Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Writing Life (or, "So you want to be a paperback writer?")

by Judy Merrill Larsen

A few weeks ago, Mary, one of my best friends called to ask if she could pass my name on to the college-aged daughter of a friend of hers. It seemed that this young woman was an English major, and one of her assignments required her to interview a writer. Of course I said yes. I too had once been an English major (how great was that--you read and write AND get credit!). So, we arranged for a phone interview and it was fun. She asked thoughtful questions, laughed at my stupid jokes (always a big plus in my book), and had genuine curiosity about what it was like to be a writer. The process, the product, and everything in between (and after).

The call was good for me, too, coming on one of those days when I felt nothing like a writer. I was far removed from any sense of the wonder and joy of writing. But, as I talked to her, I started remembering how much I do love being a writer. And not just the wear-your-jammies-to-work aspect of it. I mean, this has been my dream since I was a little girl and first realized that on the other side of the books I adored was a person who created worlds I could disappear into. My husband reminds me that lots of people have big dreams when they are 8 (his was to play first base for the Chicago Cubs), but only a lucky few get to see those dreams realized. I'm in that group. Amazing.

So when this young woman asked for advice, along with suggesting she line up a paying job (at least to start with), I also told her to never give up. And to read everything she could. And to write for the love of it no matter what. No matter how many rejections piled up or how many people doubted or how many times she started over. And as we chatted I was reminded of a quote I love, attributed to Doris Betts, a short story writer, who said "Writing is a hard way to make a living, but a good way to make a life.”

And that's it exactly, isn't it?

So I repeated this quote to my interviewer and I really hope that if she took anything from our phone call, it's that quote. And it won't mean much to her today or even perhaps in the next few years. But, if she sticks with it, I'd love it if someday she thinks of that quote and smiles in satisfaction and understanding.

And now, let me ask you--what's your best advice for writers? What's your suggestion for how to achieve a dream?

(This was taken the night of my launch party . . . a dream come true!)

I live in St. Louis, MO with my husband, am the mom/stepmom to five kids (ages 17-25), and taught high school English for 15 years. I'm over on Facebook and am always eager to make new friends, too!


  1. My first advice to would be writers is always "Don't. Seriously if you can do anything else w/o going crazy then do it."

    My second piece of advice is that if you can't not write, then fully commit. I see a lot of people taking weak stabs at writing, and that makes me smh. My only regret in life is that I spent so many years denying my calling and not fully committing to it.

  2. Great post, always!

    I don't know if this would qualify as advice, but I would share the encouraging words of,'you are not alone'. As writers, so much of our time is spent alone and if you don't know any other writers this can be a terribly lonely place to be. I'm so thankful I have met you and so many other writers. I have learned that my trials and tribulations are not unique. There are others who have been where I am, have thought the thoughts I do and made it through. (Sounds like song lyrics).

    Thanks for sharing, Judy! :)

  3. What Ernessa said: fully commit to whatever it is you want to accomplish/become. That commitment will then subconsciously affect all your choices and actions.

    It sounds too simple, but is amazingly powerful.

    And you, my friend, demonstrate that commitment beautifully. xx

  4. I would like to give advice but thanks to you I've now got a Beatles' "Paperback Writer" earworm.

    But OK, here goes, the advice I always give:

    Read, read, read everything you can get your hands on, because you can't be a good writer if you're not a good reader; and always remember, the only person who can ever really take you out of the game is you.

  5. Oh, thanks so much, my fellow writer friends--your advice is spot-on. And the friendships between writers is truly a gift. I "heart" all of you!

  6. Judy, GREAT post. That Doris Betts quote is fantastic.

    I'm with Lauren---if you want to write, you've got to read. Everything you can get your hands on. There's no better way to improve your craft.

  7. Judy, I love that quote too--it's perfect!

    My advice is to learn everything you can about writing well. It's like any other craft--or even sports. We may start with some natural talent but there's so much to be learned from good teachers, whether in writing classes, writers groups, or books about writing.

    Oh yeah, and don't rush out and quit your day job:).

  8. Great post, Judy! I agree, it's all about the reading. Even if you spend more time reading than writing, you will ultimately be a better writer because of it.

  9. Thanks for a thoughtful post, Judy.
    I'm in accord with some others here. Hang onto to your dream with the tenacity of a dog with ham bone because you'll be tested and discouraged again and again. Understand that there will a rather lengthy apprenticeship (years and usually several novels) but enjoy the journey. And never get too attached to your words.

  10. It's so great to hear all of you echo my own sense of what writers need to do--write, read, learn and never give up!

  11. Hey, Judy! Love your post! Yes, yes, and yes to the wise words already shared about reading often and in many genres, and commitment, developing a thick skin (I'm still working on that one!), and staying curious about the world around you. Also, I'm nodding my head big-time re. Karin's mention of a lengthy apprenticeship. Don't expect the first thing you finish to be published. Sometimes finding your voice and the right story takes time (and practice and patience!). I wrote many manuscripts before I ever signed a traditional publishing contract...and I'm really glad when I look back at those books, that they were never published. You get better and more self-assured as you go along. (Can't wait 'til this deadline is met, Ms. Judy, so we can do lunch again! Boy, do I need it!)


  12. Hang in there, Susan! There's a light (and a fun lunch . . . on me this time!) at the end of the tunnel.

  13. I agree with what's been said: read a lot, write a lot and keep at it. But I'll add one more bit-- develop a very thick skin. There's lots of rejection out there and lots of people who will resent you for chasing your dreams, so you need to keep looking forward and believe in what you are doing.

  14. Great post. I also echo the "Read, read, read!" comment. Also, the sooner you realize that publishing is a business and that your book will be, at some time, a commodity, the happier you will be in the end. Never lose your love of writing, but realize that's the only thing you can control. Everything else after that is out of your hands, so you have to learn to write for the love of it, not just for the idea of publication.

    (Coincidentally, I'm listening to a radio interview with Gordie Howe. He says the difference between him and young hockey players today is that he did it simply because he loved to skate and play. Whereas today, kids get into sports because they want to make a lot of money and he doesn't think their careers are as fulfilling. That's a great analogy, actually, for writing.)

  15. Such a great post! My writing advice, which I did not take when I was in my early twenties, is to write authentically--in your voice. Some of my creative writing teachers weren't interested in (and would never be impressed by) a commercial voice, and that was so discouraging. Once I realized my voice was my voice and I would find my audience, I developed confidence and starting writing and have never stopped!

  16. Great advice from everyone. My addition - write every day to exercise your voice, then own your voice. Writers write. Yes! on the read, read, read.

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  18. Trying this again! (Having trouble with grammar today -- LOL!)

    Judy, your post and your advice to writers are both so good -- and I love that photo of you and your husband by your book cover!

    My advice echoes Karin's and Susan's about the long apprenticeship -- I always tell new writers something someone wise once told me: "There are no shortcuts." No way around the years of work, the seemingly endless hours of drafting and revision, the lengthy process of trying to understand the workings of the industry... Basically, you learn the way to get there only by going on the journey. :)

  19. I can totally relate to the days when you don't feel like a writer. Loved the post and the photo and just keep going! That's the best advice of all.

  20. Good for you, for being so supportive to that young woman! I bet she remembers your words for a long, long time.

  21. Thank you for the quote. That's a great way to encapsulate the thought.