Imagine that you are empty.
That’s how you should begin to think of yourself at the start of your career as an author. You won’t, but it is how you should. I certainly didn’t think of myself as being empty, twenty odd years ago. I thought I was well read, I thought I knew the craft, and I thought I had it worked out. Of course, I wasn’t, didn’t, and nothing was like I thought. Instead, I was empty. Maybe a few drops here and there, but nothing worth noting, and certainly nothing to make me realise how poorly read I was.
It might sound like a strange way to begin what is essentially a piece of unasked advice, but when you start out wanting to be an author, what you start out learning first, is how to read. Most people are bad readers. They have a lot of bad habits: they skim, they skip, they have partial understandings of techniques, and firm beliefs in what makes good writing good, and bad writing bad. To a degree, education systems foster those habits. You can, and a lot of students do, write essays having partially read the book. You can use sparknotes and another’s essay to fill in the gaps. High School also invites you to have partial understanding of social and literary movements, such as feminism, post modernity, and so on and so forth, so that you can write confidently about it. And bare in mind that I haven’t even begun to discuss the difference between a well marked piece of creative writing and a publishable story. But, anyhow: there’s a lot of things that go into developing a bad reading habit, and some of it is the books you read, some of it is the pursuit of marks, and some of it is something else, and then something else again. It is just best to think that, when you wish to become an artist, you have to rework how you approach the art.
Your first few years of being an author will therefor be about learning how to read and how to approach the work of others and the work of yourself. That doesn’t mean you won’t sell stories, or novels, or poetry, or essays, or whatever during that time. You may. You may not. But one piece sold is not a career made, and quite often, it is the second piece that is harder.
See, when I talk about being an author, I don’t think in one piece of work, but a body of work. I think of a lifetime given over to a pursuit of art, of an expression of yourself. I think of the evolution of yourself, marked through your work. For me, that is what being an author is about.
Not everyone does, mind you. Everyone works differently. For one author, it might simply be about one book. For another, it might be about a piece here, a piece there, and not a single one is anything but a product made to be sold, and one with little to no impact on the self. There’s nothing wrong with those choices because there is no rule but for art but the one you create yourself. My rule is not your rule, your rule is not my rule. It is a pretty simple concept, really.
But: lets return to the idea that you’re empty.
The question then is how do you fill yourself up?
There are lots of answers for that. Personally, I think it begins when you leave High School, and you leave an education system that is designed to provide you with a general and broad ranged introduction to many disciplines. I don’t think I’ll find many people who will disagree that specialist training begins once you leave High School.
Now, what’s available to you after that is a whole lot of options, and none of them are wrong. There’s university, college, workshops, and more, and none. If you want to go off, and learn about literature yourself, and discover all the different forms and concepts, you are more than welcome to it. Just promise me you won’t go down one of those anti-intellectual arguing paths, where you say that education is a waste, that real life is where it is, and so on, and so forth. It may seem like I have a jaded view of school, but I value it enormously. I’m just realistic about what it produces. School does not pop you out of a shell, ready made, to be anything, be it an author, or a lawyer, or a mechanic. Education, in whatever form it takes after you have finished school, remains important, and just like bagging life experience isn’t doing you any good, taking up an anti-intellectual stance isn’t going to help you, either. Never mind the fact that as an author you have begun to take part in an intellectual exercise. So, if you go it alone, sweet – use whatever is available to you, and read as widely as you can, and write as much as you can – but don’t hate the part of yourself that you use to make art with. If for no other reason, it makes me sad to see that, and who in this world wants to make me sad?
Lets pretend the answer is no one, shall we?
Anyhow, so, instead of going it alone, what if you decide to go into University, or college, or partake in workshops, or mentors, or writing groups – what can you expect from them?
Well, firstly, you cannot expect to be published. If any of those things promise that you will be, at the end, published, or publishable, you ought to view it as a red flag. If there was a simple course that allowed you to learn how to write fiction and then, after two weeks, six months, or three years, become Published Author With Good Contract, there’d be a line for the factory it was held in. It’s just not a promise you can believe in. For some people it will happen, of course, but that has little to do with the course. A course may help you learn how to submit, but if that course takes anything over half an hour to show you how to do that, you’re probably being ripped off (and even then, half an hour is allowing for a lot of unnecessary discussion).
What you should expect is time and exposure. I’ll start with the second, first, because exposure can mean a different thing here, and I do not mean published without payment (which is often called ‘exposure’). No, when I say exposure, what I mean is that a good course, workshop, or whatever, will expose you to writing you haven’t seen, or heard of. Authors, genres, forms – it is from each of these that you will begin to learn the craft of an author. You will learn how to use techniques as simple as metaphor and third or second or first person, and techniques as complex as page space, thematic development, and the like. They are crafts you will have to learn one way or another and anyone who tells you that these things can’t be taught, or that you simply must have ‘it’ is not someone you want to learn from. There is plenty of craft to learn in fiction while you are discovering your voice, and your ideas, and your self, that nebulous ‘it’ factor that the most impressive, and best of authors have that we all admire.
The next is time. Time, as you get older, is one of the most precious things available to an author. A lot of things will get in the way of your fiction, from work, to partners, to family, to whatever else you can think of. It all eats up your time, especially if you’re not making a living out of your art, which, at the start of your career, is pretty much a given. The ability to give yourself over to thoughts about fiction, either yours or another’s, is perhaps the biggest gift that any workshop or course can give you. To simply have that time opened to you, and separated from the daily requirements of life, is a huge boon, and I personally used it a lot in the early years of what I refer to as my career. It was especially important because, if I had been left to go it alone, I do not think I would have had the self discipline, or the tools, to force myself to write, and to discover new authors, and new forms of writing. That time that I got out of University was the biggest gift to me as a new author and, if you need that time, you shouldn’t be afraid to grab it where you can. It won’t be for everyone, of course – either because some don’t like education, or because some can’t afford it, but if you can do it, and it does work for you, then grab it.
(In relation to the cost, I can only hope that you are as lucky as I was that the Australian Government had a scheme that allowed you to defer the payment of your debts, and that if you completed further study in a set time frame, it was free. If you don’t have that available, don’t be afraid to find good online communities and forums, and writing communities in the real world.)
Anyhow, that’s enough for today. Next week, I reckon I’ll write another piece in the topic, and continue it forward. Or, I won’t. But I think I will: it’s mostly about organising my own thoughts and the thoughts are there. If it helps people out, all good.