This Writer’s Life: Wisdom on the Writing Life

Posted by on October 6, 2012

Feel overwhelmed with golden advice about the writing life and wanted to share it here:

http://99u.com/tips/7204/Call-of-the-Wild-Jack-Londons-Advice-on-Honing-Your-Creative-Craft

Call of the Wild: Jack Londons Advice on Honing Your Creative Craft

Sometimes its hard to know where to start. In John Barleycorn, Jack London’s vivid memoir, he describes a predicament familiar to many an aspiring artist: “My difficulty was that I had no one to advise me. I didn’t know a soul who had written or who had ever tried to write. I didn’t even know one reporter.”

While much of Barleycorn is a grim warning about the slow train of alcoholism, the book also feels like an act of mentorship. Throughout, London describes his approach to being a writer, imparting a wealth of wisdom on building a career and body of creative work.

Not surprisingly, London’s work ethic was formidable. Here are a few gems of insight that I uncovered:

1. Be decisive, choose something, then attack it.
Writing wasn’t London’s first career choice. When he was forced to leave college early after his finances dried up, he needed to do something:

I decided immediately to embark on my career. I had four preferences: first, music; second, poetry; third, the writing of philosophic, economic and political essays, and, fourth, and last, and least, fiction writing. I resolutely cut out music as impossible, settled down in my bedroom, and tackled my second third and fourth choices simultaneously. Heavens, how I wrote! Never was there a creative fever such as mine from which the patient escaped fatal results. The way I worked was enough to soften my brain and send me to a mad-house.

I wrote, I wrote everything — ponderous essays, scientific and sociological, short stories, humorous verse, verse of all sorts from triolets and sonnets to blank verse tragedy and elephantine epics in Spenserian stanzas. On occasion I composed steadily, day after day, for fifteen hours a day. At times I forgot to eat, or refused to tear myself away from the passionate outpouring in order to eat.

The early days for London were a period of restless exploration. He tried everything. But most tellingly, he wrote a lot.

2. Be persistent, endure struggle, and hone your craft.
We all have to toil away in our creative pursuits. But harder than the work itself can be the long period of gestation when it feels like nothing is happening.

The trouble with the beginner at the writing game is the long dry spells, when there is never an editor’s check and everything pawnable is pawned.

Success, though, is a stacking of the bricks. Each one leads to the next, and along the way the technique gets more effortless:

I struggled along, stood off the butcher and the grocer, pawned my watch and bicycle and my father’s mackintosh, and I worked. I really did work, and went on short commons of sleep. Critics have complained about the swift education one of my characters, Martin Eden, achieved. In three years, from a sailor with a common school education, I made a successful writer of him.

At the end of three working years, two of which were spent in high school and the university and one spent at writing, and all three in studying immensely and intensely, I was publishing stories in magazines such as Atlantic Monthly, was correcting proofs of my first book (issued by Houthton, Mifflin, Co.), was selling sociological articles to Cosmopolitan and McClure’s, had declind an associate editorship proffered me by telegraph from New York City, and was getting ready to marry.

3. Develop a routine and be relentless about it.
One key is figuring out what works for you and developing a steady routine. A common denominator of successful creative people is simply pulling the reps.

As I succeeded with my writing, my standard of living rose and my horizon broadened. I confined myself to writing and typing a thousand words a day, including Sundays and holidays; and I still studied hard, but not so hard as formerly… There was so much to learn so much to be done, that I felt wicked when I slept seven hours. And I blessed the man who invented alarm clocks.

4. Settle into a groove and make the act of creating part of your life.
At some point the routine becomes a livelihood. What you do is not separate from who you are. Your day is in service to your craft.

The program of my ranch life was as follows: Each morning, at eight-thirty, having been reading or correcting proofs since four or five, I went to my desk. Odds and ends of correspondence and notes occupied me till nine, and at nine sharp invariably, I began my writing. By eleven, sometimes a few minutes earlier or later, my thousand words were finished. Another half hour cleaning up my desk, and my day’s work was done, so that at eleven-thirty I got into a hammock under the trees with my mail bag and the morning newspaper. At twelve-thirty I ate dinner and in the afternoon I swam and rode.

Jack London wrote some of America’s most enduring stories. He was horrifyingly prolific. Take some cues from his work regime, and get on your own way to building a creative life.

http://www.fsgworkinprogress.com/2012/06/how-to-have-a-career-advice-to-young-writers
How to Have a Career: Advice to Young Writers by 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.

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