Every so often, a promising undergraduate writer, a senior soon to earn those final fifteen credits, poses this question—“What’s next?”—in office hours or class. “Workshops,” she or he continues, “have been great. They’ve given me a structure. They’ve forced me to produce. But what happens when school ends? How do I continue to be a writer? What should I do?” To her or him, I have offered the following 15-part manifesto, on the writer’s lifestyle, more or less unmodified over the years. Dig these whirreds to the whys.
1. CHEAP FLAT ‘N’ EATS. The less your rent, food, and extravagance tabs, the less you have to work—to purchase that basket of goods. The more time you have with which to write. In terms of food, the potato (Sweet, Yukon Gold, Russet, Red, et al.) is your friend. Inexpensive, nutritious, and quite tasty. Stock up on the good spud, I say. I myself have devoured many a cauldron of spuds ‘n’ cabbage, with a bitteen butter, salt, pepper.
2. CHOOSE APPROPRIATE JOBS. If you write best in the morning, then reserve that time for yourself. Don’t tender those hours to Huge Corporation. Seek access to office equipment: computers, printers, postage meters, paperweights, festive calendars, etc. If possible, avoid typical cubicle jobs where coworkers have big guts, chronic indigestion, and idiotic puns. Tend bar. Wait tables. There is safety in having more than one job.
3. CORROLLARY ON THE 2012-13 ECONOMY. Yes, I realize there’s a slump, and not just a typical contraction, at that. I used to be an economist. [Aside: At one point, my work for Huge Corporation (That Is Now Defunct) involved the depreciation of every telephone pole in America.] I can say, with some general certainty, that the current economy should be a ripe source of non-career, patchwork, writer-friendly jobs.
4. WRITE REGULARLY. Block out several hours, four days in a row. A walk beforehand can cleanse the mind of its clutter. Toil in a room with no distractions, no cell phone, no conversation. Jazz is okay, in the background. Playing solitaire—with an actual deck of cards—can offer a decent, periodic distraction. Write for months. Pile up drafts. Revision, a vital complement, can take place any time, anywhere: busses, cafes, bars.
5. WRITE WITH RANGE, 1. You can pen pieces about your own anguish, but many mainstream writers prosper by (endlessly) describing their psychic and physical suffering. There are other options besides yourself, when considering content. Write about ideas. Be political, but don’t instruct the reader, as Pinter reminds us, to endorse your position. Wild, twisting language can be the most potent (and potable) content.
6. WRITE WITH RANGE, 2. Write a sonnet or treat the page, as Olson says, as a field. Write in prose or write in couplets, and if you’re a fictionista, conceive of stories that appear in sections, put through-action (but not plot) first, don’t punch the clock. Put character first. Write for the love of rhythm. Write chapbooks. Write novellas. Any poem or story should offer a basic problem, situation, conflict. Beyond that: the deluge.
7. READ REGULARLY. Always have a great book open. “A reader is someone who reads every day.” A writer reads more than she or he writes. In your genre. Out of your genre. Seek texts that inform your line-writing or sentence-writing. Seek texts that challenge the comfort level of your language formation, organizational strategies, and representation of situation. Borrow ideas. Read to steal. Don’t plagiarize, of course, but be a thief.
8. PARTICIPATE IN A COMMUNITY. Find yourself “a scene” or create a new one. A scene that produces regular events, like literary readings or a weekly happy hours. Make chums in this scene. Socialize Up. That doesn’t necessarily mean “age” but writers who are rattling ‘n’ rolling. Listen To Young People, don’t forget, even as you are a young person. Listen to old timers, too. Be an equal opportunity consumer of viewpoints.
9. CONSUME OTHER ARTS. Do you know Stuff Smith? The song—“I’se A Muggin’”—that doubles as a counting game? If so, then you know this excerpt: “… twenty-five, twenty-six, uh uh, uh uh, twenty-nine, woof woof, thirty-one, thirty-two …” but I digress. I don’t mean dumbly stare at a bunch of paintings. I mean, absorb certain elements and learn to recall them, as necessary, when you formulate writing.
10. GET YOUR WRITING OUT THERE. You can blog, you can tweet, you can update your status, you can self-publish a chapbook, you can photocopy, you can submit writing for free online, you can create a small press, you can read at an open microphone event, you can host a cattle-call reading, you can self-promote, you can discover all sorts of social media, you can spend a few bucks on postage, you can spray-paint the dumpster.
11. A WORD ON ASS-KISSING. Don’t get me wrong: ass-kissing works. It’s greedy, and as we know from the fictional Michael Douglas character, Gordon Gecko: “greed works.” If only I could stomach this form of self-promotion, I would hound my famous writer-cousin for a few short-cuts, but alas, I cannot stomach this method. Still, if you’re a smarmy little weasel, go for it. Be prepared—I guess—to really—French some ass.
12. SPEAK YOUR MIND. Rather than smooching anyone’s derriere, how about speaking your mind?—with information at your back. That is, don’t just offer a textual or artistic critique if you don’t really have knowledge of the various traditions that may bolster (or contradict!) your opinions. But speak your mind. Call a phony a phony. Take some well-informed stands. Become a sought-after “conversation partner.”
13. VICE IN MODERATION. John Coltrane died at 40 of liver cancer. One theory is, he acquired hepatitis by sharing a needle, and this led to his fatal disease. Either way, he was reportedly addicted to numerous substances, including heroin. He left behind lots of great American jazz. But what of the music he didn’t get a chance to record? If you smoke so much weed that you can hardly jot down a poem—then you’re not a writer, but a doper.
14. A WORD ON CLIMATE CHANGE. Global Warming will certainly lead to erratic behavior in animals. This, in turn, will lead to Kung Fu Change, as Shaolin Monks—and pugilistic monks everywhere—will attempt to emulate the behavior of these animals in their maneuvers. You may wish to travel now, before Pugilistic Monk Warming becomes prohibitive. Write about your travels, but don’t just say “travel.” Build us a city.
15. MFA PROGRAMS. You do not need to be an MFA student in order to be a writer. An MFA program can offer you financial support, instruction, and a cohort, but you can do just fine by yourself, by practicing Nos. 1-14, above. In fact, if you practice Nos. 1-14 above, then everyone else who’s practicing Nos. 1-14 will find you quite irresistible. Too, you will have every opportunity to develop your writing skills, outside the somewhat isolated construct of academia. If you go to grad school later, it’ll feel like a reward.
For a “Cautionary Tale” involving “The Boy with the Broken Heart and The Boy with the Overflowing Heart,” click here.