Things About Writing I Wish I Knew When I Was Younger
Many writers and creatives are obsessed with time travel. The potential of going back and making different choices naturally appeals to our imaginations and our very way of working. In a sense, we write in time machines — we can always scroll up in a document or flip back a few pages in our notebooks and completely change how a scene plays out. As creators of worlds, we possess limitless choices, and we get to experiment with the consequences without any real consequences. It’s all play. Nothing is set in stone until we’re happy with it. We reign supreme.
While all of that might be true for the worlds on the page, it’s not true for the world in which we actually live. There are plenty of things I wish I would’ve known and plenty of things I wish I would’ve done differently, especially in my creative life. In this reality, the past is the past. There’s no going back. All the same, I’ve found it helpful to take stock of the lessons I’ve picked up along the way. They’ve helped me as I’ve moved forward, and maybe they’ll help you too.
1. There are no timelines: As humans, we like time. Time gives us a sense of security and a useful way of measuring the seasons of our lives. However, as the saying goes, we plan, god laughs. My younger self was obsessed with hitting certain milestones before a certain age. But as I got older, I realized how little this mattered. I realized that when it comes to your writing career, there are no timelines aside from the ones you’ve made up. Some people find success as children while others find it in their frail final years. The vast majority of us find it somewhere in between — anywhere in between, really. So give yourself permission to ignore those annoying ’40 under 40 lists’ and be sure to cheer on your friends who make it before you do. Trust that your time is coming and that one day, they’ll be cheering for you.
2. You must become your own licensing body: Other professions have set paths from which it’s fairly difficult to deviate. If you want to practice as a doctor, you earn a bachelor’s degree, complete medical school, embark on a residency. If you want to be a lawyer, you take the LSAT, go to law school, pass the bar. But despite what MFA programs might lead you to believe, being a writer is different. There’s no industry-standard test or qualification. There’s no course of study or piece of paper that will declare your indisputable writerly status to the world. It all comes down to what you do: if you write, you’re a writer. This means that you must become your own licensing body, which is more difficult than it sounds, especially in a world that often feels like it’s rolling its eye at you. I learned this the hard way: I have two writing degrees, I’ve published books, and I make a living entirely from my written work, but I still feel like an absolute phony when I tell people what I do. And yet, I continue to push myself to tell them anyway because it’s true. It’s true. And the more I say it, the truer it sounds.
3. There are no rules: Writing is an art, not a science. There are no rules. There are a million different ways your career might look. None of them are right or wrong. Some people dedicate their whole lives to writing that one perfect novel. Others move with ease from cultural criticism to funny short stories to romantic poetry to horror screenplays. A lot of writers have day jobs, whole other careers and lives, separate from the page. It’s all allowed. It’s all good.
4. No one cares: Louis CK got canceled for good reason, but there’s a line from his FX TV series that has always stuck with me. When Louie asks a neighbor for advice on his love life, the ever-exasperated neighbor replies, “Nobody cares whether you date this girl. Just pick a road and go down it, or don’t.” There’s a distinct undertone of existentialism here, but there’s something else too. There’s freedom. We often forget that most of the decisions we face in our lives don’t really matter to anyone but us. As I have grown older, I’ve made it a point to bring this sentiment with me into my writing life, where it manifests in liberating ways. Why not completely rewrite this scene or chapter? Why not pitch this weird idea? Why not stray from the outline to chase a potentially interesting side plotline? Pick a road and go down it, or don’t. Nobody cares.
5. You probably have plenty to write about, you just don’t know it yet: Up until my mid-twenties, I wholeheartedly believed that I’d had the most boring life and childhood ever. But with some distance and perspective, I realized this simply wasn’t the case. As Tolstoy famously wrote, “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” None of us and none of our families are happy all the time — happiness is a fleeting feeling, not a state of existence. There’s always more to explore, more to mine. Over the past decade, I have drawn upon my personal and familial experiences in endless ways, dropping stories directly from my life into essays and stories and screenplays. And for what it’s worth, I’ve never met anyone without a story to tell. Whether or not you know it now, your life is probably fertile ground. Be patient. Wait until the time is right to reap your harvest. If you treat yourself and your life with care, the rewards should be abundant.