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Letter to an Apprentice

I am writing to you at the beginning of something. As one who has been through many beginnings, some more successful than others, I can confirm something you may be starting to suspect: there is nothing harder than beginning. The problems that come later, the loss of energy and direction, the potential for bitterness, the sense of time running out and time already squandered, are very real problems, but I believe they pale next to what you are feeling now. Beginning is a time with no maps, where meaning and shapes shift, and habits—those dear, reliable, necessary things—have not yet hardened, and the smallest questions—How much caffeine to drink? What kind of chair to use? What hours of day to work?—have not yet been answered. Beginning is a time when one’s imagination is unruly and hyperkinetic, as if every hour were an insomniac midnight hour, where phantoms have not yet been revealed as what they are. Beginning is a time with no foundation, because the very task you are involved in is the laying down of rocks below your feet. And without those rocks the ground is both slippery and insubstantial, a quicksand of changing muck ready to pull you down.

If those words sound dramatic, then they fit the experience. The terror of any real artist’s life is the same as the joy: the territory where you are heading is uncharted. Think of that: when a person goes to med school they know that, however brutal, all-consuming, and occasionally demeaning the process may be, they will, if they don’t quit, end up a doctor. A would-be writer has no such guarantee. In recent years, more and more of us have chosen to go to writing school, but school is only a small part of a writer’s education. The real education will come in the wrestling match, different in each of us, between you and the page, the sometimes torturous and occasionally tortured effort to make sentences, to turn those sentences into paragraphs, and, with some luck, turn those paragraphs into essays, stories, poems, chapters, and books. And that will only be part of it. There will also be the more than slightly daunting task of having a life and making a living, and doing so on fumes while you focus most of your real energy, your best energy, on this obsessive wrestling match with words.

With a few exceptions, my advice is this: Hold off on school. Sure, go back, but wait a while first.

If you are like most writers, part of you will long for a monklike life, while part of you will want anything but. That is because the work itself, while absorbing and joyous and wild, is always arduous, always difficult, always pressing. It’s no wonder young writers are constantly threatening to quit writing and run away to start a so-called normal career. It is that instinct to flee from what is hard and uncertain that is currently sending so many college graduates with writerly ambitions directly into graduate programs in writing. They seek protection, solace, a type of work—schoolwork! homework! grades!—that the world, and parents, understand. Since I teach at one of these programs, this is a good thing for me from a practical standpoint, but I am not sure it is always such a good thing for young writers. Let me stress that I believe there is much that is beneficial, healthy, and useful in these programs (more on this to come), and that I am also retrospectively envious of the mentoring they offer—just the sort of mentoring I wish I’d had. But while I think these programs are ultimately beneficial, they work best when they are returned to after some strenuous solitary effort. With a few exceptions, my advice is this: Hold off on school. Sure, go back, but wait a while first. Remember that there is something worthwhile about working without a net. Something worthwhile about being tested and seeing how you fare.

Granted, this might just be rationalizing on my part, since I never intended to return to school myself and did not in fact return until I was thirty, and I hope this advice is not the result of a hidden, sadistic urge to inflict some of my remembered pain on you. Just last week I spoke to a successful author in his mid-fifties whose experience echoed mine: “For years my father said, ‘What the hell are you doing with your life?’ But then when I got into grad school it was suddenly okay. I had the stamp of the world’s approval. School sanctified my apprenticeship.” Which is both the blessing and curse of school. It makes things easier, but easier is not always the point.

It is the other apprenticeship, the unsanctified one, that I would like to discuss for a moment. This apprenticeship requires continuing to work at your sentences while, in Hawthorne’s words, “the incredulous world assails you with its utter disbelief.”

Those words are known to have inspired Herman Melville, and Melville’s may not be a bad model for apprenticeship. First the years at sea—lucky him, literally at sea, not metaphorically—followed by the writing of travel books, followed, at last, by the writing of something else. “I love all men who dive,” he said. What was the writing of Moby Dick if not a deep breath followed by a diving under? The diving metaphor will be particularly apt when you are working on your first book—or first books, since you may simply toss out your earliest attempts—when you will have to hold your breath so that you can stay under for a long, long time. It isn’t easy to dive, of course, isn’t easy to stay under, and one of the hardest things about diving is that you are absolutely on your own. Without approbation, you need to retain confidence, and maintain energy, while creating this thing that no one asked you to create. Would it be wrong to argue that what you are doing is delusional?

In fact, when you are done, flush and wrung out from the creating, that is most often exactly what the world will tell you, usually in the form of direct rejection. Editors, you will discover, are like goalies, seemingly intent on keeping your work out of print, particularly if your work does not fit the current modes and molds. I say this with all due respect for the editorial profession: it isn’t just that editors won’t coddle you; they will only rarely understand what you are trying to do. And, of course, they will reject you again and again. How many professions have as direct a way of telling you that what you have done is not up to par, of slapping you in the face? Like the rest of us, you will receive hundreds of rejection letters, all telling you, in polite and couched terms, that what you have done is not good enough. And then, letter in hand, it will be time for you to get back to work.

“I’ll take fate by the throat,” said Beethoven, a quote that spent some time on the wall above my desk.

Every writer develops different strategies for dealing with rejection. Mine was, and remains, getting angry. Perhaps this is not the most psychologically sophisticated response, but anger has the advantage of producing energy, which trumps depression’s inertia. “I’ll show those bastards” is one of my habitual responses to rejection. It is bombastically comical, I know, and kind of nineteenth century, but it seems to work for me. As a basketball player my one great strength has always been grabbing offensive rebounds, and offensive rebounding is a vital skill in the writing game, too. You miss and grab the rebound and put it up, miss again and put it up again. If there is something healthy about this attitude there is also something necessarily defensive. Rather than accept that you are the deluded one, the one without talent and judgment, you assume that they are. “I’ll take fate by the throat,” said Beethoven, a quote that spent some time on the wall above my desk. Of course the reality was that I was taking nothing by the throat, that I had very little control over any situation that didn’t involve typing, but the illusion of control was helpful, too. My own admittedly overly aggressive responses to failure may not work for you, but my larger point is that we all have to cope with fairly constant rejection—not the subtle rejection of other professions, but the point-blank rejection of being told the thing you have thrown your life into isn’t up to snuff—and so, whatever your strategy for coping, it should be one that creates more energy, more determination, and that doesn’t allow you to accept what the world is telling you about your work.

This does not mean you shouldn’t accept certain aspects of what editors tell you, since that, after all, is one way you grow. A part of this metaphoric offensive rebounding is adapting, learning, and coming back differently, and we need to be always listening, searching for hints to find ways to improve. But what you should not accept is the larger rejection. That is, you should not stop believing in your work because others do not believe. To me it is this ability to come back from failure, to be willing to change and learn but to hold to the essence of your self and your work, that forms the very core of being a writer. Sometimes I wonder what writers who made it big early in their careers draw on as their source of power. For my part I know I have the luxury of failure to fall back on, the knowledge that, after being told so many times that my work is no good, I still haven’t stopped. But one upside of being hit repeatedly in the face is that you develop a certain toughness (not to mention calluses).

Novels, memoirs, full-length old-fashioned books require full concentration over a long period. Especially first books.

But to jump metaphors, let’s go back to Melville’s diving for a minute. That’s one of my gripes with grad school: it isn’t built for divers. For one thing, the work that garners the most successful reactions in writing workshops is usually small, self-contained pieces, short stories and essays, not chapters of larger works that are understandably harder for the class to digest in one sitting. For another, grad school is built for a well-balanced, healthy life—a life of taking and sometimes teaching classes, going to readings, and parties—and does not easily lend itself to deep Melvilleian immersion, the necessary monomania required for a large project. I think of a student in the graduate program where I teach who turned his back on the usual balanced life of grad school and holed up down in the honkytonk beach town of Carolina Beach, pouring all of his energy into his first book. He was a bad grad student, in the traditional sense, but his book was a good one, an unusual and vivid memoir of the hazing he’d endured in college. Of course social maladjustment is not a prerequisite for being a writer, and I’ve also had students who managed to do many other things, including teaching and working on this literary magazine, while devoting consistent hours each day to their work. One benefit of this second, nonobsessive model is that it provides a template for how one has to write once evicted from the garden of grad school into the so-called real world, where very few of us can support ourselves by writing alone. But while this balanced way may be healthier, the counterpoint is that you need to embrace those periods of obsession wherever you can find them, especially when you are starting out. Novels, memoirs, full-length old-fashioned books require full concentration over a long period. Especially first books.

I don’t write this last part to intimidate. In fact, while a large project has the potential to paralyze, it can also stimulate and provide energy. There are those of us who like our challenges steep, and who find our imaginations engaged by the idea of writing a large book in a way they wouldn’t by something smaller. “The pleasures of the difficult,” is what my old friend and mentor, the writer Reg Saner, called this, referring both to writing and to his own passion for mountaineering. This pleasure involves taking everything you have and marshaling it toward the achievement of one great thing. It is a deep, if sometimes grumbling and fleeting, pleasure.

I know I am somewhat romanticizing the solitary aspects of the writing life, but I do so in part because in most quarters the emphasis has lately swung toward the communal. And I don’t want to sell the communal short. One of the benefits of writing school, and of any writing group, is that it can break you out of solipsism into community. God, when I think back to my own solitary start, how I would have liked to be drinking beers and talking, not with carpenters or Ultimate Frisbee players, but with other writers going through the same struggle. How I would have liked to be assured, by both my peers and my teachers, that what I was doing was not completely insane, and how I would have liked to find out that working on a project for two years, then ditching it and moving onto the next, was not a massive failure—as both my own voice and my father’s voice said it was—but a necessary step in my growth.

Writing programs also provide something that is analogous with a good sex-education class. The most terrifying parts of sex, for a young teenager, are the simply practical things, even down to where you put what and when. The same terrors revisit many young writers: What is a cover letter? An agent? An editor? What the hell is this thing called simultaneous submission? How I would have loved to have someone explain in simple English how you went about these things. What a relief that would have been, what a joy.

It has often been said that one of the goals of grad school is to find one or two readers who really understand and respond well to your work. I was lucky enough to find my wife, Nina de Gramont, who became and has remained my primary reader. But be wary of determining too quickly who your best readers are, and be wary of your criteria for deciding this (for instance, “She likes my stuff” had better be balanced by something sterner). Also, don’t worry too much if your work does not pass workshop muster. One danger of grad programs is that the readers of your writing may not be real readers themselves. When they question you, this is worth questioning: What have they read? Who do they admire and emulate? Have they read beyond the restrictive realm of their own time? What are the aims of their work? If what they read and what they aim to do are worlds apart from your reading and aims, it will be no wonder if they don’t understand what you are attempting to do. I have a friend who, when she has reached a certain point on any project, sends her work out to five or six fellow writers. She is a masterful writer herself and a good reader of others’ reactions, and you can be sure she picks those readers carefully, knowing that she will get something a little different from each one, knowing their strengths and weaknesses as readers just as they may have begun to know hers as a writer. The question for any young writer is, What minds and what voices are you echoing your voice off of? Who are you listening to? The ability to react to these reactions, to listen in places and ignore in others, becomes an art in itself.

It’s hard to show your work at first, hard to share what seems so private. For my first eight years as a writer I, out of perfectionism and fear, hid my work from others, including the woman I lived with. When you are starting out, perfectionism can be a killing disease, particularly if you are ambitious. We conceive of a masterful book, a book that is pristine in form and meaning, and we also imagine the delighted reaction with which the world will greet the book. But the inchoate sentences we first start to scribble—caveman sentences, ugly sentences—fall so far short of what we imagined we could do that it is possible to react by becoming paralyzed or by wanting to run away and hide. I know, because I did both. For almost a decade I wouldn’t let anyone see a page of what I’d done.

The simple fact, as true in writing as in physics, that once something is in movement it is likely to stay in movement, and that once it is still it is likely to stay still.

In fact, I doubt I would have had the courage to bring my work out into the light of day if I had not read Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of John Keats. Let me recommend that you get hold of the book right away. To vastly oversimplify, the effect of that book on a writer, or at least this writer, is similar to the effect that watching a Rocky montage might have on a young athlete. It gets the blood pumping. Moreover, the question that Bate poses is this: how did a writer who started late and died earlier—at twenty-five!—and who therefore had only about a four-year window to produce, ascend to write what Bate calls “the greatest condensed poetry since Shakespeare”? Keats did this in part because he was blessed with a particular genius, a genius beyond his control. But he also did it because he approached his work with courage and “innate common sense,” and developed work habits that any young writer should study. Bate points to Endymion, the long, bad poem that Keats wrote near the start of his career, as the key to breaking through the paralysis that grips so many of us in front of the blank page. Keats followed two basic instincts: the urge to create something long, and the unembarrassed desire to crank out the pages, almost in the manner of a hack writer. In the end Keats dismissed the whole adventure of writing Endymion as “a gymnastic exercise,” but by then so much had been gained from the exercise. Bate stresses, again and again, as I have stressed again and again both to myself and my students, the value of momentum. The simple fact, as true in writing as in physics, that once something is in movement it is likely to stay in movement, and that once it is still it is likely to stay still. How to get in movement, then? Anne Lamott writes of our need to create “shitty first drafts,” and what was Endymion if not that? As it turns out, bad writing can lead to the good, and bad writing, more often than not, is better than no writing. Of course good work habits will not turn you into Keats. But it’s a place to start.

The larger point is that a young writer cannot think and plan their way to their destination. They can only try to get there through creating movement, knowing they might end up in unexpected places. But to immediately contradict myself, I should emphasize that I’m not suggesting that you don’t need to plan and scheme. Planning and scheming, plotting and organizing, are a big part of the process too, a big part of moving forward, and while all this planning is often mere static, it sometimes sparks creativity in unimagined ways. I, like many writers, keep hundreds of folders and files, and, the more experienced I get, the more often I feel my plans actually end up somewhat coinciding with reality. So I’m not knocking planning, simply saying that there is a large unplanned aspect to any book or any career. There are just so many things we can’t rationally account for, so many uncharted elements.

Maybe all this emphasis on movement comes off sounding too athletic, even military, as if mine were the exhortations of a drill sergeant, or worse, a junior high-school gym teacher. But even the most subtle of literary writers needs to find a way to launch themselves into movement. My friend and colleague, Rebecca Lee, who is a very different sort of writer than I am, both on the page and in her habits, puts it this way: “I read every morning in hopes of jumping the track.” Jumping the tracks. That’s it. However we do it, we need to get on those new tracks and get moving. And each writer will do this in different ways. While “finding your voice” is deservedly paid a lot of lip service in writing finding one’s style as a worker deserves equal billing. Not just what your words sound like on the page, but how you go about the process of putting those words on the page in the first place.

The problem of creating momentum is usually particularly thorny at a project’s beginning. Beginning is terrifying business, and we all respond to that terror in different ways. , I sometimes respond in an overly macho manner, with bluster. I fake it. I try too hard. I write badly. There are those, like my wife, who do things differently. They think things out; they ease their way in. My way may not be the best way, but it is the style I have settled on, just as Nina has settled on her style. Another difference is that I am forever jotting things down, distrustful of my patchy memory, while she, with almost perfect audio recall, is content to play it out in her head, knowing she won’t forget much of anything. In contrast to her style of creating, mine sometimes feels unwieldy, but while it has flaws, it at least sets me in motion. The point then isn’t to write in her way or my way. The point is that to discover your own voice, it pays to listen to what you say on the page, and that to discover your own work habits, it helps to notice what you naturally do.

 

In the old days I, like many young writers, carried the old Thomas Wolf[spacing]/Max Perkins template around in my head. The road to glory! We would write our work of genius, carry it down to New York in a big crate, drop it on an editor’s doorstep, and he or she would cry, “Eureka!” and so the sleigh ride would begin. That fantasy was never very plausible, and it is less so these days. Of course you will do what we all did and equate the publication of your first book with the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or with heaven or with virginity’s loss or marriage or whatever your idea of the happiest, most perfect thing is. And, of course, unless you are one of the lucky six per decade, you will be disappointed. You will feel some bitterness—everyone doesbut the trick will be to manage that bitterness and not let it take over. The challenge will be to move ahead, to maintain momentum, to not lose faith.

And here is where your apprenticeship may hold you in good stead. Because what you were learning back then wasn’t just how to find your voice, and it wasn’t just how to put words on the page or even to develop your style of work. You were learning about struggle, and not just metaphorically. You were learning that struggle is really all there is, even when it, very occasionally, doesn’t feel like struggle. You were learning habits you could hold to when panic threatened to overwhelm, and that you can use again when you find out, “Hey, it’s not really getting that much easier.” And so you get to work, push ahead every day, jump the tracks in your own way and find a way to keep moving.

Perhaps, from your point of view, the place where I am —the place where any published writer is —seems far down the path. Or perhaps not. It could be that your ambitions are large enough that you believe you will soon zip past me. Whichever way you feel, I can assure you that the two of us are closer than you think. Each day when I get up, stretch my back, pour my coffee, is both the same as and different from the way it was back when I began. The same because I still work inside uncertainty, the same because I can never clearly say, in the manner of a carpenter, “This is my work for the day: I’ll lay the wood flooring in this hallway and then frame that door.” But different, too, since all those years at the desk, going on thirty-two now, have given me tools with which to face uncertainty.

It would be nice if there were shortcuts to gaining these tools, and I’m certain they can be gained more quickly than I gained them. But the work of gaining, of claiming the tools, is the work of becoming, and that is the work that you are in the middle of right now. It may be no consolation to you at the moment, but as it turns out the work of becoming is, I’m pretty sure, the best work a human being can do while on this planet. We live in an age of relativity, so what exactly do I mean by “best”? I mean the most creative, the most exciting, and the most ultimately pleasurable—the very deepest sort of work. You are doing the nearly impossible, after all. Transforming yourself into something you can’t yet imagine.

This is not your goal at the moment of course, not the cheese you hold out in front of yourself. The goal is more often glory, fame, the cover of magazines. Which is fine: we need to exaggerate our rewards to give us the energy to devote all the effort and time necessary to the making of books. And I am just as superficial—I want fame and glory and money too—but, and you will have to trust me on this, the greater unknown reward is the work itself.

So flail away. Dive in. Don’t listen to me, or anyone else, when they call you an apprentice. You shouldn’t. No one spends years working on a project they consider a warm-up. Write whole books that you deem failures, or books that you love that no one will publish. Show the bastards. These early works may or may not win you eternal fame, but at the very least they will do this: They will give you the tools you need to create yourself. As you hammer away every day, you will be hammering out the mettle of who you’ll become. You will be tested again and again, but it is the testing that will make you, the testing that will forge you. And while you may not yet know where you are going, you can at least be reassured by this: you know you have begun.