The Creative Writer's Survival Guide
Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist
Publication Year: 2010
Beginning with “The Writer’s Wonderland—Or: A Warning” and ending with “You’ve Published a Book—Now What?” The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide is a must-read for creative-writing students and teachers, conference participants, and aspiring writers of every stamp. Directed primarily at fiction writers but suitable for writers of all genres, John McNally’s guide is a comprehensive, take-no-prisoners blunt, highly idiosyncratic, and delightfully subjective take on the writing life.
McNally has earned the right to dispense advice on this subject. He has published three novels, two collections of short fiction, and hundreds of individual stories and essays. He has edited six anthologies and worked with editors at university presses, commercial houses, and small presses. He has earned three degrees, including an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and taught writing to thousands of students at nine different universities. But he has received far more rejections than acceptances, has endured years of underpaid adjunct work, and is presently hard at work on a novel for which he has no guarantee of publication. In other words, he’s been at the writing game long enough to rack up plenty of the highs and lows that translate into an invaluable guide for anyone who wants to become a writer or anyone who is already a writer but doesn’t know how to take the next step toward the writing life.
In the sections The Decision to Become a Writer, Education and the Writer, Getting Published, Publicity, Employment for Writers, and The Writer’s Life, McNally wrestles with writing degrees and graduate programs, the nuts and bolts of agents and query letters and critics, book signings and other ways to promote your book, alcohol and other home remedies, and jobs for writers from adjunct to tenure-track. Chapters such as “What Have You Ever Done That’s Worth Writing About?” “Can Writing Be Taught?” “Rejection: Putting It in Perspective,” “Writing as a Competitive Sport,” “Seven Types of MLA Interview Committees,” “Money and the Writer,” and the all-important “Talking about Writing vs. Writing” cover a vast range of writerly topics from learning your craft to making a living at it. McNally acts as the writer’s friendly drill sergeant, relentlessly honest but bracingly cheerful as he issues his curmudgeonly marching orders. Alternately cranky and philosophical, full of to-the-point anecdotes and honest advice instead of wonkish facts and figures, The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide is a snarky, truthful, and immensely helpful map to being a writer in today’s complex world.
Published by: University of Iowa Press
The Writer’s Wonderland—Or: A Warning
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In a preface titled "To Be Read Before Purchase" in the "complete and uncut" edition of The Stand, Stephen King warns readers who had bought the original version that they might not want to buy the new edition because it was simply the unedited version of the old one. "If this is not what you want," he writes, "don't buy this...
Part One: The Decision to Become a Writer
This Writer’s Beginnings
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It was a nonfiction book about old- time film comedians, and I spent a great deal of time sending letters to anyone who had ever been in movies with, or who had personally known, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin, or the Marx Brothers. I was stunned when people actually began to...
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It's useful to know why you want to write so you can adjust your expectations accordingly. If you want to write short stories for your family and friends to read, that's great. If you want to write short stories with the hope of eventually publishing a book, that's great, too. If you want to write short stories so that you can become a...
What Have You Ever Done That’s Worth Writing About?
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One night in a bar named Gabe's, while I was working toward my MFA, the drunk guy standing next to me wanted to know what my deal was. When I told him, he smirked and said, "What the hell have you ever done that you can write about? I used to jump out of airplanes. Have you ever jumped out of an airplane? How old are...
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At first glance, there appears to be no logic for who becomes a published writer and who doesn't. It can't be talent, can it? For every great book, there are many more mediocre books and even more downright bad ones. Conspiracy theorists will tell you that it's all about whom you know, but this simply isn't true. Plenty of writers...
Do You Have What It Takes?
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"Do you like sentences?" may seem like a silly criterion, but the longer I've been teaching, the less silly it seems. All too often, I meet students who are interested in becoming writers, but when I read their work, it's clear that they don't like anything about sentences. They can't punctuate. Their manuscript is full of misspellings. They're...
My Own Illogical Journey
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There are those lucky few whose writing careers follow a trajectory that is both ideal and enviable. She goes to a top MFA program; while there, she publishes a story or poem in the Paris Review or, hell, maybe even the New Yorker. Agents begin contacting the author, not the other way around; the story or poem gets chosen for the...
Part Two: Education and the Writer
Learn Your Craft
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Some beginning writing students, though not all, would like to believe that they're geniuses who don't need training. These students aren't taking creative writing classes to learn a craft; they're taking it for affirmation of their brilliance. I hate to admit this, but I felt this way when I signed up for my first creative writing course. After...
Can Writing Be Taught?
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A colleague recently said to me, "But, really, how many of your students are going to be great fiction writers?" He's a literature professor who clearly has problems with creative writing as a scholarly pursuit. I replied, "How many of your students have gone on to be great scholars?" He had to concede not many. By his litmus test, what...
Going It Alone
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In an interview for the Paris Review, John Irving was asked how helpful his years at the Iowa Writers' Workshop were, and he replied, "I was not necessarily 'taught' anything there as a student, although I was certainly encouraged and helped—and the advice of Vance Bourjaily, Kurt Vonnegut, and José Donoso clearly saved me some valuable...
Creative Writing Degrees: What Are They?
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In my office at home, on the wall to the right of my desk, hang three diplomas. One is for my BA, another for my MFA, and the third for my PhD. But to the left of those diplomas hangs an original lobby card for the movie Bonzo Goes to College. In the lobby card, a chimpanzee carrying a football is dressed in a football uniform, including...
The MFA Controversy
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Before moving ahead to chapters about choosing the right graduate program and the application process, I need to weigh in on a subject that gets endless attention in the blogosphere. All you need to do is Google "against MFA programs" or "anti- MFA" to realize how contentious this subject is. I don't go out of my way to promote...
Choosing the Right Graduate Program
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Some people go to a top- ranked writing program and love it; others go and hate it. Some people enter a program they think they'll hate and end up loving it. Some people think they can live anywhere for two or three years, only to discover that, no, they can't live anywhere, and those two or three years become a prison sentence. Some...
The Graduate School Application Process
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The difficulty with applying to graduate programs in creative writing is the same difficulty with trying to get your work accepted by a magazine insofar as the odds are stacked against you, even if you're talented. It's not uncommon for students with very strong writing samples to collect rejections from all the schools to which they've...
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There are numerous kinds of student loans available to graduate students, and since the terms change from year to year, I won't go into each and every kind, but do know that they are available. The most common student loans for graduate students are the Perkins, which allows you to borrow up to eight thousand dollars...
Feedback in the Workshop
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A good workshop, in my opinion, is fueled by feedback and not criticism, and the more informed the feedback, the more successful the workshop. By "informed" I mean that the students offering the feedback should become, over the course of the semester, well versed in craft with the ability to articulate why some things work and why...
Learn Punctuation and Grammar
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Brace yourself: This is my "be sure to eat your peas" chapter. I wouldn't be including it if I hadn't noticed lately a pervasive problem: My students don't know how to punctuate dialogue. Dialogue punctuation isn't their only problem, however. They don't know how to use commas, semicolons, or colons. They leave off end...
How Much Should You Bother Your Teacher after You’re No Longer in Class?
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There are selfless creative writing teachers out there who will read everything by everyone, and there are tireless creative writing teachers who are incredibly fast readers, but, in all honesty, I don't know many of these teachers, and I'm certainly not one of them. I usually have a long list of things to do, and I'm always running...
The Professional Student
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In the blue-collar neighborhood where I grew up, one of the worst insults you could hurl was to call someone a professional student. It meant that he was avoiding work; it meant that he was brainy but lacked common sense; it implied that he was too weak for manual labor; it also implied that he thought he was better than everyone...
Part Three: Getting Published
The Secret to Getting Published
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I'm going to let you in on the biggest secret to getting published. Ready? Here it is. There are no secrets. It's good old- fashioned hard work, combined with serendipity, luck, chance, or whatever else you want to call it. And perseverance. Keep working on improving your craft, and keep sending out your work. I've had stories rejected fifty...
Publishing in Magazines
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The market for publishing short stories has changed significantly even in the twenty- five years that I've been sending work out. When I first began writing, there were several commercial venues for short stories, places like Redbook, Mademoiselle, GQ, the Atlantic, and Esquire. Way back, in the glossy magazine's heyday, Kurt Vonnegut...
Why Publish in Magazines?
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This is a good question, especially given that so few people read literary magazines and that the general public doesn't even know of their existence. Tell your mother that you just published a story in the Chattahoochee Review, and she's likely to think you're making it up. (The Chattahoochee Review, by the way, is a wonderful...
The Cover Letter
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The cover letter, which is what you include with your short story or poetry submissions to a magazine, shouldn't be confused with the query letter, which is what you would send to an agent or (sometimes) a book editor, explaining your project and asking if she wants to see your book- length manuscript. (See my chapter...
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"Simultaneous submission" means submitting the same story to more than one magazine at a time, which shouldn't be confused with "multiple submission," which means submitting more than one work to a magazine in a single submission, which poets are usually allowed to do but fiction writers aren't. An editor at a big magazine...
The Slush Pile
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Anyone who wants to publish fiction should, if at all possible, intern at a magazine and read the slush pile. The slush pile refers to those stories/poems/essays sent to the magazine directly by the author and not through an agent; the author is usually unknown to the editors of the magazine, and the work itself hasn't been...
Publishing a Book
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The last few years have seen the rise of self- publication via print-on- demand publishers, making it possible for anyone to inexpensively publish his own novels, story collections, poetry, limericks, joke books, or what have you. And, I have to admit, many of the print-on- demand services produce books that look better than those...
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The relationship between the agent and the writer is often a curiously intimate one. Emotionally intimate, that is. You speak to your agent regularly; you e- mail daily during certain stages of the bookselling process; you call on your agent to defend you when a conflict arises with your editor; you want sympathy from (or get frustrated...
The Query Letter
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A query letter is your introduction to an agent or an editor at a publishing house. If it's for an editor, it's most likely for an editor at a small or university press since large publishing houses don't accept unsolicited queries, but even some of these publishers (usually the more competitive and prestigious small presses) are difficult to reach...
Rejection: Putting It in Perspective
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On a blog titled The Outfit: A Collective of Chicago Crime Writers, Barbara D'Amato writes about persistence in the face of rejection, and she offers up several examples: English author John Creasy, who eventually published 564 books under various names, received 743 rejections before his first acceptance; Sara Paretsky garnered...
Conferences and Book Festivals
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Anywhere where a publisher sets up a booth is a place for you to potentially land a book deal. I'm not suggesting that it's an easy thing to do, but it does occasionally happen at conferences like the Associated Writing Programs and the Modern Language Association or at some book fairs, like the Miami Book Fair International or the...
Your Critics, and How to Deal with Them
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What should you do when you receive a negative review? Probably nothing. It's poor taste to write the reviewer. (A writer friend of mine told me about an author who wrote a passive- aggressive email to him after my friend had written a mixed review of the author's book. What the writer accomplished was short-term...
The Sales Figure Myth
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A pet peeve of mine is the publishing industry's obsession with sales figures. Time and again, I hear stories about how a publishing house won't take on a book that an acquisitions editor likes because the author's previous book sales weren't up to snuff. Or, you'll read about an author who was dumped by her publishing house because...
The Necessity of Failure
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My teacher Frank Conroy used to say, "The good writing is connected to the bad writing." This was his mantra. And what he said was true. You have to write bad short stories and poems—sometimes dozens of them—before you start writing good short stories and poems, and even after you start writing good ones, you'll still...
Thinking outside Your Genre
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I'm a fiction writer first and foremost, but I've also edited six anthologies, written screenplays, contributed to the book review sections of newspapers (back when such things existed), done the occasional nonfiction piece when I've been asked to write one, interviewed fellow writers for magazines, and written the quasi- self-help...
The Future of Publishing
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What is the future of publishing? This is the million-dollar question, isn't it? Independent bookstore owners, CEOs of chain bookstores, and publishing houses all want to know. I hate writing about technological advances because, by the time this book is published, some devices will already be outmoded and this book will seem like...
Part Four: Publicity
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I'm not so sure that you need a website before you publish a book, although plenty of writers without books have them, but as soon as your first book has been accepted for publication, you should definitely start putting one together. There are templates and do-it-yourself websites that don't cost anything, but I recommend having...
Building a Mailing List
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In addition to being a great tool for jumpstarting sales when you have a new book released, these lists are invaluable for notifying people about your readings and book signings via e- mail blasts and/ or postcards, hopefully insuring that someone will be at the event. (After a book- signing event, you want the bookstore manager to feel...
Social Networking—Or:Where Did Those Last Five Hours Go?
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Social networking is a slippery slope. It's easy to spend hours building up thousands of "friends" on social networking websites with little, if any, reward at the end of it. Oftentimes, these sites are full of authors adding other authors, or self- published authors adding authors published by commercial houses, or unpublished authors...
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Your publisher may want you to start a blog, and any number of books about getting published may encourage you to start a blog. I may be in the minority here, but I'm going to suggest that you don't start a blog . . . unless it absolutely makes sense for you to have one, or unless you can bring something so fresh and compelling to the reader...
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Another writer recently said to me, "You know just about every writer out there, don't you?" This isn't the first time someone's said this to me, but it's always a surprise when someone does. As I noted previously, I'm not an active networker. By that, I mean that I don't strike up friendships or go out of my way to meet someone with the...
Getting to Know Booksellers
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You may be surprised to learn how powerful bookstore owners, managers, and book- buyers can be. Publishers usually send advance reading copies of forthcoming books to bookstores, whose bookbuyers (the employees responsible for ordering books to stock in their store) will peruse. If any of the books are appealing, they...
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The Associated Writing Program's conference is the largest writing conference in the country—probably the world—and yet it's difficult to parlay being on a panel (which is what most writers at the conference end up doing) or giving a reading at an off- site location at night into significant book sales. For one thing, books aren't available...
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I haven't participated in many book festivals. I've done a few, but every time I look at the long list of marquee writers who are appearing, I get a bit depressed just imagining trying to compete with the rock stars of literature. Also, the size of these festivals can be daunting, and I don't do well in crowds. (I was trampled...
Bookstore Signings, University Lectures, and Other Humbling Experiences
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The Academy Award- winning song for the movie Hustle & Flow was titled "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," and let me tell you, a truer lyric has not been written. Fiction writer Donald G. Evans shared with me this response when he spoke to a Barnes and Noble Events Coordinator about doing a reading at her store: "What's your name...
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Don't underestimate the power of libraries. I've had some terrible events at libraries (events at which no one at all has shown up), but I've also had some great events—some of my best, in fact. The best library events I've done have been, not surprisingly, at my childhood library, and there are probably four good reasons for...
Finding the Odd Venue to Promote Your Book
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Duke's is a small restaurant that specializes in Italian beef and Italian sausage sandwiches or a combo sandwich that includes both beef and sausage. (If you're not from Chicago, you may be appalled by the gluttony that this sandwich suggests, but if you are from Chicago, you know that this is pure Heaven . . . unless, of course, you're...
Buying Copies of Your Own Book
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Your publisher will give you a certain number of free copies of your book upon publication, but those will disappear quickly. You'll probably give most of those copies to family, friends, and colleagues. Before you know it, you'll be out of copies when someone who might be able to help you asks for...
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Perhaps the oldest gimmick is a raffle for your book, advertising it on whatever social networking site is hot. People love free stuff, and if it brings extra attention to your book while driving traffic to your website for the ten bucks it's going to cost you for the free book plus postage, it might be worth...
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Eventually, if you stick with writing long enough to publish a book, you'll need blurbs. Blurbs are those quotes by other authors, usually printed on the back of your book, that explain what a genius the writer is and how her book is like the effervescent love child of Frankenstein and The House of Mirth. In other words, blurbs are...
Writing Book Reviews, Op-Eds, and Other Miscellanea to Promote Your Own Book
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I have no evidence to back up this theory, but I suspect that if you review books for a number of newspapers, you'll increase the odds of getting your own book reviewed in those same pages. Let's ignore for the moment that the newspaper's book review section is almost extinct. In fact, by the time you're reading this, it's quite possible that...
Selling Serial Rights
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Serial rights are those rights connected to the publication of excerpts from your book, "first serial rights" referring to the publication of an excerpt before the publication of your book and "second serial rights" referring to an excerpt appearing in a newspaper or magazine after the publication of your book. If your book is under contract with...
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You don't necessarily have to belong to your alumni association to benefit from the existence of one. The University of Nebraska- Lincoln's alumni association, like many alumni associations, publishes a magazine, with a section featuring recently published books by alumni. A color cover of the book, along with the publishing...
Hiring an Independent Publicist
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You should think long and hard before deciding to hire your own publicist. For one thing, independent publicists cost a lot of money. While it's possible to spend as little as a thousand dollars for a publicist to focus on publicity for a single city, it's also possible to spend as much as $20,000 or more for national publicity. At the end of the...
Part Five: Employment for Writers
Jobs for Writers
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The trick is finding a job that permits you enough time to write and doesn't sap your mental energy. There are a number of jobs that you can get with a background in creative writing, but once you land the job, you may find that the job becomes your life while your writing career stalls or...
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Allow me to begin with a caveat. A lot of my students who are interested in becoming writers want to get jobs in publishing, but the people I know who work in publishing—and I know a lot—put in extraordinarily long hours, often taking their work home with them. Furthermore, if you land an entry- level position in New York...
Landing a Teaching Position
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Though I have held only one tenure- track teaching position thus far—I'm now tenured—I've taught at a total of nine colleges and universities in a variety of positions: visiting assistant professor, visiting writer, adjunct lecturer, teaching assistant, and so on. Since the adjunct position is the one you're most likely to get if you...
Seven Types of MLA Interview Committees
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My sympathies go out to victims of natural disasters, abused animals, and first-time MLA interviewees. My first MLA was in December of 1988. I was twenty-three and, oblivious to what I was getting myself into, bought a suit off-the-rack at J. C. Penney with my last valid credit card and then took the train from Chicago...
The Effects of Academia on Your Writing
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The perceived danger of spending too much time in academia is that your subject matter will be limited to, well, novels about writers and/or academia. I've already addressed this issue to some extent in the chapter titled "What Have You Ever Done That's Worth Writing About?" but in this chapter I want to take a different approach and...
Part Six: The Writer’s Life
Making Writing a Habit
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Inspiration doesn't come when you sit around waiting for it. Inspiration comes after years of busting your hump. You know those writers who write a great short story or a great novel and say, "This one was a gift. It wrote itself"? The reason it was a gift—the reason it wrote itself—is because those writers had been writing every...
Talking about Writing Isn’t Writing
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If you're spending more time talking about writing than actually writing, you may want to reassess your priorities. I've seen this happen in writers' groups, in coffeehouses, in MFA programs, in bars, on Facebook: writers who haven't yet published anything, or who haven't published much, talking or twittering about their...
Reading with Humility
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It's easy to read a book and complain about it. I do it all the time these days. But I didn't do it when I began reading seriously. I was eighteen, and my first creative writing professor had given me a list of books to read. I was reading, for the very first time, the short stories of Raymond Carver, Flannery O'Connor, Tobias Wolff, Ann...
The Writer’s Vices
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I'm no saint. I spent years drinking more than I should have. When I was a student at Iowa, I was arrested one night for public intoxication. I was photographed, fingerprinted, and thrown in jail. That was over twenty- two years ago. I continued drinking heavily for a number of years, until, eventually, I put a lid on it. I'll still drink...
Money and the Writer
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If you've decided to become a writer for the big paycheck, let me make a suggestion: Play the lottery instead. The odds of winning are better. Much better. That's not to say that there isn't money to be made as a writer. There is. One problem is that you can't count on it. Another problem is that you probably can't live solely on your...
Dating (or Marrying) a Writer
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I'm not a matchmaker, nor am I a marriage counselor, so I'm not going to offer much by way of advice, but I will point out a few observations. Dating a writer can be tricky for a number of reasons. For one thing, you're likely to be reading each other's work. What if one writer is more sensitive to criticism than the other? Or, what if one...
Writing as a Competitive Sport
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Once you start viewing writing as a competition—once you start keeping tallies for who won awards that you didn't win—it's time to pack it in. This is a losing game because there will always be people who are getting awards and book contracts and advances and jobs that you won't be getting, and you'll only end up driving yourself...
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In 1946, Orson Welles was directing a play for which everything was going wrong. In anger, he threw his cane, which struck a stagehand. The stagehand picked up the cane, walked over to Welles, and struck him with it. Welles had the stagehand thrown out of the theater. Later that night, the stagehand, who was living in a...
On Being Humble
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A few years ago, I had a student who would come up to me before turning in his story to tell me how brilliant the story was. "I think it's really quite brilliant," he'd say without a trace of irony. Unfortunately, his stories were far from brilliant. I wish I could say that he was the only student of mine who's ever trumpeted his self-declared...
Dealing with Fame
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As previously mentioned, I worked as a freelance media escort for a few years, which meant that I sometimes spent a good part of the day with an author, picking her up from the airport, taking her to interviews, walking her from the hotel to the bookstore, sometimes having meals with her. One writer I was lucky enough to escort was...
You’ve Published a Book—Now What?
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I used to wonder why an author who had published several books suddenly, inexplicably disappeared. I sometimes didn't even realize that they had disappeared until unpacking one of their books after a move or seeing a sun-bleached and dusty copy on the shelf of a second-hand bookstore or, worse, at the...
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Ten Rules to Keep near You
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My Five Favorite Movies about Writers
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Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2010