Friday, May 6, 2011

Advice to Myself and Young Writers

For almost eight years now, I've worked at the same place. It's not that bad (most days), but I had to laugh the other day when I took a good look at my employee ID. Yes, the face is mine, though the man smiling back at me is probably 20 pounds lighter. He looks so fresh-faced, so ready to take on the world, his smile a genuine smile of "I'm happy to be here today."

Were someone to take a snapshot for a new photo ID, that face would be a little heavier. Not just the weight mind you...but a heaviness would've settled in around the eyes. Lines would crease the once-smooth forehead. The smile would be there, but only to say, "Yes, you're taking my picture. I'd better smile."

Eight Years Ago Matt, meet Today Matt.

Really, they're one and the same...yet, not. Today Matt has a different world view from Eight Years Ago Matt. Eight Years Ago Matt watched more sports, played more video games, hung out with friends more often, read a lot, and made it his goal to become a sports broadcaster. Eight Years Ago Matt thought like a college student because, well, he was basically a college student who lucked into a job in TV news.

His first job is Today Matt's only job.

So today, as Today Matt (I apologize for the third-person shtick--by the way, I always thought "shtick" was spelled "schtick"...but apparently it's not) I'm going to give my younger self some advice. In a conundrum of epic proportions, Eight Years Ago Matt can't actually use to this advice--it's far too late for that--but perhaps a younger, wiser generation will learn something.

But probably not.

Make sure that "dream" is really something you want. For years, I deluded myself into thinking I'd be a sports broadcaster. This goal was easy to accomplish, I told myself. But realities began settling in. Working in sports means working on weekends. Traveling a lot. In all likelihood, moving from market to market. I thought I could do all those things, but I didn't really want it badly enough.

Let rejection strengthen you. In my quest to anchor Sportscenter, I made a resume tape and sent it out to markets across the country. My grand mailing spree included eight small markets with openings. My dream sailed on the wings of a cover letter, demo tape, and the UPS Store. No one called. One bothered with a form letter reply. And so I, Eight Years Ago Matt, decided "that's it." Goodbye, lifelong ambition. Instead of pressing ahead, I let it weaken me.

You'll wander. You'll wonder. And you'll wonder about wandering. When you're 23 years old and fresh out of college, the world brims with enough possibilities to make your head spin. Oh, the places you will go! You could do this, you could do that. Whatever you wanted. Then you enter the workforce and go, "Really? This is what's going on?" Eventually, something else will find you.

Don't resist the call. I remember the very moment I "decided" I wanted to be a writer. Well, okay, it was actually in sixth grade when my middle grade classic The Adventures of the Taxis thrilled my classmates. Sometime after that, I "decided" to become a sportscaster. And then after I "decided" sportscasting wasn't in the cards, I wandered. I wondered. I wondered about wandering. Then I "decided" I wanted to be a writer. I should've made the switch YEARS ago. But only in the last year did I become super-serious about it.

You can't do it alone. This, for me, is the hardest part. I am not a loner by nature, but I've always had the confidence to believe I can do anything I put my mind to. In some respects, I still believe that. However, writing is a personal, solitary experience...sometimes too solitary. You can get lost in your own bravado and watch the confidence turn into arrogance. You can't do it alone. You need beta readers, a critique group, and people to bounce ideas off. Because while one writer is good, having two writers is's as if the creativity magnifies exponentially when you add more opinions to the equation.

Let the rejections come! An earlier point touched upon letting rejection strengthen you instead of weakening you. What I'm saying here is you should expect rejections to come. Oh, they will. From agents and editors big and small. The only writer who's never been rejected hasn't been rejected because he/she never sent anything out. It's hard releasing your work "out into the wild," yet you have to.

Don't wait for someone to "discover" your talent because they won't. Get. Your stuff. Out there. Write a blog, submit a short story, post a query letter in a forum and let the sharks feast. Don't sit back, write your stories, keep them to yourself, and think someone will find you. You have to find them. You have to scream from the rooftops, "I'm a writer!" and make it impossible for anyone to miss you.

Do what works for you. 2K every day. 300 words in an hour. Big splurges netting 5K in a day. A weekend of 10,000 words. Notebook and pen. Notebook with mouse. Desktop. iPad. Dry erase board. A stick in the dirt. Short stories. Poems. Novels. Novellas. Romance. Sci-Fi. Kid lit. Self-help. Travelogues. Find the methods and genres that get your juices flowing.

Don't be afraid of success. Don't be afraid of failure. Cheer with every acceptance. Stew (briefly) over each rejection. But as soon as that rejection comes, take the work, polish it, and send it out until it finds a home. If it's good--and you know it's good--someone will take it. Some fear success and do nothing; others fear failure and do nothing. They have one thing in common: they do nothing.

It won't be perfect. Your story employs "that" too often. You used too many semicolons. You messed up a verb tense. Sure, you should've caught it during revisions. Fix it, send it back out.

Don't let "later" turn into "never." I'd like to tell myself eight years ago or even five years ago to write. You see, Eight Years Ago Matt and his subsequent pre-Today Matt iterations always thought he'd "get around to it" one day when it came to writing. Boom. Eight years later. Eight years of writing and learning and submitting work wasted. Gone. Torched. Forever. Don't say "later." Say "now." Otherwise, "later" becomes "never."

Do. Not. Quit. This piece of wisdom is hypocritical; after all, I told you how I gave up on sportscasting. I quit. I've come to terms with that. My dream has changed; it has grown up as I have grown up. And while calling touchdowns and home runs and (this is for my buddy Chris) game-winning one-timers seemed great when I was younger, it doesn't seem so wonderful now. My focus has changed.

I was born a writer, but I resisted the call.

Never again.