How to Be a Writer
A few weeks ago, a woman asked me for advice about her teenage daughter. “She wants to be a writer,” the mother said. “What should we be doing?”
To be honest, I was kind of stumped. (In part, I think it was the way she asked — “What should WE be doing?” I didn’t really know what to do with that “we.”) (Also, it was quite early in the day, and I hadn’t yet had sufficient coffee to be giving anyone advice.) I suggested a few upcoming creative writing classes, but the mother wasn’t satisfied. There must be more — what else could they do?
“Well,” I said, “you know. Writers read a lot … and write a lot.”
She looked at me blankly.
“You really do have to write a lot,” I said. “I mean, that’s mostly it. You write a lot.”
The mother shook her head. “What else? Are there books she can read? Events she can attend? Writing camps?”
“Um,” I said. “Sometimes writers have writing buddies … they meet at coffee houses and write together?”
The mother liked this suggestion. “You could do that!” she told her daughter. The girl blushed.
I offered some titles of books to read. Writing Down the Bones, Wild Mind, Bird by Bird. If You Want to Be a Writer. Letters to a Young Poet. The Metamorphoses. (I know Ovid doesn’t have a lot of advice for writers; I just like to push the Metamorphoses on people. It’s a soap opera in verse!)
The mother scribbled them down. I had a feeling she’d buy them all for her daughter, perhaps before the day was over, but she still seemed to be waiting for something. I felt like I wasn’t giving her what she wanted, and though she was being really polite about it, I actually felt bad that I couldn’t come up with an answer that would satisfy her.
The feeling stuck with me all day — I chewed over her question and wondered if there were something I’d forgotten, some crucial piece of advice I could have given to placate her. But the more I thought about it, the more confused I became about why my initial answer wasn’t enough. Fact: writers write. Fact: In order to be a writer you have to write a lot. A LOT. Fact: there’s no shortcut.
(I do want to say that I think it’s really great that this mother — or any mother — is looking for ways to actively support her kid’s writing. I also imagine it might be challenging to have a kid who wants to be a writer — it’s not like you can just go out and join the Band Boosters and support your child’s passion by raising money to buy new trumpets or whatever. There’s no ‘Poet Boosters’ for parents.)
So now it’s a few weeks later and I’m still thinking about it, and I’m still a little perplexed by the question. But I’ve had some coffee, and I’m ready to take another crack at it.
What should you do to help your child pursue her dreams of becoming a writer?
First of all, let her be bored. Let her have long afternoons with absolutely nothing to do. Limit her TV-watching time and her internet-playing time and take away her cell phone. Give her a whole summer of lazy mornings and dreamy afternoons. Make sure she has a library card and a comfy corner where she can curl up with a book. Give her a notebook and five bucks so she can pick out a great pen. Insist she spend time with the family. It’s even better if this time is spent in another state, a cabin in the woods, a cottage on the lake, far from her friends and people her own age. Give her some tedious chores to do. Make her mow the lawn, do the dishes by hand, paint the garage. Make her go on long walks with you and tell her you just want to listen to the sounds of the neighborhood.
Let her be lonely. Let her believe that no one in the world truly understands her. Give her the freedom to fall in love with the wrong person, to lose her heart, to have it smashed and abused and broken. Occasionally be too busy to listen, be distracted by other things, have your nose in a great book, be gone with your own friends.
Let her have secrets. Let her have her own folder on the family computer. Avoid the temptation to read through her notebooks. Writing should be her safe haven, her place to experiment, her place to work through her confusion and feelings and thoughts. If she does share her writing with you, be supportive of her hard work and the journey she’s on. Ask her questions about her craft and her process. Ask her what was hardest about this piece and what she’s most proud of. Don’t mention publication unless she mentions it first. Remember that writing itself is the reward.
Let her get a job. Let her work long hours for crappy pay with a mean employer and rude customers. If she wants to be a writer, she’ll have to be comfortable with hard work and low pay. Let her spend her own money on books and lattes — they’ll be even sweeter when she’s worked hard for them.
Let her fail. Let her write pages and pages of painful poetry and terrible prose. Let her write dreadful fan fiction. Don’t freak out when she shows you stories about Bella Swan making out with Draco Malfoy. Never take her writing personally or assume it has anything to do with you, even if she only writes stories about dead mothers and orphans.
Let her go without writing if she wants to. Never nag her about writing, even if she’s cheerful when writing and completely unbearable when she’s not. Let her quit writing altogether if she wants to.
Let her make mistakes.
Let her stay after school to work on the newspaper, but only if she wants to. Let her publish embarrassingly personal stories in the school literary magazine. Let her spill the family’s secrets. Let her tell the truth, even if you’d rather not hear it.
Let her sit outside at night under the stars. Give her a flashlight to write by.
Let her find her own voice, even if she has to try on the voices of a hundred others first to do so. Let her find her own truth, even if she has to spin outrageous lies in search of it. Remember that her truth isn’t the same as anyone else’s truth, and that even if you were there with her when it happened, your memories of a moment will likely be vastly different from hers. Let her write thinly-veiled memoirs disguised as fiction. It’s okay if she massages past events to make a better story, or leaves entire years of her life on the cutting room floor. It’s okay if she writes about characters who have nothing to do with her life, her experience, or her world. That’s what fiction is.
Let her write poetry on her jeans and her shoes and her backpack, even if you just bought them brand new.
Keep her safe but not too safe, comfortable but not too comfortable, happy but not too happy.
Above all else, love her and support her. Love her and believe in her. Love her, and let her go. In the end, your love is all that matters, and it will be enough. The rest will come from her.
Edit: In the time since I started writing this, I had dinner with a good friend from high school. We were talking about the old days, and I dragged out a journal from junior year to prove a point. “How many of those do you have now?” he asked.
“Forty-two,” I said. “I have a whole bookshelf of them.”
“You should show them to people. A visual aid, to help them see how much writing practice you did.”
I thought about another friend of mine from the old days, a talented artist who used to get mad when people told him he was a talented artist. “I just draw every day,” he’d always say. “I’ve drawn every day since I was a little kid. If you drew every day for fifteen years, you would be good at it too. Anyone would.”
Mick Jagger is reported as saying, “You have to sing every day so you can build up to being, you know, Amazingly Brilliant.”
I don’t write every day. I never have. But I do write most days, and I’ve filled thousands of pages of notebook paper with writing. I swear there’s no magic trick, no simple solution, no get-writerly-quick scheme. You have to write a lot of words. You have to write your heart out. And in the end, you discover that the writing’s what matters. Writing is its own reward. I promise.
M. Molly Backes is the author of the young adult novel The Princesses of Iowa (Candlewick Press, 2012). An accomplished teacher, she runs creative writing workshops for adults and teens in Chicago and across the Midwest. Follow her on Twitter at @mollybackes.