Saturday, October 3, 2009

Want to be a novelist? Start as a journalist.

I just came across this old post from popular fiction writer Jennifer Weiner ("Good in Bed", "In Her Shoes"), who offers 10 tips for aspiring novelists. I especially liked tip No. 4, which advises would-be writers to try the real world first:

4. Get a Job (not an MFA)

This is pretty controversial, and will most likely earn me the enmity of writing professors, students, and MFA graduates everywhere. But I think if you want to be a writer, you're probably going to be better served by going to work (or by traveling, if you've got the financial wherewithal to do so), instead of spending two years and tens of thousands of dollars getting a degree that announces to the world that you are an official, academe-sanctioned, card-carrying practitioner of fiction.

When I was finishing up with college, lo these many years ago, I had an English degree, which meant that I was qualified to do precisely nothing, except compose lovely paragraphs, and speak knowledgably about French feminist literary theory (don't laugh. I'm going to kick ass on Jeopardy! Someday. Maybe). I was lucky enough to have John McPhee as a professor, and he was generous enough to give me the best piece of advice ever - go into journalism. "You'll see a different part of the world. You'll meet all kinds of people. You'll be writing every day, on deadline" - which, of course, turned out to be invaluable when it came time to write fiction. Best of all, you'll be getting paid to write, instead of paying someone to tell you that you can.

So off I went to Central Pennsylvania, where I spent two and a half extremely instructive, occasionally frustrating, desperately underpaid years at a small newspaper called The Centre Daily Times, where I covered five local school districts, plus the occasional car crash, fire, zoning board meeting, and wild-bear-on-the-loose story. Looking back, I think I was a fair-to-middling news reporter. It just didn't interest me, the numbers in the budget stories confounded me, and I always wanted to be way more descriptive than the space, or my editors, would permit. But I was a darn good features writer, because in my years at the paper, I learned how things looked, how people talked, how people interacted with each other, how they looked when they lied (cover politics, even in the micro level, and you'll get to see plenty of that).

I'm now a convert. I think that journalism is just about the perfect career for aspiring young writers. It's not especially remunerative, nor, in spite of what you see on TV, is it particularly glamorous. But it's great training. Like John McPhee said, you write every day, and you write on deadline, and you write to fit the space available, which means you don't grow up into one of those writers who gets sentimental over her sentences or overly attached to her adverbial clauses. And writer's block? Heh. Try telling an underpaid, pissed-off assistant city editor that your story on the school board meeting isn't done yet because your Muse hasn't spoken, and you will quickly, perhaps painfully, come to the understanding that writer's block is a luxury no working journalist can afford - which will help you avoid it when you're a working novelist. Journalism, particularly at the lowest levels, will knock the F. Scott Fitzgerald right out of you…which is something many recent college graduates - myself included - could use. It also means that when you finally write your novel, your New York City editors will adore you, because years of journalism will have taught you the fine art of being edited - of how an impartial reader can suggest changes, cuts, additions and amplifications that will make what you've written even stronger. Plus, you will not whine about your deadlines - you'll meet them. You will not be offended if someone suggests that your second chapter's dragging and your title's ill-conceived - you'll fix them. This willingness to be edited, and ability to meet deadlines, will make you different, and easier to work with, than a great many novelists. Your editor will adore you.

And if you can't be a journalist, or aren't inclined, or can't get hired? Go do something that's going to take you out of your comfort zone, putting you in contact with different kinds of people, perhaps in a different part of the world. Be a waitress at the snootiest boite in town, and pay attention to how your customers look, how they talk, how they tip. Lead bike trips through Italy, making careful note of the countryside. Be a camp counselor, be a cook, be a nanny. Just do something that takes you out into the world. If at all possible, avoid working in a bookstore, or in publishing. Remember, the point of this exercise is to take you out of your comfort zone, out of the comfortable life you've made inside your own head, out of a workplace full of people Just Like You. You're looking for challenges, for adventure, for new faces and new places. Plus, if you've followed Part Two of this plan, you're most likely single, and will want to get out of town anyhow.

"But if I got an MFA, I'd get to spend two years just concentrating on my writing!" True. But remember: a writer writes, whether or not she's in school for writing.

And I think that in the end, staying out of writing school gives you more to write about. Saves you money, too.

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