I had coffee with one friend last week, a bright, talented, prolific writer who is one of the best-read people I know. We talked about all the advice she had been getting lately from her advisors, agents and editors and friends, and I thought maybe that they were filling her head with all kinds of notions that had nothing to do with making the art she was put on this earth to create. I said, “Stop listening to people and write the book you love.” None of us are ever going to make any real kind of living off this racket so we might as well write what we love.
I asked her some questions, too, about what her mission was with her writing, if she had some sort of message she wanted to communicate to the world, or at the very least what she hoped to get (or did get) out of writing books. These are also questions I ask myself, and these are questions I would ask anyone about their work, no matter the job. Why do you do what you do? What do you get out of it? I could possibly ask: How can it help other people? Another question would be: What are you doing with your time on this planet? But not everyone can answer that, and maybe it is better asked in retrospect anyway.
Late Saturday afternoon I spoke on a panel at a literary conference. I am consistently surprised to hear the sound of my voice in public. I always think I sound like a crazy person because I spend so much time alone in my head, but I can never seem to shut myself up once I start talking. Items discussed: low career moments, high career moments, life in Brooklyn, luck, the value of MFA programs, and how to find time to write when you have children. (I stayed silent for that last question, although of course I am an emotional child.) Kurt Anderson and Joanna Smith Rakoff were on the panel also, and Evan Hughes was the moderator. Everyone was super into Kurt.
I squawked a little bit about not letting things get in the way of your writing. For a long time, for me, it was drugs. But it could be a bad relationship or a bad job or some sort of bad habit you refuse to break because then it would mean you would actually have to write something.
The other panelists talked about the internet as a distraction but I like writing with my browser open. It’s all integrated for me at this point, but I’ll admit it’s possible I might have turned into a robot sometime in the last decade.
Afterward a group of people went for a drink and I asked some of the attendees what they had discussed and learned that weekend. They said there was a lot of talk about “platform” which is obviously the most annoying concept/term in the industry but I guess until someone comes up with another way of expressing it, that’s the one we’re working with. They also said people asked a lot of questions about how to sell their books. People were done with their masterpieces, and they were ready to make their way in the world. I wished them all the best of luck.
The next day I worked at the bookstore and Millicent came to visit me and I talked to her about some of the things I had been thinking about this weekend and she said, “Oh, you can’t write with fear.” And that was exactly correct. I’d had too many conversations and had not stopped moving long enough to be able to extract a salient point, but yes, that was it.
You can’t write with fear. Plenty of other things to be scared about in this life. But just keep this one thing for yourself, OK?