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7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Jessamyn Hope

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by Jessamyn Hope, author of SAFEKEEPING, a novel) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent -- by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

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Column by Jessamyn Hope, whose debut novel, SAFEKEEPING (Fig Tree Books,
June 2015), takes place over the summer of 1994 on a kibbutz in Israel. Her short
fiction and memoirs have appeared in Ploughshares, Five Points, and PRISM
international, among other literary magazines. She was the Susannah McCorkle
Scholar in Fiction at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and has an MFA in
creative writing from Sarah Lawrence. Born and raised in Montreal, she
now lives in New York City. Connect with her on Twitter.

1. Workshops Are a Good Thing. I used to not believe in workshops, afraid they would beat out the originality in one’s work or lead a writer astray by finding nonexistent problems in a manuscript because finding problems was the workshop reader’s job. I’ve since changed my mind. Workshops not only give you valuable feedback on your work, but they introduce you to like-minded people. Your workshop colleagues can be your most important professional contacts—writing you recommendation letters, introducing you to their agent—as well as your dearest friends. Together you can endlessly talk shop, commiserate over rejections, and raise a glass to the acceptances.

2. How to Recognize Helpful Feedback. How do you know when to take the feedback from your writing instructor, editor, or spouse to heart? What about the oodles of (often contradictory) feedback from a writing workshop? I’ve found that I need to pay heed if the feedback does one of two things: if it makes my heart sink because, yeah, I already knew that was a problem and was hoping I was wrong; or if it punches me with its truth, making me wonder, “Of course! How did I miss that?” Once in a while I’ll mull over other feedback, but mostly I let the rest go.

(Why writers who don't have a basic website are hurting their chances of success.)

3. Have a Life Outside Writing. Yes, writer friends are important, but don't only have writer friends. If all you do is write and talk about writing, you may have trouble coming up with original, affecting material. So make sure to carve out as much time as you can to write, but cultivate other interests too, and don’t totally begrudge all the interferences—the errands, the family obligations, even the day job. It’s harder to write stories full of life if you aren’t leading a full life.

4. Teach Writing. Teaching gave me back my younger, purer writer-self. Okay, I didn’t actually become younger, but every time I explored the fundamentals with my students—why the characters in this classic novel felt so real, why the ending of this short story hit so beautifully hard—I regained the awe I felt when I first fell in love with writing. It silenced the chatter (Who got a Bread Loaf Waitership this year? What’s a “very nice” advance?) and returned the focus to what mattered most: the power of a moving, well-told story.

5. Another Person’s Success Is Not Your Failure. Duh. Of course. It’s a cliché. And yet. When I was twenty-seven, my best girlfriend and I met at a diner after work. Her dream was to be the next Judy Blume, mine to sell my newly finished novel. I remember us sitting in that booth, both exclaiming: “Oh my god, if I’m still a secretary when I’m thirty!” Five years later, my friend had a two-book deal, and I was a thirty-two-year-old secretary. After years of similar experiences, I finally got the hang of separating other people’s ambitions from my own, so much so that I now find it hard to believe how much their good news used to hurt me. But it did. And I wish I could take back all that time I kicked myself for being a failure in comparison.

(What types of novel beginnings get an agent or editor to keep reading?)

6. F*ck Plan B. I’ve had a lot of crappy day jobs, and it was hard on the bank account and the ego. Every now and then I wasted time wondering if I should seek out a more demanding and satisfying way to earn a regular paycheck. Some people manage being doctors and writers at the same time, but I’m too slow a writer for that, and too single-minded. I believe most writers have no choice about being a writer: there’s nothing else they want to be. So don't bother second-guessing and embrace the pursuit. Keep the day job that doesn’t exhaust your brain and waste as little emotion as possible feeling bad about it. Save all that energy for your stories.

7. It’s worth it. Being a writer is hard: there are the rejections letters, the poor odds of making it, the meager pay, the snarky reviews, the many social events you gave up to sit at your desk, the pressure of trying to create something good (nay great), the emotional toll of being brutally honest in your work, honest about yourself or your loved ones or life in general. But what kind of story would our lives be if being a writer came easily? Or worse, if we had never tried? As writers, we know what a good story is: it’s when the protagonist wants something so badly, badly enough to give it everything she’s got, to take enormous risks, even though the odds are stacked against her. That’s us! So soldier on, fellow writers.


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