If I had to use one word to characterize the period in my life between 2015 and 2016, it would be unexpected. I didn’t expect to develop health problems that forced me to opt out of what should have been my sophomore year of college. I didn’t expect to find one of the best friends I’ve ever had on Tinder. But the most unexpected thing was fulfilling my dream of being a published writer. On January 29th, I apprehensively sent off two essays. A few weeks later I got the news that one of them would be included in an intersectional feminist anthology.
After the euphoria subsided, I tucked this accomplishment under the mantle of all the other unexpected things that had happened over the year. But thinking about it now, I wonder if it should have been so unexpected after all. It was, in truth, an alchemy of encouragement, persistence, and belief in myself — in addition to luck, which we can all use a helping of.
So I decided to make a list. While I can’t guarantee that everything will happen exactly the way you’ve fantasized, I can guarantee that you’ll be close to where you want to be sooner than you know it.
Declare to yourself that you are, in fact, a real writer. I wish I had done this sooner, because it’s the most important. Lots of factors — being young, queer woman/person of color, financially dependent, an amateur — will combine to convince you that you can’t call yourself a writer. But as soon as you start scribbling things down that aren’t just for school assignments, or put extra attention towards these assignments, you become a writer. This declaration will improve your confidence and enable you to take bigger chances.
Enroll in a workshop-based creative writing class, or find craft books and anthologies that will act as teachers. I’m forever grateful for the creative nonfiction workshop I took in Spring 2015. The assignments gave me a portfolio and the assigned texts introduced me to inspiring works and helpful theory. Plus, having classmates critique my work (and critiquing theirs) made me a lot more sensitive to what works and what doesn’t. If you aren’t in college, there are likely to be fee-based workshops in your city. If that’s not an option, search for anthologies of great work in the genre that you write (The Best American series has yearly anthologies of essays, short stories, poetry, and magazine writing), or read books on the craft of that genre. The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera, Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart, The Dramatic Writer’s Companion by Will Dunne, and A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver are well-respected ones.
Keep a writer’s notebook. When you start this, you’ll have no idea what to write. But eventually, keeping a notebook to record and develop your ideas helps you retain more of them and gets you into the habit of writing. It’ll also help you think about the events and people in your life not just as they are, but as material that can be developed into a piece of writing.
Find your literary foreparents. God bless the day I discovered Eula Biss in The New York Times Magazine section. Reading her essay White Debt, I was struck with the sense that this was what the written word was meant to do. Literary foreparents are the writers you go to for inspiration because their work resonates with you. Reading their work and paying close attention to their technique will help you articulate your ideas better.
Find a community to regularly practice and showcase your work with. It’s hard to become the best writer you can be if you’re not putting your work out there and getting feedback. You could compete to be on a poetry slam team, go to open mic nights to give readings, join a group blog (like this magazine) as a regular or guest contributor, start a blog of your own, or join/start a local theatre collaborative. The growth you’ll see in your work (and yourself) will be worth the effort.
Join submission and contest databases, and keep up to date with the field. I wouldn’t have known about the anthology I submitted to without a submission database. There are plenty out there, many free and a few paid, so subscribe to a few and check for opportunities. Also, keep up with what’s going on in the industry. For me, that means reading publications like The Writer, Poets & Writers, Columbia Journalism Review, and Publisher’s Weekly. You’ll get to read articles by people in the field about things you might not have even thought about, like applying for a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, or submitting a manuscript to a nonprofit press.
Read publications/publishers/media outlets that publish things you like. Reading media sources like a writer means understanding what the tone of a given publication is, what subjects the writers address, and understanding if your voice could fit in with that. If you feel that your work could rock with them, look at the “About,” “Contact,” or “Contributor’s Guidelines” sections on their website for information about submitting pieces or pitching ideas.
Learn how to pitch/query, and DO IT for Pete’s sake. For a writer of almost any sort, excluding poets perhaps, learning how to write a pitch is the dull, necessary work that comes with the territory. A pitch is a brief (one page or less) explanation of an idea that you have for a piece, including what the main idea is, what points you’re going to address, a bit of background research, and why it’s perfect for the publication you’re going for. A query letter is a similar concept, but it’s typically used when you’re trying to get a publisher to publish a book-length manuscript. But the important thing is that you do the darn thing!!! Publishing work you’ve already written is actually the easy part. The hard part is knowing how to sell your ideas well enough to get steady work.
Always read, watch, and listen widely, and always strive to improve your craft. So you’ve gotten the byline you’ve always dreamed of — and probably more, you writing whiz. But you can’t stop there! Life as a writer means constantly searching for new inspiration. The entire world is your sandbox. It also means constantly stretching yourself. Write shorter. Write with extensive research. Whatever you do, write ambitiously, in a way that’s worthy of the boundless depth of feeling inside you.
That is, after all, the stuff those dreams are made of.