Letter to a Young Writer

by Richard Bausch

While there are, of course, thousands of reasons that people begin to write -- some of them rather shabby ones, too – there usually is only one reason they continue and that is that the work has become necessary. We are habit-forming creatures and this work is very habit forming if one has any talent at all. Of course you don't know when you begin if you really have any talent and you hope you do. Perhaps you even suspect that you do. Sometimes you go back and forth, believing on some days and disbelieving on others. Mostly you believe the last thing you read or heard concerning the work, and you probably tend to listen to the negative things more. The last negative thing you heard has sunk deeper into you and has lasted a longer time than any positive comment. Painful as this is, it is also perfectly normal. My best advice has nothing to do with technique or aesthetics or craft itself, really. It has more to do with training oneself to be shrewd, to live intelligently where the work is concerned. As I have said many times in classes, "Writing is not an indulgence. The indulgences are what you give up in order to write." You don't go to as many parties, you don't watch as much television, you don't listen to as much music. You make decisions in light of what you have to do in a given day and everything except the life you lead with your family is subordinated to the hours you must work. How much you get done depends in large part not on your talent, which is whatever it is and it's mostly constant, but on your attitude about what you are doing. So I've devised a sort of Ten Commandments that are the result of some of my own struggles with this blessed occupation and what I have been able to learn from reading or being around writers who are better than I. Here they are:

  1. Read. You must try to know everything that has ever been written that is worth remembering and you must keep up with what your contemporaries are doing. Fitzgerald's advice to his daughter, Scotty, is as good as any there is on the subject. "You must try to absorb six good authors a year." This means that you do not read books as an English major is trained to read them. You swallow them. You ingest them. You move on. You do not stop to analyze or think much. You just take them into yourself and go on to the next one. And you read obsessively, too. If you really like something, you read it over and over through the years. Come to know the world's literature by heart. Every good writer I know or have known began with an insatiable appetite for books – for plundering what is in them, for the nourishment provided there that you can't get from any other source.
  2. Imitate. While you're doing this reading, you spend time trying to sound like the various authors, just as a painter learning to paint sets up his easel in a museum and copies the work of the masters. You learn by trying the sound and stance of other writers. You develop an ear, through your reading and imitating, for how good writing is supposed to sound.
  3. "Be regular and ordinary in your habits, like a petty bourgoise, so you may be violent and original in your work." This comes from Flaubert and is quite good advice. It has to do with what I was talking about in the first paragraph and is, of course, better expressed. The thing that separates the amateur writer from the professional, often enough, is simple the amount of time spent working the craft. You know that if you really want to write, if you hope to produce something that will stand up to the winds of criticism and scrutiny of strangers, you're going to have to work harder than you have ever worked on anything else in your life æ hour upon hour upon hour, with nothing in the way of encouragement, no good feeling, except the sense that you have been true to the silently admonishing examples of the writers who came before you – the ones whose company you would like to be in and of whose respect you would like to be worthy.
  4. Train yourself to be able to work anywhere. Once when our first child was a baby, my mother came to visit. And after the baby went to sleep, I began tiptoeing around trying to make no noise. My mother said, "What the hell are you doing?" I said, "The baby's asleep." She said, "Have some friends over, put some music on, rattle some dishes, make noise. You're training that kid to be a bad sleeper." That wise advice applies to this craft, too. (Incidentally, that kid could sleep through a battle.) If you set up a certain expectation about when and how you'll be able to do the work, you train yourself to be silent. Shostokovich wrote his famous 7th Symphony, the Leningrad Symphony, during the siege of Leningrad. Bombs were falling all around him and he understood perfectly well that there was a very good chance he would die within the next few hours or days. Teach yourself to write in busy places under the barrage of noises the world makes. Work in rooms where kids are playing, with music on, even with the television on. Work in the faith that if something is really good, it will not escape back into oblivion if you get distracted from it. It will turn up again. There is no known excuse for not working when you are supposed to be working. Remember that it is an absurdity to put writing before the life you have to lead. I'm not talking about leisure. I'm talking about the responsibility you have to the people you love and who love you back. No arduousness in the craft or arts should ever occupy one second of the time you're supposed to be spending that way. It has never been a question of the one or the other and writers who say it is are lying to themselves or providing an excuse for bad behavior. They think of writing as a pretext for it. It has never been anything of the sort.
  5. Be patient. You are trying to do something that is harder than just about anything there is to do, even when it feels easy. You will write many more failures than successes. Say to yourself, "I accept failure as the condition of this life, this work. I freely accept it as my destiny." Then go on and do the work. Never ask yourself anything beyond "Did I work today?" If the answer to that question is "yes," then no other question is allowed.
  6. Be willing. Accepting failure is a part of your destiny _ learning to be willing to fail, to take the chances that often lead to failure in the hope that one of them might lead to something good. Be open for business all the time. You must try to be that person on whom nothing is lost. This does not mean that you are taking notes while people around you suffer. You are not that kind of observer. It means in the workroom you are willing to follow whatever you are dreaming presents you with - openly, without judgment or attitude or even opinion.
  7. Eschew politics. The person who has it in his mind that he will write to engineer better human beings is a despot before he writes the first line. If you have opinions, leave them out of the workplace. If you have anything worthwhile to say, let it surprise you. The writer John Gardner once told me, "If one of your characters makes a long speech filled with his deepest held beliefs, make sure you don't believe one word of it." I think that is very sound advice. You are in the business of portraying the personal life, the personal cost of events. So even if history is part of your story, it should only serve as backdrop. The writers who have gotten into trouble with despots over the shameful history of tyranny did so because they insisted on not paying attention to the politics except as they applied to the personal lives of the people they were creating. They told the truth, in other words, and refused to be political. The paradoxical truth of the matter is that a writer who pays attention to the personal life is subversive precisely because he refuses to pay attention to anything else. Bad politics hurts people on a personal level and good writers report from there about the damage. And the totalitarians are rightly afraid of those writers.
  8. Do not think. Dream. If you believe you are thinking when you write, make yourself stop thinking. You are trying to tap a part of yourself that is closest to the dreaming side, the side that is most active when you sleep. You are trying to recover the literal vision of a child. That is what Flannery O'Connor means when she says, "A good story is literal in the same sense that a child's drawing is literal." Dream the story up. Make it up. Be fanciful. Follow what comes to you to say and try not to worry about whether or not it's smart or shows your sensitive nature in the best light or delivers the matters of living that you think you have learned. Just dream it up and let the thing play itself out as it seems to want to. And write it again, and still again, dreaming it though. And then, as you educate yourself each time through more as to what it is, try to be terribly smart about that. Read it with the cold detachment of a doctor looking at an x-ray for a lump. Which is to say, you must learn to re-read your own sentences as a stranger might. And say everything out loud. Listen to how it sounds.
  9. Don't compare yourself to anyone and learn to keep from building expectations. People develop at different rates with different results and luck is also involved. Your only worry should be, again, "Did I work today?" Be happy for the successes of your friends because good fortune for one of us is good fortune for all of us. When a friend or acquaintance says "good luck," you may feel envy because envy is a natural human reaction. But as George Garrett once put it, "When that stuff rises to your mind, you just train yourself to contend with it there." That is what determines everything else about you as an artist and it really determines everything about you as a person. You will never write anything worth keeping if you allow yourself to give in to petty worries over whether you are treated as you think you deserve or your rewards are commensurate to the work you've done. That will almost never be the case and the artist who expects great rewards and complete understanding is a fool.
  10. By wary of all general advice. Destroy everything that precedes this commandment if, for you, it gets in the way of writing good stories. Because for every last assertion in this letter, there are several notable exceptions. Finally, try to remember that what you are aiming to do is a beautiful, even a noble, thing _ trying to write or make the trust as straightly and honestly and artfully as you can. It is also always an inherently optimistic act because it stems from the belief that there will be civilized others whose sensibilities you may affect if you are lucky and good enough and faithful to the task at hand. No matter how tragic the vision is, it is always a hopeful occupation. And, therefore, you have to cultivate your ability to balance things, to entertain high hopes without letting those hopes to become expectations. To do your work without worrying too much about what the workd will have to say about it or do to it. Mostly, of course, the world will ignore it. And so, you will have that in common with many very great writers, good men and women who came before you. By giving it everything you have and being faithful to the work, you honor their fidelity to it. You partake of it. You accept their silent admonition to write like all hell and be as good as they were.

© Richard Bausch