Monday, November 7, 2016

Alexander Weinstein's Letter To Himself as a Young Writer

In the 31st in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Alexander Weinstein, author of Children of the New World (Picador), shares some wisdom.

Dear Alexander,

How’s third grade? Happy to hear you’ve discovered creative writing! I wanted to share something you’ve yet to learn about your writing: Your work is going to be rejected. A lot. I’m here from the future to tell you that the number of rejections you’ll have by the time you’re thirty-five will reach well into the hundreds. Your first acceptance? It won’t come until after ninety-four rejections. And there’s only one consolation I can offer you: This is par for the course in the writing life.

What you’ll wish, of course, is that the first story you ever write will be published. As a third-grader, just now discovering writing, you think all it takes is to simply finish a book and send it to the publishing houses. They’ll then send you a huge check, the book becomes a New York Times best seller, and you retire from all other work in order to devote your time to writing. Alas, it never works this way—not for you, not for anyone.

Instead, prepare for the following:

You’ll graduate college with an undergraduate degree in creative writing—a degree which you’ll find is mostly good for restaurant work. You’ll toil in kitchens, landscaping jobs, and underpaid interning for years, where no one seems to care about your writing whatsoever. You’ll become a father, the duties of which include many important things, like changing diapers, preparing food, singing lullabies, loving well—but doesn’t include writing.

Over the years as a struggling writer, you’ll regularly wonder if you were truly meant to be a writer or if it was just a hopeless delusion you’ve foolishly nurtured. The dark nights of the soul, inherent in the artistic process, won’t be pleasurable. The stereotypical and often romanticized Life-of-The-Struggling-Writer, while seemingly idyllic in novels, won’t feel romantic or idyllic. Yes, there are always cafés, bars, and coffee shops where you can write, but it won’t feel like Paris. Instead, you’ll learn how to survive on day-old-bagels and thrift store clothes, and in the process you’ll learn to be a loving father, a dedicated partner, a devoted friend, and many other things which will make you a better human, and in turn, a better writer—but won’t necessarily get you published.

All of this is part of the job. Your only duty as a writer during the dark years: to keep writing.

For here’s something you cannot yet know: As you struggle through all the rejections of the early years, you’ll discover that the rejections will make you a stronger writer. Years later, you’ll revisit your early stories which were turned down for publication, and you’ll thank god they were never published. You’ll learn to write stories not to impress other people, or for fame, or because you want publication—but because there’s no way for you not to write. And as soon as you let go of your need for publication, you’ll find your stories unfolding in unexpected ways; they’ll surprise you by revealing things about your own heart that you never knew.

You’ll go to grad school, where you’ll learn how to teach—and you’ll discover that you love it. You’ll make friends there who will become your readers and editors for many years to come. You’ll stay up late, drinking wine and enjoying their company. All of this is good for your writing. And you’ll work on your stories for a long, long time. If we count the start of your writing life as this moment in third grade when you’re first dreaming of publication, it’ll take you over thirty years of steady dedication before your first collection is published. Don’t worry—it’s all worth it—this is what it means to be a writer. The truth is: for you, life ultimately feels better when you write.

As for the secrets of how to make it as a writer, they’re simple: Keep writing, read authors you love, edit like mad, open doors for other writers whenever you can, quiet the inner critic, be compassionate to yourself through all the challenges of the writing life, and be thankful for the stories that come knocking at your door. When you hear them waiting outside, open the door wide, welcome them in.