An Open Letter to Young Writers

Susan DeFWriting resourcesLeave a Comment

For anyone young, serious about writing, and anxious about the great gamble that is a career in the arts, I’d like to share a version of a talk I recently gave to the creative writing students of the Interlochen Arts Academy, the boarding school I attended as a teenager, in Northern Michigan.

In the final leg of a book tour spanning the better part of a year, on and off, and around twenty events, this one was special. Because Interlochen was the place, more than any other, where I became a writer.

I composed my remarks to these kids in the course of the two-hour ride up from Hart, fresh off of my appearance at my hometown library, brimming with emotion. It was the same journey I had made at eighteen, on the cusp of a move that would set my trajectory in life, perhaps more than any other.

Please feel free to share with any young writers in your life.

What an honor it is to be here today.

I’ve sat where you’re sitting today, in these intimate sessions with authors like Peter Mathiesson, Stuart Dybek, and Jamaica Kincaid–groundbreaking, world-class authors, literary heavyweights.

I’m not going to stand here today and claim to be one of them.

But I am one of you, twenty years in the future.

Walking these halls makes me feel like a time traveler–like, at any moment, I could step around a corner and come face to face with the younger version of myself, the one who was a creative writing student here.

And if I were to come face to face with that person–the one who pushed the dress code to its breaking point, sporting the dreadlocks that her Norwegian grandmother would graciously offer to help her comb out on the morning of her graduation–perhaps she and I would enter into one of those paradoxes of time travel that would cause us both to disappear.

Or perhaps we would enter into one of Hofstadter’s strange loops, and I’d thereafter inhabit those same twenty years, always returning to the past at the moment of this encounter.

But if I did, as magical as that would be, as fantastic, it surely would not be the most magical or fantastic thing that has occurred on the campus of the Interlochen Arts Academy. A friend and fellow alum describes this place as the Hogwarts of the arts, and I think it’s true: you all are in the process of learning magic–or at least, the closest thing to magic that any of us will ever know–and it’s a great privilege to return here, twenty years hence, as a published author.

Back in the nineties, I was a scholarship student from rural Michigan, and I remember that when I came to school here, I wanted very much to impress someone–certainly my peers, but especially my teachers. Because as you know, the teachers at Interlochen are extraordinary people, brilliant and empathetic and accomplished authors themselves. They were who I wanted to be when I grew up.

The problem was, I was surrounded by other students equally intent on the same thing. And I soon discovered that my peers were just as smart, just as dedicated to the craft, and just as competitive as I was–moreover, many of them had attended much better schools before matriculating to Interlochen, and they knew more than I did. At that point in our lives, they were simply better writers.

That year, my senior year, I found myself working harder than I ever had at public school–really, I was working hard at school, at writing, for the first time in my life. And finally, eventually, I seemed to produce something that had the desired effect.

My instructors had some kind things to say about this work–one cycle of poems, and one short story–and here, at last, I had managed to accomplish what I had set out to do at Interlochen.

But just as soon as I’d satisfied one burning desire–the desire to impress my instructors–I was consumed by another. Because there was something I wanted these instructors to say to me, something they never did.

I wanted them to say to me, essentially, “You should send this out for publication.” Or, “This is good enough to get published.” Or, “You should send this to my friend at [X publication].” Or even, “I have a friend at a journal. Let me send this out on your behalf.”

Of course, that’s not something I could admit at the time–it’s embarrassing to admit it even now. But I am admitting it, because it’s the truth, and I think it’s an important truth to acknowledge: As a young writer, I desperately wanted the validation that comes with publication.

Twenty years later, I’ve had my work published in a wide array of magazines, journals, and anthologies. I’ve also achieved a dream I’ve had since childhood, which was to have a novel published. And I can’t say that it hasn’t meant a lot to me.

But if I were to run into that younger version of myself here at Interlochen–the one who wanted her first publishing credit so badly–there are a few things I, as a time traveler, would want to let her know.

The first and most important thing I’d want her to know is that publication, while it can indeed be validating, is often quite hollow. Which is something even most adults have no sense of.

I see it at creative writing conferences and author events all the time–those in the audience are generally more interested in how the author managed to get published than in what it took to actually write well enough to do so.

Don’t get me wrong: getting published is brutally necessary to establishing a literary career, and if you want doors to open for you in almost any corner of the literary arena, you will have to pursue publishing with what will feel at times like nearly as much dedication as you pursue your art.

But I think when you’re just starting out, there’s the suggestion that publishing will quench this deep longing in you, this almost unbearable desire to be heard and seen, and that’s not always the case. In fact, it very often isn’t.

What will satisfy that longing is connecting with people over the things you have written, whether that’s with your peers or instructors in a creative writing workshop, your friends and family members, or, later in life, members of your writers group, or the audience members at a reading.

This is not to say that people will not respond to the work that you have published–only that publishing can often feel like shouting into the void, or checking off a box in building a CV, rather than that actual longed-for thing, which is being seen and heard and known, and connecting with others of like mind.

Out of the many places I’ve had my work featured, it wasn’t necessarily the most prestigious publications that provided that sense. It was the column I wrote for the alternative monthly in my small mountain town, the one that everyone read and wanted to talk to me about; it was the anthology of local authors in Portland, Oregon, that introduced me to the work of younger writers I’d never heard of and connected me with older authors who were way above my pay grade–connections that made me part of a larger community.

And yes, publishing a book has allowed me to connect in this way, with people who have been moved by my work, who want to talk to me about it, who feel the urge to grapple with the ideas and emotions and images I have shared, with the vision I have presented.

But it’s been twenty years from where you’re sitting to where I’m standing now, and there’s been a whole lot of longing in between. So part of what I’d like to suggest–part of the advice I’d like to give you, as a time traveler–is that rather than expending all your energies in trying to impress each other, or impressing your instructors, you offer each other that thing you yourself are longing for.

See each other’s work, the heart of it, the ideas behind it, the unique point of view and potentials behind it. Take the work of your peers seriously; do your best to understand not only what it is but what it could be, and learn to share those insights with professionalism and kindness.

These are gifts that will return to you tenfold in the years to come. And in the end, that’s what writing is about–not just the words on the page, but the connections they create, from one mind, one heart, to another.

All of which put to mind a few other pieces of advice I might have for you, a young writer, as a time traveler:

(1) Take care of your body

The life of the mind can be hard on the body. Like many of you, I’m sure, I grew up hating sports, in part because of how seriously my rural community took them, and how little love it seemed to have for the arts. I hated the brutishness of sports culture, the aggressiveness of high school jocks, the shouting and frenzy and pointless spectacle of it all.

But as you get older, you may begin to appreciate what physical discipline will do for you, in terms of both your health and your sanity.

Also: many people will say that writing is simply a matter of applying butt to seat, but studies in neuroscience suggest that staring at a screen is not necessarily the best way to engage your brain.  If you want to improve the way your brain works, especially when you get stuck on a project, move your body.

(2) Take care of your community

If you’re serious about establishing a career in the arts, you’re going to have some hustle around that, which will likely include the jockeying for position with publications, awards, and other forms of recognition.

But I think it’s important to look up from all of that on a regular basis and remember that writing and reading itself–not to mention critical thinking and empathy–are themselves under assault in this country, and in many places around the world. Don’t miss the forest for the trees; we’re all in this together, and what we’re doing is vitally important to the future of our culture.

In this, I think it’s especially important to connect with and encourage writers who are younger and less experienced than you are, even if their work is not yet well developed or suited to your tastes. The same thing is important whenever you meet people who read–take the time to connect with them on that, to encourage them on that, no matter what their tastes may be.

Along those same lines, if you spend the years of your apprenticeship–which, with writing, tend to be long–boosting the signal of other authors and celebrating the work of great presses, journals, and literary curators, you’ll find that when your moment in the sun arrives, you’ll have an entire literary community behind you.

(3) Take care of your poets

This note is really for the prose writers in the room. Because out of the three genres generally found in creative writing programs–fiction, nonfiction, and poetry–it’s the poets who tend to have the most difficult time in the world.

Poets are often the most sensitive individuals in our community–the most tuned in to what’s happening at the fringes of society, its frontiers, at the edges of possibility, at the edge of human experience and thought. Moreover, they are the least supported in society as a whole, which has largely decided that poetry is unnecessary.

But prose writers, remember this: We need poetry. We need people working tinkering in the laboratory of language, people pointing out to us what’s beyond the scope of ordinary awareness, people showing us what’s next, what’s coming down the line–particularly poets from historically marginalized communities.

Read the work of Natalie Diaz, Layli Longsoldier, Morgan Parker, Terrance Hayes, Ocean Vuong, Tyehimba Jess, Danez Smith, Jamaal May, Claudia Rankine, Patricia Smith.  Buy poetry. Talk about poetry. Be an ally to poets, and you will be richly rewarded as a writer of prose.

I read poetry each morning at breakfast. I recommend this practice as an antidote to despair.

(4) Read for a journal

Finally, if you’re serious about getting published, nothing will open your eyes to the realities of publishing more than volunteering with a journal. You can do this in your undergrad years and you can do this in grad school, if you go on to grad school, but you can also do it outside of the academic system.

The world is full of journals that are a total labor of love, on the part of people irrationally committed to the future of literature, and to the persistence of critical and empathetic thinking. They will welcome you you with open arms in this scrappy and vital enterprise.

But more than anything, don’t give up. If it feels sometimes like the world is trying to wear you down, trying to push you into choosing any other path in life, remember, the arts are the very closest thing we have to magic, and that magic can change the world.

Leave a Reply