One of my editors asked whether I’d be willing to be interviewed by her daughter, who is 16 and an aspiring writer. I’m totally recycling and being efficient, but I’m thinking there might be others out there with similar questions (or, if you’re a writer yourself, other answers): here is our exchange.
1. What is the best part about being a writer?
If you love to write and to read, if you love language, if you love living in the imagination this is the best job in the world. When I sit down at my desk, I never quite know what’s going to happen, so every day feels like an adventure. There’s something magical about using text to communicate complex ideas, to share imaginary characters, places and times with readers, and perhaps most exciting and daunting is the ability to draw emotion out of a reader — to cause someone to feel something simply by giving them words on a page.
There are many ways to be a writer — that might be something you want to think about, as you consider a career as a writer. I primarily write literary fiction, but I’ve also worked as a freelance writer, writing reviews, doing more journalistic non-fiction and memoir-type non-fiction (for newspapers, magazines, and online).
2. What is the worst part about being a writer?
There are many worst parts, to be perfectly frank.
Right up front, let’s be honest about money: writing is a tough career in which to make a living. Many (most?) literary writers survive on grants and small advances, or paid appearances; or they write freelance, which requires lots of networking, pitching, and constant scrabbling to keep steady work coming in the door; or they teach creative writing; or they have day jobs.
It takes years of practice to hone talent, and to master the craft to a degree that you can make these words do what you want them to do. (Of course, that’s also an exciting part — there is always more to learn; I’m still learning!) Especially during the early years of being a writer, you face a lot of rejection. You either accept this as a natural part of the job, carry on, and try to learn from critique, or you’ll become despairing. You’ll need to grow a thick skin to protect yourself, which is hard, because most writers are sensitive people — attuned to emotional nuance. Even established writers face rejection, self-doubt, and criticism. It’s part of the job.
Personally, I find it difficult to move between the quiet interior work of actually writing to the necessity of publicity, when a book comes out — readings, appearances, panels, interviews, etc. Public speaking draws on a different part of my personality, and I find I operate better if I’m in one mode or the other, not trying to do both at once. That isn’t always possible to arrange.
I think one thing that isn’t often admitted is that writers are plagued by anxiety and self-doubt. This is not something you outgrow. I’ll never be absolutely certain that I’ve achieved what I intended to with my work — in fact, I think I’m quite certain that I haven’t, and never will. I don’t mean that I feel like a failure, or that I’m not happy with what I’ve created; just that I always believe it could be better.
But I don’t write simply to create a finished product. I write because I love the process itself. And I write always with a good deal of hope and optimism that I’ll achieve something new and different in each project I undertake.
3. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read. Read. Read. Write. Write. Write. Read books that challenge you, books that teach you the long history of writing that we’re all building on, books that you admire. Read the writing you yourself would want to write. Don’t worry about losing your voice or not being original. If you write regularly you will develop and find your voice. I recommend writing as widely as you read, too. Write daily. Every bit of writing counts and can teach you something. Write in a journal. Write poetry in the margins of your school notes. Write academic essays. Write for your school newspaper. Write a blog. (This advice is based entirely on my own writing path: I took English lit in university, BA and MA, and filled journal upon journal with thoughts, dreams, stories, ideas, poems, etc. I still write every day, whether it’s writing for publication, or just for myself.)
4. What is the one thing that you would like to achieve through writing?
I don’t think I can narrow my hopes down to one particular achievement. I use my writing to communicate many different things, in different ways, in different forms. I would like to entertain readers, to catapult them into a parallel world, and take them out of their lives for a little while. I would like also to pour empathy into the world. Beauty and light, stories that may cause readers to look at their own lives differently, or to look at others differently. I do think about this. I think about what I’m putting into the world when I write. I want to add depth and understanding to human interaction, not subtract from it or be harmful. I try to write with an openness of spirit and heart and mind — and I try to live that way too.
5. Why do you think writers are important to society?
Words are powerful tools. Ideas can be powerfully communicated through them. I have a theory that all conflict and therefore the possibility of peace boils down to two ingredients: land and stories. Land is obvious: humans have been fighting over land (resources, territory, wealth) since the beginning of human history. Stories are less obvious, but no less important: a nation’s stories about itself can include or exclude, bury or illuminate, and these stories are narratives about belonging and power. All stories are. Maybe I’ll go back to your previous question and say that if I hope to achieve anything with my writing, it would be to illuminate stories that have been forgotten or left untold.
But I’m also interested in narrative and emotional complexity rather than myth-making: this complexity is usually lost in policy-making and politicking generally, and I think that’s where writers come in. Writers are not politicians. It’s our job to show the complexity of individual human experience. It is only by seeing “the other” as complex that we see him or her as human, which is a necessary imaginative leap toward understanding.