Oh well, hello little J.R., how are you? You’re not so little, I know, I know, you’re a big girl. You finally had a weird make-out session with the vice president of the Speech and Debate team and everything. You’re practically ready for your AARP card, you’re so wise and old.
Okay, now shut up and listen. I get that you’re excited about moving to Chicago and starting up this whole new life where you’re going to be a real writer and learn all of those real writer things. You’re gonna meet real writers, write real stories, and look back on yourself in ten years and think to yourself, “Oh silly little plebian, that stupid ridiculous Philistine! She had no idea what it meant to be a writer!”
Well, it’s been ten years. And I’ve collected ten pieces of advice for you, which I hope you will share with your other eighteen-year-old writer friends. I’m sure they’ll find time travel communication very hip.
10. AT THE AGE OF TWELVE, YOU WERE CLOSER TO BEING A REAL WRITER THAN ANY OTHER AGE.
I know, this is discouraging. I’m telling you this so you don’t lose focus on what is real and what is not real. Currently, I’ve got the first page to our first novel pinned on my board in my writing room. It was called The Dark Knight, because we thought the world would never be nerdy enough to know its connection to Batman. News flash: the world changes a lot in the next decade. Change the name. Beyond that, I’m telling you this because at the age of twelve, you gave up playtime with friends, stupid drama, and other activities to spend four to thirteen hours a day sitting in an uncomfortable chair and writing a story you believed in. It was too long, it had too many characters, and the shits you gave about perfection were few. And guess what? It was a really good story that came from our heart. You weren’t trying to write to sell to a market or impress a professor; you were writing for you and your crazy big imagination. Do that some more, will you please? Forget what you should be writing; write what you need to be writing.
9. THERE WILL ALWAYS BE AN ASSHAT WHO HATES YOU AND A COCKY BASTARD WHO IS BETTER THAN YOU.
I’m serious. Writing to your own drumbeat is going to make you enemies. There are people out there who don’t believe in unicorns, and that’s okay. You do. Write about unicorns if that’s what sparks your flame. Believe me, if you write for people who aren’t your audience, you are never going to be who they want you to be, and you’re going to lose the audience who does very deeply believe in unicorns. Also, there will always be someone better than you. Writing is not like the fourth grade spelling bee. There are no winners. There are the people who are talented and work hard, the people who are talented and get less talented as they slack off, and people who aren’t talented but get talented by working hard. Stay in your lane, girl. Don’t look to see who is winning the race.
8. NOT ALL PROFESSORS KNOW EVERYTHING, BUT MOST OF THEM DO.
You’re going to come up against an army of professors in the next ten years. Some of them are going to be really mean, like J.K. Simmons in Whiplash mean (I know you don’t get this reference yet, but you will, just stick it in your pocket). Some of them are going to be completely disinterested in anything you’re doing. And others are going to change your life for the better and save your career. No matter what, take what you can from them. Understand their wisdom. Cultivate your own philosophies on their own theories. Show reverence to those who know what they’re doing, pay no attention to the false information given by those who don’t know what they’re doing, and learn how to tell the difference between those who know what they’re doing and those who don’t know what they’re doing. Hint: the ones you have in your graduate program all know everything.
7. SURROUND YOURSELF WITH THOSE WHO BUILD YOU UP AND BELIEVE IN YOU.
You’re going to meet people you think are cool because they wear leather jackets and put cigarettes between their teeth but never light them (again, you’ll get the reference later on, let’s keep moving). But if those people don’t believe in what you’re doing, then forget them. Writing is way too important to put aside for someone else’s PhD or someone’s need to be in the limelight of your relationship. Writing partners who are trying to turn you into Hemingway should be discarded as soon as possible. Friends who think you should be partying instead of writing should be forgotten. You will find close friends who dedicate a year of their life to editing your book for free, colleagues and classmates who spent their extra time working out the kinks of your plot, and most importantly … yeah I know you’re going to get excited about this one … a husband who loves you and your stories and who is willing to support you all the way in your endeavors. I know right? We get married! We don’t end up alone, and he’s absolutely amazing! I know I know! … But that’s the point. You won’t find him if you cling to those who say your best friend is hotter and a better writer. Forget that guy. You know who I’m talking about. You could waste another three years on him, or you can put your relationship out of its misery now. Get rid of him. He’s awful. And his car smells like rotten milk. … You’re not going to listen to me on this one, are you?
6. YOU ARE NOT A LITERARY FICTION GAL. AND THAT IS OKAY.
Sweetheart, you can’t write a kitchen sink drama to save your life. Please spare the world and your audience by never trying to do this. Your heart isn’t into it. It’s just not you. People are going to tell you that you have to be a lit ficcer in order to be a real writer, and it’s just not true. Look at the people who you love to read. J.K. Rowling, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Philip K. Dick, George Orwell, Richard Adams … I’m not seeing a lot of Joyce Carol Oates showing up. Make your peace with this. Understand that others won’t ever make peace with this. And write about your unicorns.
5. IT’S OKAY TO FAIL.
This is going to be hard for you to swallow, I know. But it’s okay to not be perfect all the time. I know that you’re a perfectionist with your 4.0 GPA and immaculate attendance record, but writing isn’t like that. In order to get better, you have to take chances and try new things. When you try new things, you will usually not get it right the first time. We learn from our failures. Like that boy you’re dating? You’re going to learn many mistakes from him and you won’t make those mistakes with your husband. See what I’m getting at here? You gotta write a shitty science fiction short story in order to hear what’s wrong with it and get it right on your next try. Allow yourself to experiment, allow yourself some wiggle room to understand what it’s like not to write for a year and work a dead-end job so you will never do it again.
4. NEVER STOP WRITING.
On second thought, don’t take that year off. That’s right, in about six years, you’re going to go into a stupor where it’s a lot easier to just give into the life you’ve been given, and you can forget about that MFA and who you wanted to be. Screw that. Stand up, make time to write every day, and get what you’ve always wanted. Writers write, writers read, and you should never stop doing those things.
3. MEET NEIL GAIMAN. PARTY WITH STEPHEN CHBOSKY.
In about three years, your best friend in college is going to say to you, “Neil Gaiman is coming to Naperville. Do you want to come see him with me?” Your answer will be: “No, I’ve got rehearsal.” Call out sick, you idiot. Go with your friend to Naperville. Shake that man’s hand. Then steal all of her copies of Gaiman books and read him. You’ll wait until you’re twenty-six to really dig into his discography, and you will have wasted so much time beforehand. Your early twenties is prime Gaiman-reading time! Listen to him speak, introduce yourself, and get his damn autograph. And a few months later, when you do make it out to that Banned Books rally with Stephen Chbosky, and he asks you to come see him read at the library that night and hang with his friends and talk about books and writing? You’re going to say: “I’m sorry, I have work.” No you don’t. Call in sick. Get fired. Take a chance. Go hang out with Chbosky at the library and talk shop! When is this going to happen again?! You idiot, take these opportunities when you can and forget being a normal and responsible human being.
2. DO OTHER THINGS THAT AREN’T WRITING.
Your senior year of college, Professor L is going to call you into her office. Professor L is terrifying, but she is the best damn teacher you’ll ever have. She will say that she thinks you’re not diversifying your life enough. She will tell you that writers can’t spend all day inside writing their books. They need to go live, go read a science book, go fix a car. Heed her words. Go skydiving. Go traveling. Learn how to repair an alternator. Scuba dive off the coast of Australia. Memorize the constellations. Hold Grandma’s hand when she dies. Hand a twenty to your little brother for his senior prom. Pet your aging dog. Learn your grandfather’s language. Help your dad build a deck. And most of all, fall in love. Fall deep in love. Get married. Talk about kids. And never worry that life will take away from your writing, because it is life that inspires our writing.
1. INVEST IN GOOGLE STOCK.
Seriously. It’s gonna be big.