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One of the struggles that I have – and that other writers tell me they have, too – is knowing who to trust when it comes to information about the writing life. For me, discerning who is a bit skeezy and who is honest and truly hoping to be helpful – that’s the easy part. It was much harder for me to figure out who I wanted to trust, whose wisdom would be helpful to who I am as a writer. And it was even more of a challenge for me to put together just who I wanted (and needed) to be as a writer.
Figuring Out Your Path
The first thing I had to determine – and it’s taken me years to get here (you’re probably a much faster learner than I am) – was why I wanted to write. On some level, I can boil this down to two things:
- Writing for art
- Writing for business
Some folks are totally about the art. They invest lots and lots and lots of time in research and craft. They take classes and study the work of other writers, all with an eye to making their work as strong as it can be. I am – at heart – this type of writer. I hold an MFA. I read to understand the way a writer crafts beauty and truth. I love to research deeply and take my time to carve a sentence.
Some folks, in contrast, are angled more toward the business. They are invested in making a living at what they write, and so their work may come to the page much more quickly. They may write more books more quickly, and they invest heavily in studying the ways to be profitable at the writing life. I am – by necessity and temperament also this type of writer. I think about the best ways to make my books sell. I invest in tools to promote and publish my books. I hire help so that I can give my time to what is most profitable for me – editing and writing books. (For the record, editing is my main income; books are a definite side income.)
Neither of these ways is better or worse than the other – they just have different focuses (focii? – what is the plural there?). I am, at core, an artist. I see the world that way, and I like that. But in order to be the artist I want to be in this world, I have to also be a business woman. I need time to research and write slowly, and I buy that time – quite literally – by being wise about my business. My deepest desire is to research and write about enslaved people and the communities in which they lived and worked and loved, but that work takes a great deal of time and effort. So I do this other work to make time and space for that.
You may not need or want to put central the need to make money as a writer, and that’s wonderful. There’s beauty and strength in that freedom. Or you may need to focus on the income side of writing, and there’s much learning and a new kind of creativity in that work. The key thing is to know why you write and then figure out how that why looks in your life.
Finding the Guides for Your Path
If you’re inclined toward the artistic side of things, if you are craving literary analysis and a deep study of craft, if you seek reflection on the world through the eyes of an artist, the list is endless. You can look at the work of people like Chuck Wendig or Zadie Smith, Amy Tan or Orson Scott Card, Ann Kroeker or Natalie Goldberg. (This list of Writers on Writing from the NY Times is STELLAR!) You can find books on the writing craft everywhere – I shared my two favorites on Instagram last week – and then you just figure out whose view of the world sounds a gong of recognition within you. Then, read everything they’ve written – EVERYTHING!
My go-to people are:
- Annie Dillard
- Alice Walker
- Stephen King
- Barbara Kingsolver
- Kathleen Norris
- Anne Lamott
- Tracy Kidder
- Marilynne Robinson
- A. S. Byatt
- Margaret Atwood
- Toni Morrison
- Thomas Merton
- Jesmyn Ward
These are the writers whose work I study deeply, whose words penetrate so far into me that I find myself studying them while I stare at the window and listen to Milo play.
If you’re inclined toward the business side of things, you need to think about what feels authentic for you. If you want to make the big bucks, then you’ll want to look for guides who focus on “scaling up” and big ROI. If you’re interested in making a sustainable living from the wordish life, then look for people who give practice advice but don’t focus so much on the return. Trust your gut here – if it feels like someone is selling malarky, they probably are.
Here are my go-to folks:
These people have proven to me that their advice is sound, and each of them has taken the time to connect with me personally when I’ve had a query or a request. That speaks volumes to me about their purposes for being in business.
There is no right or wrong way to be a writer in this world – except maybe to step all over people to get where you want to be. But whether you’re in this work with the goal of artful expression or the goal of buying groceries – or like me – some of both, good, helpful people are out there to guide you. You just need to seek them out, and I hope this list gives you a bit of a place to start.
You may have other folks whose writing spurs you on – in your art or in your business – and I’d truly love to hear about them in the comments below. I’ll definitely check out their work.