it, and specific advice on how they might make all their emotions work for them, whether those emotions are positive or negative. I also present all the major practical decisions writers have to make — from setting up when and where to write, to deciding how to educate oneself, to handling criticism — and again, I offer specific advice.

The book is set up to be read straight through, and then used as a handy reference tool. It is meant to be marked-up, coffee-stained, highlighted, and dog-eared. In other words, it is meant to be used, and writers will be encouraged to use it. It is as much a book of inspiration as it is a book of solution.

The goal is twofold. First, it is to provide apprentice writers with an emotional and practical map which will help them recognize and handle competitiveness, frustration, euphoria, etc., and recognize and handle the many practical decisions they must make. Second, the goal is to provide experienced writers with a comforting and thoughtful place that will help them diagnose any case of the blues, "prescribe" remedies they might need, and guide them through major decisions. The overall goal is to show writers, whether beginner or advanced, many ways to keep going.

Part I, "The Basics," focuses on the fundamental emotional, philosophical, and logistical issues that beset all writers, from novice to Nobel Prize laureate. Part II, "The Process," breaks down the act of writing into four categories — long-term preparation, or "Education"; shorter-term preparation, or "Before The Draft"; the writing experience itself "During The Draft"; and writer's block, or "When You're Stuck" — elaborating on the emotional highs and lows and practical predicaments of each. Part III, "Becoming An Author," describes what happens to writers' emotions, and what dilemmas writers face, as they enter the publishing world and achieve success.

All writers need a good friend with whom they can share their fears and fervor, and who will believe in them. Not all writers are fortunate to have such a friend. My hope is that this book will fill that gap so that when you feel alone, wrestling with the pains and passions that you believe no writer has felt before, you can open these pages and realize that no obstacle is too formidable. Maybe then you won't have to wrestle as much, and can devote your time to craft, and imagination, and simply having fun.

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