On Being in College and Wanting to Be a Writer
When I was in college I already knew I wanted to be a writer. After kicking around in my brain for a few years, that idea finally gelled for me one evening, with no warning, as I was crossing the street to get to the dining hall. I don’t know why, but that’s how it happened.
But I had a lot of funny ideas about what becoming a writer involved. There are a lot of practical things I wish people had told me back then, so I could have avoided the Trail of Tears that was the process of my actually getting published. But I also wish somebody had told me that I wasn’t the only one who had no idea what they were doing.
(This post was inspired in part by another, better essay by Jonath Lethem in The Ecstasy of Influence. Lethem went to Bennington, where his classmates included Donna Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis.)
I went to Harvard, and there were in fact some future published writers in my year. Colson Whitehead was one. I think Ben Mezrich (who wrote the book The Social Network was based on, among other things) was in my class too, and possibly the poet Kevin Young? Unlike Lethem I didn’t know them, probably because Harvard is much larger than Bennington, and I am much smaller than Jonathan Lethem. (I did know my brother Austin, who is very much a published writer. There are probably other writers from my year who I’m forgetting or not-knowing about — sorry!)
As I said, I already knew at that point that I wanted to write novels. I wanted it very badly indeed. I was also pretty sure I never would.
Not that I wasn’t insufferably pretentious about my literary aspirations, mind you. I was! (People I knew in college, who sometimes comment here, can attest to that.) But I was also convinced that my work was crap, and would always be crap, because I had no talent.
There was some basis for this. There were other people in my year who also wanted to be writers, and they were producing some amazing stuff. Way better than my stuff. I still remember lines from their short stories. I was and am easily intimidated, and — through no fault of theirs — I was incredibly intimidated by these people. They were talented. They were confident. They were, for lack of a better word, glowy: they had that aura, the aura of genius in its youth, the aura of embryonic literary celebrity. I knew, to a certainty, that when we graduated and were weighed upon the great scales of the world, they would be blessed, and I would be damned. I would be the guy who appeared in the corner of the photograph in their biographies, making a weird face, who is denoted in the caption by “unidentified.”
And in the short term, that’s what happened. I didn’t win any prizes for my writing in college. (OK, sophomore year I came in second in a short story contest. That was it though.) I did get published in the campus literary magazine, but not before setting an unofficial record for rejected manuscripts first. When I graduated, I didn’t win any fellowships. I didn’t even get into any MFA programs. I didn’t publish a word of fiction for six years.
A rational being, assessing my chances of ever getting anywhere as a writer, would have assessed them as quite low.
The weird thing is, though, that I did eventually get somewhere. Because it turns out that talent, whatever that is, and that glowy aura, are only part of the picture. Once I graduated, other less glamrous skills came into play. Such as: the ability to stay focused on writing when nobody’s giving you encouragement. Related skill: the ability to fail to get a job that’s more interesting than working on your novel-in-progress (check, and double-check!)
Also: the ability to take a beating. I got a lot of rejections during those first, oh, dozen years or so. Enough that a more reasonable person would have given up. But for some reason my lizard hind-brain wasn’t going to let me quit. And after I spent a day/month/year sulking over those rejections, I actually looked at them and thought about why they weren’t acceptances, and fed the conclusions back into my working drafts. That turned out to be a very important skill. Not glamorous or fun, but absolutely necessary.
So what I wish someone had said to me in college was this: don’t let the world convince you that you can’t write. That may ultimately be true, who knows, but it’s way too early to tell. You’re playing the long game, and in the meantime don’t take any guff from those swine. Maybe you don’t look or act or talk like the chosen one. That’s all right. Because in the end writers aren’t chosen. You choose yourself.