What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?
There is no shortcut. Good writing takes work, stubborn revision, and more than anything, the willingness to dig deeper and deeper into a subject, even if what you find makes you uncomfortable.
How do you view the role of the personal essay in today’s literary environment?
I am tempted to say that the personal essay is more important than ever – many blogs are made up of daily personal essays, for instance – but the truth is, the personal essay has been an important part of the literary scene for centuries, and remains important, and will remain important. It is the artist’s job to delve down into the subject in search of insight and enlightenment, and like the poem, like the short story, the personal essay invites just such exploration.
What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career that has had the biggest impact on your success?
Don’t settle for good enough. Keep working to be a better writer, a better reader, and to offer a fresher perspective.
What's the worst kind of mistake that new writers, freelancers, or book authors can make?
Too often, in my opinion, beginning writers focus on what point they want to make, what the message will be in their writing, the “theme” or “thesis,” whereas the seasoned and successful writers that I know are always after what they can discover. Being too sure of what you want to say from the outset can be a bad thing in writing – you just end up re-stating the obvious.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I wake up around 6 am, write for a few hours, then go off to my University job, where it is all about meetings, classes, e-mails, and more e-mails.
If you could change one thing about publishing, what would it be?
You know, publishing is just a business, and it functions like a business – supply and demand, all of that – so what’s to change? By and large, the books that are popular are popular because they fill a certain need, whether that need is for elegant lyricism, serious information and analysis, or for formulaic escapism.
I wish that more people read books on a weekly basis, and that more bookstores existed and thrived, and that more readers took the occasional chance on a book that hadn’t hit the bestseller list and wasn’t penned by a celebrity author, but all in all, the system functions fairly rationally.
I suppose if I could change one thing, I’d do away with some of the extravagant, multi-million dollar advances and mega-marketing campaigns, so we could spread the wealth around a bit, so mid-list authors made a little more on their books, and more books were adequately marketed. That would be good.
Do you have any advice for new writers on building an audience?
Much depends on whether you have a niche – a defined subject area. If you are hoping to write a book about knitting, it is wise to become active on the various knitting blogs and discussion forums (while working on your writing and finding a fresh way to discuss your topic.)
But if you are writing literary fiction, or the literary essay, I don’t see a lot of benefit to blogging as an audience-builder. Instead, just make your writing stronger each and every month, and send to magazines. Each little step up the ladder – first publication, second publication, first paying publication, first publication from a “top tier” magazine, first query from an agent, first book rejection – leads eventually to the next step. I’m not the first to say it, but building a writing and publishing career is simply putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward, sometimes with painful slowness, sometimes with a lucky leap forward. But you have to be out there, walking along the path.
What do you see as your biggest publishing accomplishment?
Any final thoughts?
Allow yourself a few minutes here and there to dream about fame, book tours, TV appearances, riches and that stone house on the craggy coast of Maine, but don’t spend more than a few minutes on that dream. That’s not writing.
If you want to be a writer, you have to love to write, love revision, love shaping sentences. You have to adore words and the endless possibilities of words in combination. You have to know in your heart that even if no one ever read a word of what you have written, you would still do it, for yourself, because the process, the practice, is thrilling and inescapable.
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