Advising New Writers Lovingly

Today I received an email from a freshly graduated student about a blog he’d been writing for the past two years that he wants to get published as a book. It was about being an only child—a topic I recommended he consider transforming into a memoir after he turned in a wonderful English 101 essay about growing up alone. Ever since, he said, he’d been writing. He included a link to the blog, clearly hoping—despite assurances to the contrary—that I would read it and somehow singlehandedly applaud it onto bookstore shelves.

This is the first of several such emails that I’ll likely receive this summer, in addition to similar requests I get from faraway former students, colleagues, and even total strangers during the school year. Would be writers email me. They show up in my office door, boxed manuscript in hand. They bribe me with lunch. But something about graduating—commencing Real Life, I guess—translates especially as the supreme opportunity to magically turn what have thus far only been vague dreams—of writing their memoir, of publishing a collection of devotions, of becoming a children’s author—into reality.

For me, though, summer is my big work-time as a writer. As soon as I get my grades in, I’m frantically writing away toward midsummer deadlines. In a little over a week, my college daughters will be coming home, and I’m embarrassed to say—though I love them both dreadfully and have been missing them ever since they returned to school after Christmas break—I’m dreading their return. The summer seems, for me, already used up, with all the things I need to get done during it, and I resent everything—even things I love best, like daughters and gardening—that takes me away from the computer.

So, I’m faced, as most writers are, with a difficult task I’ll probably never get exactly right: How to convey the reality of my summer (indeed, of my life as a writer)—that I have neither the time to read a single post, not to mention four years’ worth of blogging or a manuscript two reams thick, nor the power to circumvent for them or myself the arduous tasks of revising to make a book readable and securing an agent to get the thing sold—while simultaneously heartening and supporting those who, inspired by my own modest successes as a writer, want to follow in my footsteps?

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke models my ideal response in his Letters to a Young Poet. I would like to embody his kind voice and take time away from my own writing to compose letter upon letter of encouragement and advice to those who approach me for writerly advice. But Rilke was writing back before the internet made it possible for would be writers to readily locate and assault him with salvos of manuscripts and queries. And Rilke didn’t seem to have to do any other work in his life besides write poems. And poets write, after all, poems. Short pieces—shorter, quite often, than a single blog post.

I was also much impressed when, after a reading from her memoir, Ellen Gilchrist took on question after question from the would be memoirists in her audience, somehow validating every asker as a writer and spurring each one to keep at it, keep writing, keep sending things out, keep doing—or start doing—the hard, often fruitless but always rewarding work of getting one’s thoughts and stories onto the page and into others’ hands.

My advice, finally, is canned, as were perhaps Gilchrist’s comments at readings and maybe even Rilke’s advice—which was, after all, published in book-form for every wannabe poet to read. I have an email in which I detail the steps I myself took in seeking publication for the first time, and I send it out, slightly personalized, to each asker. I have a spoken version for office door and phone conversations. It’s easier to be kind and encouraging, I find, when I plan it out.

“No breakfast?”

Now, if I could just figure out a loving way to tell Lulu and Charlotte I’m too busy to make them the fantasy breakfast they’ve been dreaming of all semester…

What do you tell aspiring writers who come across your path or your email in box?

12 Replies to “Advising New Writers Lovingly”

  1. It sounds like you are too busy to live! Take a couple days off. Enjoy your girls. Ignore the writing requests, but live! Writing should be a complement to life, not fill-in for it. And then when you do return to the computer, your writing will be infused with the experiences that only real life can give you. I’m probably reading way too much into this post, but I just wanted to share my two cents 😉

  2. One thing I’ve already noticed about being a writer (and I’m just starting out!) is that non-writers assume words spring upon the page ready made, ready to read. There is no concept of the time and mental energy that goes into every essay, blog post, short story or chapter.

    I’ve told my children (all adults, all living at home, three of them unemployed – but looking) that I’m not available until noon. Don’t ask me questions, don’t expect me to think about meals, and above all else, don’t turn on the television! (My office is a corner of the family room.)

    After lunch and some housework, I spend a couple hours reading and researching, and that time is more easily interrupted.

    And yes, they’re getting used to it. They know I reserve the weekends for family.

    I haven’t run into the problem of others wanting me to read their manuscripts, and just as well. I’d probably turn around and send them to someone like you 🙂

  3. I suggest asking your lovely daughters to prepare the fantasy breakfast which you will thoroughly enjoy with them. Offer a quick hand with the dishes. You still get the enjoyment, and they get the opportunity to show you respect for your work and you while you show them how much you love them. I have my kids all living around and my grandkids, and I struggle more with my reactions to saying “I can give you this much time today” or “sorry, not today” than they do. I do find the kind of special times for them, but they respect my need for blocks of uninterrupted time. At least, that’s the plan.

  4. Hi Patty,

    I think you ask a great question. What DO we say to aspiring authors? I simply tell them to consider attending a Christian Writer’s Conference. “That’s what I did, and it helped a ton!” I then direct them to my website, so they can look at my links. I list several major conferences. I also list several great blogs for writers. Hope this helps someone.

  5. I have Rilke’s Advice to a Young Poet, but hadn’t read it yet. I shall have to move it higher in my reading pile.

    I hear what you are saying, Patty, yet the conventional wisdom we unpublished writers hear from agents and editors is, “Find someone more experienced than you in the writing profession and begin to partner with them…” etc. etc. It seems this critter doesn’t really exist.

    1. Agents and editors are telling you to send your work to writers? So writers should now not only write and market own their books but also vet less experienced writers’ work so that they don’t have to? Happily, not all agents and editors are so lazy. Recently, in responding to a similar scenario one of his authors was complaining about, my own agent (Greg Johnson) recommended that the author just send such manuscripts on to him because, as he said, “I’d rather my writers waste my time than their precious writing time.”

      1. Patty: No, agents and editors are telling unpublished writers to somehow join a group that includes writers more experienced than them. I have seen this piece of advice over and over from agents and editors. My experience is that the more experienced writers are busy writing, marketing, and platform building, and are not available to be in critique groups composed mainly of newer writers.

        I don’t believe it’s a case of agents and editors being lazy. I think it’s poor advice to do the nearly impossible.

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