Monday, 1 July 2013

I didn't get where I am today by ignoring internal logic problems

People define writerly success in different ways. For me, success as a writer means being able to produce work you can be proud of; and for your work to get published regularly. Writing is hard, a fact universally acknowledged by everyone from Dan Brown to Tobias Wolff. For what it's worth, here's my bullet point guide for writing success, The Bradley Way. 

1. Read. Read all the time. Read everything, from literary prizewinners to the most commercial trash. Most of all, read short fiction by the best short story writers. You will laugh, you will cry, you will despair by comparison the shortcomings in your own work to those of the greats. And then you will get back to your desk and you will work hard, until your own work no longer shames you. 

2. Write. Try to either work part time, or find a job that allows you to write at work (hospital porter, security guard, night-watchman). It's better if your day job has nothing to do with writing. That way you're brought into regular contact with a wider range of people and situations. And write every day. Be strict. Let nobody come between you and it. This is hard. You're still young, and you want to have fun. But here you are missing out on films, gigs, parties - hell, maybe even entire friendships. Well, suck it up. You're a writer now. 

2b. Accept that your life will not follow a usual trajectory. You'll see your peers have lovely things; they'll wriggle up the career ladder at work, while you concentrate your energies on writing. Your friends will most likely live in a bigger, nicer house than you. You, in contrast, will spend hours scratching away at a desk, making up stories in your head, earning no money, and receiving legions upon legions of form rejections (or at least, at first). In social situations people will ask how the writing's going, and you will want to cry. You might feel like saying: "Writing is ruining my life." I don't have any answers for this, other than that if you want to live in a big house and have a steady, reliable stream of income, you might want to rethink your career options. 

3. Say no to things. People will want you to write things for them for free. They'll want you to run workshops and classes. Think carefully about accepting. If you take on everything you're offered, you can soon find yourself with no writing time at all. You'll often find yourself having to say no regretfully. I worked for a couple of years in a letterpress collective, something I absolutely loved doing. But it ate into my writing time, and when I gave it up my publishing rate doubled within a matter of months. At some stage you have to learn to say no. 

4. Don't compromise. In Writing Posthumously, Jeffrey Eugenides advised new writers: "Don't go along with the crowd". Other writers might be doing things that are more trendy. They might have quicker pay-offs, get published more easily, and get more plaudits. Don't worry about them. Just worry about what you're doing. Forge your own path. Work hard, and write what you want to write. If you're doing something groundbreaking, you might struggle to get it published. But don't worry. Keep your eye on the long game, and make sure that what you're doing is exceptionally good. Have mercilessly high standards. Beat yourself up for not being good enough. And then go back to your desk and work some more. 

6. Systematic, bloody-minded persistence. Your early work will most likely be fairly rubbish. Hell, your work might be rubbish for quite a few years - mine certainly was. Your short stories will be dreary and derivative, and your first novel will most likely stink beyond belief. Most of the writers I know have at least one Novel of Shame hidden away in a drawer somewhere. Hell, I've got two. How do you get better? You keep writing. You keep working. You keep going. How do you get published? You keep working. You keep improving. You get better. You keep going. 

Currently reading

William Faulkner As I Lay Dying
Jennifer Egan A Visit From The Goon Squad