How to Have a Career: Advice to Young Writers

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Advice to young writers from Sarah Manguso.

Work. Be relentless. All over the world, people are working harder than you. Don’t go to events; go to the receptions after the events. If possible, skip the receptions and go to the afterparties, where you can have a real conversation with someone.

Money. Learn to live on air. Buy the best health insurance you can afford. If you have roommates, work in the library. Run and do calisthenics instead of paying for a gym membership. Invest in ear plugs, good sneakers, and a coffee machine. Buy oatmeal in bulk. Learn to cook simple, nutritious meals. Save and eat leftovers. Cafes are a waste of money, calories, and time; leave them to the tourists. Buy books used, perform periodic culls, and resell them. Wasting money on clothes is the stupidest habit of all. You will only ever need two good outfits.

Health. Stay healthy; sickness is a waste of time and money. Smoking or overeating will eventually make you sick. Drinking and drugs interfere with clear perception, which you will need in order to make good work. It may be worth paying for psychotherapy sessions now instead of paying for inpatient treatment next year; see someone in-network.

Friends. Avoid all messy and needy people including family; they threaten your work. You may believe your messy life supplies material, but it in fact distracts you from understanding that material, and until you understand it, it is useless to you. Don’t confuse users, hangers-on, or idols with friends. If a former friend asks you why you don’t have time to see him or her anymore, say your existing responsibilities have made it impossible to socialize as much as you used to. Cutting someone out with no explanation is an insult that will come around.

Asking favors. When requesting a favor in writing, ask outright and respectfully for what you want. Don’t write what appears to be a long, friendly letter full of compliments and then ask for help at the end, pretending it’s an afterthought. Such behavior smacks of tit-for-tat, or prepayment for a commodity, and it’s ugly to point out the existence of the favor economy. Just do favors and ask favors in a vacuum. If a favor is given immediately after one is received by the giver, pretend not to notice the coincidence. When given a favor, honor those who helped you. Be gracious and sincere, and don’t overthank them.

Giving favors. Don’t give favors to people or institutions that lack authority or consequence. Publishing or showing work where no one will see it or giving a reading where no one will hear it is a favor. Learn graciously to decline. The world will catch on that you are a valuable commodity. When you find great work, help it along; expect nothing in return. Bringing great work to the world is your job, whether you or someone else created it.

Kindness. It should go without saying that you must be kind to everyone you meet. People have long memories. Bad behavior should not be returned in kind. When people forget their manners, take it as an opportunity to practice yours.

Dignity. Don’t respond to personal attacks, either aloud or in writing. Don’t respond to criticism outside the letters section of a magazine that routinely publishes responses to criticism. When asked an ignorant question, take it as an opportunity to educate the questioner; compassionately explain his error in judgment or perception.

Allies. Recognize those who would help you, and let them know who you are. Assemble a coterie of influence that will protect and serve you. Doing someone a favor and then immediately asking for one is inappropriate; favors don’t win allies. Only you and your work win lasting allies. Do good work and treat people kindly, and strangers will reach out to help you. Recognize those who will never help you, and ignore them; indignation and regret waste energy.

Enemies. Know who they are and monitor them. Those who offer or ask for favors might be enemies in cheap disguise. Calling enemies out in public makes you look weak; in the company of others, act as if no enemy could possibly hurt you. When asked about an ad hominem attack, pretend never to have heard of the attacker. Don’t overlook the possibility of enemies’ influence, but don’t become overinvolved, either. You aren’t guarding state secrets. No vendetta is so important that it should distract you from your work.

Onward. Once you’ve truly begun, slow down. The difference between publishing two good books and forty mediocre books is terribly large. Don’t expend energy in writing and publishing that would be better used in your family or community. Become tempered by life. Make compromises for love. Provide a service to the world. These experiences form the adult mind. Without them both you and your work will remain juvenile.

Sarah Manguso is the author, most recently, of The Guardians: An Elegy. Her previous book, the memoir The Two Kinds of Decay (2008), was named an Editors’ Choice by the New York Times Sunday Book Review and a Best Book of the Year by the Independent (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle, the Telegraph (UK), and Time Out Chicago, and was short-listed for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize.

This article originally appeared at WorkInProgress.

Tags: sarah manguso, writing, writing ability, writing process

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