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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Writing Advice About Writing Advice
I have been writing fiction pretty seriously since I finished my dissertation in 1998 and decided that what I really wanted to do was write fiction. Partly it was because I wanted to, and partly because I was afraid of having academic work rejected for publication so never submitted it. Neither of these things was a particularly good strategy for professional advancement. It took me a while to figure out how to find other people to a) read my work and b) publish it. I kept writing stories and showing them to friends who would either read them and say they were great or ignore the fact that I’d given them something to read. Then I would send the piece off, and stockpile the rejection letters. Guess what? This was not a happy period of my life professionally. Though I liked my part-time teaching job, I had published absolutely nothing and had no hopes to better myself as a writer or teacher.
Then, two things happened. After a horrid job interview to teach composition at a school with depressingly low pay and a tiringly long commute, I went to the local bookstore, Atticus Books, to console myself for the long drive I had taken (for nothing). I found a book called Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See. I began to follow some of her advice and had some short non-fiction pieces appear in print. Less than a year later, I was living in Minneapolis because my spouse took a job there, and availed myself of the chance to take writing courses at The Loft Literary Center. Having a place to go once a week where people actually cared about writing and would argue with each other about my work helped me improve as a writer. For those of you without such a place to go to, here are a few pieces of writing advice that have enabled me to leap over the many barriers to publication.
Make space for your ideas.
Jack Kerouac played fantasy baseball – and wrote his own sports news about his leagues, complete with financial news and contract disputes. His collection of the cards with the various possible outcomes of the games are in the New York Public Library today along with a publication about them, “Kerouac at Bat: Fantasy Sports and the King of the Beats.” Kerouac also died an alcoholic, living with his mother, but let’s focus on the positive part of being able to live so well in your own head. I think that every writer needs her or his own version of that fantasy baseball league or Angria, the imaginary country the the four surviving Bronte siblings created together as children. A writer needs to be able to envision a place where she can focus on her own creation. It is that ability to continue to focus resolutely on your own work that can make the difference between being published and not.
Cultivate literary relationships.
Here is where my favorite book of practical advice (Making a Literary Life, by Carolyn See) on all writerly matters comes in. See suggests a number of things helpful to paving a path toward publication. I encourage any writer to buy the book; as incentive I will share but one of her most practical suggestions. Cultivate a relationship with an editor. Write the editor charming notes, which See suggests should be on lavish stationery and hand written. In this Internet age, though I’m sure her sage advice holds true, I do them via email. See tells the story of how she continued to pitch the editor of the Atlantic Monthly and he kept telling her he was not interested. Finally she arranged to meet with him on a trip to Boston, and she eventually got him to give her an assignment, after sending home photos of herself and kids in the canyons of California. Her dogged persistence was able to gain her the work, despite the editor’s multiple rejections.
In the fall of 2008, I was teaching a class in “Introduction to Judaism” and wanted to use a personal narrative to open the course, to give students a feel for how individuals connect to the faith tradition. I found a new memoir, Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion, by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, which discussed how the author journeyed from being a clubbing punk kid to a Conservative (the name of the movement of Judaism, not her political leanings) rabbi. I emailed Rabbi Ruttenberg to tell her how much I liked her book and how well it helped to orient my course in the direction I was aiming for. She was interested in the work I had done, and asked me to contribute to an issue of a magazine she was editing on “Judaism and Gender.” I did, and established an email relationship with the editor of the magazine Zeek. I then submitted a few fiction pieces which I had been trying to publish for years, pieces which I had workshoped in writing classes at the Loft in Minneapolis and thought were polished. Though I had to keep resending the pieces, as the fiction editors changed every few months and then vanished, finally Zeek editor Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, bless her heart, accepted one of my stories, my first one to be published! I would never have gotten this fiction published if I hadn’t persistently cultivated a relationship with this editor.
Any writer can make contacts or use the contacts they have. The LinkedIn website can be of great benefit because you can see who your friends and contacts know. I have used it to find freelance writing jobs by finding editors who are connected to me by a mutual acquaintance. Or, as I did, write to someone whose work you admire; every writer today has a website and in my experience most answer their email. Those nice letters can lead to all kinds of unexpected places. Remember the title of the memoir I started my course with – Surprised by God? Carolyn See speaks of creating magic for yourself, but perhaps I martialed a stronger force to help my cause…
Learn about the lives of writers and artists.
This piece of advice—along with making it a priority to write fan letters to writers you admire—was given to me by poet Michael Dennis Browne. The results of both of these pieces of advice can lead to unexpected places. I have been personally fortunate to study with Browne who still teaches in the summer at Iowa and at the Collegeville Institute in Minnesota; for those who want advice of a working poet and teacher distilled into one slim volume there is his What the Poem Wants: Prose on Poetry. It is heartening to read the struggles of even the greatest of writers and poets and to take courage from the relentless drive of another. Reynolds Price is an extreme example, but thinking about someone who wrote more after he became a paraplegic due to a spinal tumor is enough to jumpstart even the most sluggish among us.
Another great resource on writer’s lives is the Paris Review interview series. Pick one up at random and you will be hooked until you’ve devoured them all. Two other books I love in this vein are Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives and Off the Page: Writers Talk about Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between.
It isn’t up to anyone else to decide whether you are a writer or not.
I remember calling my dissertation advisor about a year after I had defended and asking her whether she thought my dissertation was really good, whether I should be an academic, stay in the game, pursue it at all costs? In hindsight, I realize it was a fruitless conversation to have. She was perplexed by the question because it wasn’t up to her to tell me what I should or should not do, whether or not I was good enough. Had I had the desire, and been willing to pursue it tenaciously, I could have pursued academia in Renaissance literature. I wanted something from my advisor that no one person can give another – I wanted someone else to make the decision about what I should do with my life.
Those of us who are gifted with the desire and ability to write fiction (and other writing as well though the proportions may differ) need three things. Develop the ability to create a satisfying life of the imagination, an Angria or a fantasy baseball league, a separate world. Then, get out of your own head and cultivate relationships with others, but particularly with other writers and editors. Finally, fantasy will only get one so far, so I’ll close with my ultimate command for writing, which I read quoted in a review of Richard Rhodes’ How to Write: Advice and Reflections. It is the Knickerbocker rule, named for a Conrad Knickerbocker who promulgated it to Rhodes. “Apply ass to chair.”
Beth Kissileff has had her fiction and non-fiction published in Slate.com, Zeek, Tablet, the Jewish Review of Books, Jerusalem Report, the News and Observer(Raleigh, NC), JewishFiction.net, and Jewish Book World. She is the editor of a forthcoming anthology of academic writing on Genesis (Continuum Books, 2013). She has taught English literature, Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College, and Mount Holyoke College.