I don’t like to write about writing. Stepping outside of my writing makes it hard to get back in, like kissing might be after a discussion about kissing. And I never know why someone would want to hear what I have to say about writing (or kissing). So the remarks below are addressed to the very specific audience of my twenty-two-year-old self (the age when I decided to get “serious” about writing). I wish someone had said these things to me.
You, there, person with too much confidence and too, too much hair:
1. Choose two things from the following list: a) writing; b) a job; c) marriage; d) children; e) a social life. You can only have two. You can half-ass a third. Or you can do a really bad job of all five.
2. Ignore advice about writing. It is all helpfully offered, but the more you listen, the more you will look like you snuck into other people’s closets and stole their clothes. (And they won’t feel natural on you anyway.) The problem is twofold: 1) The notion that writing can be mastered through studiousness–that you can learn it by doing what you’re told, the way you learned Latin–is ridiculous. 2) You are a person of weak character who can’t help trying to please your teachers, which means you see every suggestion they make as a chance to demonstrate your obedience. It’s quite sad. Oh, also: Sell that stupid motorcycle.
3. Do not confuse #2 with the notion that you don’t need advice, that you are some kind of natural. Everything you have ever written is deeply terrible. Everything you will write during graduate school–which I see you applying for despite what I’ve said–will be equally bad. You won’t make much in the way of improvement for the next ten years. No one in your workshops will tell you what you need to be told: Throw this away. It can’t be fixed.
4. You will waste a couple years lying to yourself about your ability to write in the evenings. A related lie is that you can write two or three times a week and get things done. You will know that these are lies as you tell them, but you will not be willing to face the sacrifices that the truth would entail. Four a.m. will seem insane for the first month you do it. Later it will be your favorite part of the day. And put down that Raymond Carver; that’s kids’ stuff.
5. No one wants you to write. The people closest to you will be the ones made most uncomfortable by your writing–not by the words on the page, which they will not read, but by the time you spend doing it, by how weird you act when they ask about it, by their fear that you will detect how they really feel about it. (For god’s sake, don’t put them in that spot. Don’t be that person who talks about his writing without being asked.) Years from now, when the writing is finally readable, it won’t matter to you whether your wife and friends read it. Treat writing like any habit–it’s certainly cheaper than smoking and probably better for your brain than Gears of War, but don’t expect people to congratulate you for it.
6. You won’t ever be able to shake the craving to see your name in print, but you will learn early that publication can’t tell you whether you’re any good or not. (It may tell you that you’re competent, but competence will eventually come to seem to you like a worse kind of terrible.) Seeing your story in a literary magazine is fun for about five minutes; after that, all your doubts about the story flood back in, accompanied now by the sensation of nakedness. Editors who accept your stories will not tell you why they did; editors who reject your stories will not tell you why they didn’t. Publication has nothing to say about your art. And you talk way, way too much. Just wanted to throw that in there.
7. Writing will get harder as you get older, not easier. The more you write and read, the longer the list of uglinesses you will not be willing to commit. Your eye will get sharper, as much to your expense as to your benefit. Fiction itself–all the ways it gets made, all the small, cheap tricks it knows how to play–will begin to look tired to you. (The words “he said” will come to seem the worst sort of artifice; a sentence like “She walked across the room and sat down” will be the last one you read in the story that contains it; all metaphors will eventually look like lies to you.) It will take you, on average, three years to finish a story.
Run along, now. You have a lot of mistakes to make, and you can’t make them standing there with that look on your face.
Geoff Wyss’s book How won the Ohio State University Prize in Short Fiction and was published in 2012. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Image, Ecotone, Tin House, and others and has been reprinted in New Stories from the South and the Bedford Introduction to Literature. He lives in New Orleans.