Letters to a Young Writer

Pondering how she might move from thinking and dreaming about writing to getting under way with the work,     Lauren Kunze queries author and editor     Carol Edgarian about what inspires and sustains her in the daily effort:

Dear Carol Edgarian,

I think that everyone who loves to read secretly dreams of becoming a writer. I’ve been addicted to fiction since childhood, and the fantasy of writing a novel has brewed quietly in the back of my mind for years. Yet, though I studied literature in college, I was always too afraid to take a creative writing course.

I know that “writers write” (I have folders upon folders of false starts and drafts to prove it), but while writing can be practiced I’m not sure that it can be taught—at least not in a classroom. I’ve heard everything from “carry around index cards in your back pocket” to “write two thousand words a day,” but I am wondering if you could share your encouragements and guidance to a young writer who is about to sit down and begin again?

Best wishes and many thanks,

Lauren Kunze

Dear Lauren,

I will tell you what I would tell anyone—what I tell myself:

Be a storyteller, first and last. You want to know what happens when writers get together? They tell stories. That’s really all they do. Stories are how they show themselves and all they know of the world. The best writers talk a story the way they put it down on the page: the structure, the nuance, the beats, the language, the whole bag. Writers, you see, are always on the job, always practicing, always taking raw life and futzing with it, improving it, shaping it into story. So practice telling stories, not just on the page but aloud. Practice over dinner with friends. Be conscious of what you’re saying, and watch your audience carefully. Are they leaning in? Are they excited? Or are they, God help you, bored? Observe the best storytellers you know—be it your plumber or your hairdresser or your kid brother. Some of the best storytellers I know happen to be children. They are deadly good, without an ounce of sentimentality. Learn from them. The good ones instinctively know to arrive late and to leave early in a story; they know to take the audience by the hand and never let go.

Be a reader. All right, you’ve heard that, but it bears repeating. Writers talk to each other through the ages, so you’re coming in on a long, long conversation. Earn your place at the table by listening. Know what’s been said, how it was said, and by whom. Love the voices and stories, but don’t hold them as precious. Take them apart, like a butcher cutting meat from bone. Go back, and go back again, scene by scene, line by line, until you see how each sentence is the story entire. Write often, dare to write badly, write as you walk down the street, your lips moving to your own music; yes, write, but read like a writer even more.

Be humble. Talent is only one part. The rest is craft. Craft is the wheel you will put your shoulder to; it will shape you as you shape it. You will be an apprentice for a long time. You will be an apprentice to your ultimate art for the rest of your life. The best writing you will ever do may be for a book on the high shelf you can’t quite reach. What you love is the reaching.

Be bold. This is not contrary to #3. While the apprentice studies, the artist is brazen. The artist knows, despite all evidence to the contrary, that it has never been said the way you are going to say it, now that your time has come. The work of the apprentice is in direct service to this artist. Let’s face it, the world is unpredictable and, at best, indifferent. You must encompass many parts: reader, artist, craftsperson. You must also be lucky. But only some things can you control.

Be generous. I mean, be generous on the page. Be discriminating with your characters, yes, but give to your reader with both hands—give like a lover. Don’t hold back. Don’t get tricky on your reader. Don’t save that good bit for later when things get dull. Above all, don’t mess with your reader’s heart. She has other people knocking on her door who want her attention; they want it badly. Don’t let them in. Woo your reader with riches; woo her with everything you’ve got. Your characters, your words, your story, your song: they are the coins in your pocket with which you pay for the honor of entertaining a reader. Spend them wisely. Spend them with joy. Spend them with love. Spend them as if you want to win the heart of your reader forever. As the great writers have won you.

Finally, know that you are embarking on the hardest, craziest thing you could ever try to do. The sun is shining, the grill is lit, the music is booming, there’s someone lovely calling your name, but you remain alone in your shabby room. God help you. What’s the matter with you? I know: you’re a writer. Despite the very real fact that you will fail more than you will succeed, you don’t care. You will happily blow a day turning over a single sentence. You will blow many days. You will emerge from your cave grumbling but shining—for you know that the building of worlds from nothing is the distinct privilege and pleasure of gods and writers. Gods and writers. Not so bad.

Best of luck to you!


Carol Edgarian

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