Advice for young people considering a career in writing.

The question on Quora was, “what is some good advice for young people considering a career in writing?” My response: know what it’s like to be an (unpublished) writer and do it anyway. So what is it like?

Without the validation of a publisher, you are plagued by self-doubt. No amount of support from your family and friends will change this (though it does help). No amount of “positive feedback” from your peers will reassure you. Your peers do not count. They do not know what they are talking about. Only the publisher’s opinion matters. You are a slave to the publisher’s whim. They hold your future in their hands.

As a writer you probably bite your nails. You pace up and down. You drink too much coffee. If you drink at all. Sometimes when you are “in the zone” you forget to eat and drink and then you complain of headaches. You suffer from back and neck pain from leaning over your desk.

As a writer you spend most of your time inside your head. Sometimes you do not know what you are doing, where you are or how you got there. You walk one way, change your mind and turn around mid-stride, like a crazy person. But you are not crazy, you are just thinking about your plot, character, or whether you will ever be big like J.K. Rowling.

Occasionally you feel really good about what you are doing and this is when you do your best work. Or at least that is what you would like to believe. When you re-read something written in a flurry of passion, you discover it is the same crap you have been producing all week. It certainly is not Shakespeare and your plan was to be like Shakespeare by now. Damn Shakespeare. He ruined everything for everyone by being so good.

So you edit your work. Draft two. You edit again. Draft three. You edit until what you have hardly resembles what you started with and you are not sure whether you should have stopped at draft eighteen or if you should do just one more. So you re-work it. And re-work it again until you can’t see what’s what any more and it means nothing to you.

In a moment of egotistical high, you send it to a publisher (you are a writer after all, not a coward). Your future is in the publisher’s hands. You have put yourself out there for judgement and it is so  exciting because you are sure that this time…this time…something is going to happen. This is the moment you have been waiting for. This is what it is all about. Soon your work will be in the public realm. People will read what you have written. Your ideas will be alive in their minds! They might even put your book on the school reading list.

The publisher writes a nice letter. It starts, “you are a very talented writer..,”

This is a good start. Talented is good.


There is always a “but”.

“We are unable to publish your story at this time.”

Of course. Should have seen that one coming.

Despite what you tell people–that you’re fine, that you’ll bounce back and keep going–you die just a little inside.

But you are a writer, not a quitter. You pick yourself up, dust yourself off and, after only a few weeks (or months, or years, depending on how susceptible you are to alcoholism and mental illness) you quit the job you took thinking it was your Next Big Career, pick up a pen and start over.

As a writer, most of the time you have to deal with people’s complete lack of comprehension or interest in what you are doing. They wonder why on earth anyone would want to spend all that time on the same thing. They say things like, “I could never do that” like you’re trying to tame a lion or shove your head down an anaconda’s throat. Many see you as a glorified bum, like a professional surfer, bludging off the government and avoiding real work so you can swan about in the sun, drink coffee and talk about existentialism. To them, “writer’s block” is synonymous with laziness.

In reality, writer’s block is more like a crisis of faith. You have given yourself the opportunity to write something ground breaking, something people will talk about like Nineteen Eighty-Four. You told your mum and dad you were writing a book. You told your old boss the same thing when you quit…again. People are counting on you! But what could you possibly write about that is that good? There are no new ideas anyway. What’s the point?

The point is, writing is the best career out there.

If you have faith in yourself the way a baker has faith his bread will rise, a plumber knows if he turns the tap a certain way the water will stop, and a musician knows if they practise enough they’ll get the note spot on, if you have this sort of faith in yourself, you can write.

To achieve this faith you need to remember that as a writer you have the power to bring ideas to life on the page. It does not matter if anyone ever reads them as long as you enjoy it. You have the power to take people on a journey and liberate their minds. You are a social commentator. You are society’s book keeper, balancing and keeping tabs of every miscalculation or blown budget.

You will realise that the publisher is no longer the gatekeeper. Thanks to social media and blogging, your voice can be heard. You are a wonderful, powerful being! So there is no reason, no excuse not to write.

People will fear and despise you because you will hold up a mirror and ask if they like what they see. It probably won’t win you any friends but you will do it anyway because in your heart of hearts you know it was what you were supposed to do. Reading advice on Quora (or this blog) won’t change your mind. You were meant to write.

What are some proven creativity patterns of great thinkers?

I read the New Scientist article “The Goldilock network” (26 May 2012) by Zella King where it says that creativity comes down to creating a “tension between alien perspectives and familiar faces.” In other words, you need to find the right mix of people in your life to be creative. Strangers will generate unconventional ways of thinking while friends will help shape and meld your ideas.

King discussed the importance of avoiding the “insider trap”, where ideas flop because they are based on in jokes that appeal to a limited audience or points of reference that only make sense to people close to you. One of the best ways to avoid the “insider trap” is by “periodically replacing 25% of your news sites, blogs or twitter feeds.”

What I take from this, is that the diversification of what one reads/participates in is an essential “creativity pattern” for great thinkers. By diversifying your material, activities and social network you will provide the foundations that are required to make conceptual links between things that you didn’t realise were related. These links, I think, lead to lightning striking the dunny.