LevGrossman

Monday, December 5th, 2011

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.


18 comments on “On Being in College and Wanting to Be a Writer

  1. Jaimie says:

    I want to be an author one day. This weekend one of my writing peers got a 2 book deal with Simon & Schuster, and as much as she deserved this and the writing world is better for it, it still bites for my confidence. I don’t know why it works that way, but it does.

    But you’re right. It’s the long game. And it’s fun to play, even if you don’t win.

    (I am taking a break to play Zelda: Skyward Sword though…)

  2. M says:

    my friend who isn’t very good at asking out girls told me that desensitizing is the key to everything. if he gets rejected by girls a lot then it wont matter so much later!
    ha!
    yeah im glad that i wasnt a child genius else life was just gonna suck a lot harder once i got older.

    some of my friends are hardcore and doing stuff and going to europe and being flown to places on corporate jets! they are in finance obviously

    so i always tell myself and my unemployed and prospect-less friends that they’ll crash before they’re 30 and that’s when we will not suck so much anymore!

    yes

  3. This is, I think, true for everything in life. And to my mind it’s because it’s the work that counts. I don’t mean the ultimate quality of the work, but doing the work, the writing (or the living, or being a parent, or trying to do the right thing): it’s only the doing it, over and over in the absence of reason or result that means anything at all. What comes of it is somehow something separate.

  4. Ah! It is worth reading.I had long forgotten my interest in writing.When I got rejections after rejections while pursuing for a job,I began to look back at my old hobby and of course a dream. Though, I have not been able to write a good one I am trying to write now.

    Thank you for this story of yours.It just added a spark to my efforts to become a writer.

  5. jay-z says:

    Another Grossman, almost identical!

  6. Andy FB says:

    While the text was more than worthwhile, I can’t help but feel a tad deceived, Mr. Grossman, by your accompanying picture of Marceline and your failure to determine why her daddy ate her fries.

  7. K. M. Walton says:

    I am of the belief that the tears, the doubt…the work, were what helped to make my publishing deal so damn sweet. I mean, if it had come easy or straight out of the gate, my awe of it wouldn’t exist. I’m still in awe of it and my book comes out in 25 days. Not that I’m counting or anything.

  8. Sarah says:

    Currently feeling the pain. I’ve been writing since I was 12, started sending out short stories (and a novella) to publishers when I was 22. I’m now 24 and have lost count over how many times I’ve been rejected in the past two yeras. I think the key is to de-sensitize. But seriously, I’m not sure how anyone CAN’T be sensitive when they’re in college. This is the age where failures pile up as you try to make your way in the world as an “adult.” It’s a given that there will be more failure than success…but it doesn’t lessen the sting.

    I work with authors as part of my job. I had the opportunity to ask one for advice. She exclaimed that finishing “even” a novella at my age was really really impressive. That annoyed me, a lot. I’m not sure why people put down youth so much and seem really surprised when we accomplish anything. I think her expectation was that I was going to fail, which helped the ego a lot, let me tell you.

    Then she promptly told me that in publishing,a lot of it is who you know. That hurt, but it’s true. So now I’m looking forward to accosting an agent at some conference/presentation and shoving a manuscript down his/her throat.

  9. Spenser says:

    Very encouraging, I really appreciate this post. Gives me some hope in the post-apocalyptic world I’ve inhabited since college, feeling like I’m staring into the void. Love your writing and your honesty, very refreshing in the sea of arrogance that seems to inhabit much of the literary culture right now.

  10. Inspiring post, Lev! Somehow, remembering that I lived across the hall from you freshman year helps me in my own determination to choose my path also, rather than someone else’s.

  11. I think Youth by JM Coetzee is also a great book to read for consolation/advice. In his early 20s Coetzee knew he wanted to be a writer but spent years managing to not write a thing. Ultimately, being a writer worked out well for him, clearly, so there is hope. I think that if you have really interesting things to say it may take a long time to learn to say them, longer than if you’re regurgitating clichés and old forms. I think you have to stay true to what your voice is and keep thinking about how to bring it out more clearly.

    Also, agentqueryconnect.com is an AMAZING resource for help on these matters. I recommend it most highly.

  12. Great advice. It reminds me of a quote whose origins I can’t track down:

    “Lots of people will tell you that you can’t write, but don’t ever let anybody tell you that you don’t write.”

    Keep plugging along!

  13. Little My says:

    Last month a local landscaping company sent out a junk mail flyer to “Resident” here, with a bunch of advertising, advice about what kind of fertilizer your lawn should get in the fall plus this quote, which I clipped out and put on the fridge:

    “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race. –Calvin Coolidge, 1872-1933″

    I somehow find this inspiring, even if I’m a bit of an educated derelict myself.

  14. Sara DeMarco says:

    Thank you. The guff drove me away from writing for a while.

  15. J says:

    Wow, I love this post. I’m 30 years old now and dispassionate about my career and have rediscovered my love of writing. I feel very old and “behind” and well, uneducated. But this post gave great food for thought. And fantastic writing.

  16. […] response to his recent blog post about advice for college writers, I asked Grossman what he would tell college readers.  And his reply: he wants them to enjoy […]

  17. […] unyielding un-confidence. I’d attempted to make it like Lev Grossman’s post, “On Being in College and Wanting to Be a Writer”, some combination of memory and honesty that equates to some wonderfully insightful storybook motto […]

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