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7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Samuél L. Barrantes

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by Samuél L. Barrantes, author of SLIM AND THE BEAST) 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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Samuél L. Barrantes is an essayist and novelist from Chapel Hill,
North Carolina. His work has appeared in Paris Lit Up Magazine,
SLAM Magazine, and The International Forum for Logotherapy. He
is a specialist in Viktor Frankl's philosophy and the Three Viennese
Schools of Psychotherapy. He currently lives in Paris. His debut
novel is SLIM AND THE BEAST, part Mark Twain, part Coen Brothers.
Connect with him on Twitter or on Facebook.

1. Harness Failure. When I thought I wanted to “be a writer” I applied to fourteen MFA programs. When I got my fourteenth rejection letter, I knew I had a choice: Would I let this be a sign that I wasn’t cut out to be a writer? Or was I going to use it as motivation to get down to actually writing? Writing isn’t something you are, it’s something you do. And the only way to get good at something is to practice. A lot. This has become somewhat of a trope in the literary world, but you really have to harness failure every night. “Success” is a ridiculous word that doesn’t mean anything to me—success, at this point in my life, is trying to write every night. After fourteen MFA rejection letters, I decided I would still finish my first novel, which is a hodgepodge of words I can’t stand to look at now. But I finished it—it didn’t finish me—and it led me to the second novel, Slim and The Beast. And fourteen drafts later, I was finally proud. (Fourteen drafts, fourteen MFA rejections … maybe that should be a new rule).

2. Be Wary of Workshops and Literary Communities. In my experience, most writer groups and “literary communities”—spoken words, workshops, etc.—are great places to meet writers, but are less helpful for the act of writing itself. This isn’t to say these communities aren’t beneficial, just that they have never helped me write. The most “successful” writers (and by successful I mean getting the words down) are too busy writing to care what others think or about “being seen.” Writing is deeply personal and also paradoxical: although you spend thousands of hours by yourself, you have to separate your words from your own ego.

So when you surround yourself with competing egos, where publication and pedigree always become part of the conversation, you end up feeling like a salesman who doesn’t quite know what he’s selling. I always think about Hemingway’s response to a question about the “group feeling” of Paris in the twenties: “There was no group feeling. We had respect for each other.” And this respect, I think, comes from knowing that writers need to be alone, time to write. So workshops and communities are great to exchange ideas, but too often they feed the ego and distract from writing.

(How to be a literary agent's dream client.)

3. Writing = Re-Writing. I used to have a romantic notion of writing as a frenzy of creativity, where the words poured out of me, the Muses singing by my side. But the truth is writing is as much about editing and re-writing as it is about creation. You really have to love what you’re working on to stick with it. I think of the first draft as the sculptor’s block of cold stone—there is something there, buried within, but the sculptor spends years chiseling away. For example, I cut approximately 35,000 words between the first and final drafts of Slim and The Beast, with countless rewording and revising throughout.

4. Discipline Breeds Discipline. When I first started writing with intent, I made myself a promise: three days a week, 2,000 words/day. This grew to four days a week, and now it is at five. This doesn’t necessarily mean all of those words are related to the novel I am working on, but it does mean that I berate myself if I don’t reach my goal. This is masochistic, maybe, but it is also essential—writing is as much of a choice as it is a “calling,” so I constantly ask myself the question: “If I don’t write today, then when?” But discipline breeds discipline, so whether it comes to eating healthier, doing pushups, playing piano or reading, if I don’t set routines for myself, everything falls to the wayside. This is why it is impossible for me to write when traveling, perhaps, because I lose track of all of my daily routines. The biggest challenge for a writer isn’t the writing itself but sitting down to write. No book has ever helped me more in realizing this than Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.

5. Keep Human!  One of the dangers of “practice makes perfect” and lesson #3 is that you can end up in a robotic-type lifestyle that leaves you creatively barren. One of my favorite “rules of writing” is from Henry Miller: “Keep Human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.” When I reach a point where I’m mentally exhausted—or if I simply can’t create that night—I’ve learned to step back and leave the land fallow, so to speak. Miller points out that when you can’t create you can still work: meeting people, sitting in the park, watching Seinfeld, playing music, drinking wine on the river—all of these experiences are part of the writing process. Since my favorite kind of writing is about the human experience, it’s important to remain open to the goings on outside in order to try and immortalize them on the page.

6. Wisdom Isn’t Communicable. One of the biggest detriments of having a liberal arts education is you come out thinking you’re smart and interesting. But no one cares, nor should you. Pedigree means nothing. The more you try and “prove” to the reader what you know or how good you are at emulating Foster-Wallacean sentences, the worse your writing becomes, period. In Herman Hesse’s Siddartha, this is stated perfectly: “One can find [wisdom], live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.” Avoiding didactic writing is an ongoing challenge for me because of the dangerous dictum “write what you know.” For a long time I thought this mean intellect versus experience, because academic writing is so often concerned with how much you understand about a given theory. Of course, the best writing communicates philosophy without ever once mentioning the philosopher that said it, and I’ve spent years trying to get away from academic writing in my fiction.

(Read tips on writing a query letter.)

7. Write Because You Love. There is an incredible poem by Charles Bukowski called So, You Want To Be A Writer. For the first few years, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a writer, or if I wanted to write. But once again, writing isn’t something you are, it’s something you do. And if you’re doing it to “be something,” the best advice is to stop. The only reason I put on my headphones, turn off the Wi-Fi, listen to ambient sounds (usually a thunderstorm, beach waves, or noisli) and sit down to write is because if I didn’t do it, I’d feel shittier the next day. In the same way I need to read for my own well-being, or how I get antsy when I don’t play music for a while, I write because it makes me happy. We don’t ask people on the basketball court “why?” or if that guy in the nightclub wants to become a professional dancer. It’s not about proving something to anyone, especially yourself. Like with everything, in the end all that matters is you write because you love.

Agent Donald Maass, who is also an author
himself, is one of the top instructors nationwide
on crafting quality fiction. His recent guide,
The Fire in Fiction, shows how to compose
a novel that will get agents/editors to keep reading.

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