So, You Want to Be a Writer? 1
What’s It Like to Be a Writer?
You pull into the parking lot of your favorite bookstore, knowing that this time it’s not going to be just to meet your buddies. Someone else is expecting you—YOUR FANS! You keep your sunglasses on as you walk in the front door, head down, but the manager recognizes you anyway. You try to finish your last call as you are whisked away to the greenroom, offered your favorite drink, and escorted to the book signing table. It’s covered with a red velvet cloth, piled high with copies of YOUR book, and there are scores of fans jostling for position behind the velvet ropes to make sure they get their books signed by the author—YOU!
Cameras flash, your smile dazzles. You whip out your favorite pen and start signing as fast as you can, murmuring words of gratitude in response to the exclamations of love and adulation from each reader.
Is this what it’s like to be a writer? You bet! Okay, maybe it’s not always like this—but it does happen. And, believe it or not, it can happen to you, especially if you start thinking of yourself as a writer now and doing the things real writers do. This book will help you—we promise.
Keep that thrilling, ultimate scenario in mind, but let’s get a bit more realistic for a few minutes. Look over the list below and circle what you really think it’s like to be a writer.
4. incredibly exciting
5. hard work
6. not like real work at all
8. a life of riches
9. a life of poverty
10. people love you
11. people think you’re a geek
Let’s see what you think about writing:
• If you circled just even numbers (2, 4, 6, 8, etc.), we love you! You have a positive attitude about writing. And you’re right . . . being a writer can be all of those things! (Although, to be honest, not all the time.)
• If you circled just odd numbers (1, 3, 5, 7, etc.), you’re right too. Being a writer can be tough, but it’s never as bad as that whole list. At least, not if you read this book first!
• If you circled all the items on the list, you are right on target—being a writer is often like all of these things at one point or another.
How One Author Got His Start
Michael Crichton’s books have sold over 150 million copies. In 1994, Crichton became the only creative artist ever to have works on the bestseller lists in television, movies, and books (with ER, Jurassic Park, and Disclosure, respectively). Believe it or not, the creator of Jurassic Park and ER first got published when he was a kid. We conducted the interview below in 2001. He passed away in 2008.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
My father was a journalist, so I grew up seeing him type to earn a living. His example made writing seem like a normal thing to do. I was attracted to writing from an early age and did a lot of it. I wrote for my high school and town newspapers, and for the college newspaper. Later on, in medical school, I started writing novels to pay my way through school.
I was fourteen years old when I published my first piece. On a family vacation I visited Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument in Arizona, and I thought it was pretty interesting and that more people should know about it. My parents said that the Sunday New York Times travel section published articles by readers and suggested I write an article for the paper. So I sent in an essay—and they published it. I was very excited.
What advice would you give a young writer?
I always tell writers to write. If you think you’re interested in writing, just start writing. Write extra compositions for school assignments. Write for the school paper, the yearbook, or the town newspaper. Write articles. Write poetry. Write plays. Write anything you have a mind to, but write a lot.
This will help you learn how to do it—I believe writers are invariably self-taught. But equally important, you’ll also find out if you really like writing as much as you think you do. Although writing can be very satisfying, it’s a hard job, and a peculiar one. You’ve got to be self-disciplined, and you’ve got to tolerate being alone a lot. It’s a great life, but it’s not for everyone.
If you like to write, you are one of the luckiest people in the world. Writers shape thoughts into words, and those words can inspire, motivate, teach, and entertain those who read them. Have you ever read something that made you cry? If I Stay, Walk Two Moons, or Charlotte’s Web? Or maybe a story in a magazine about a terrible famine? How about something that made you angry? Scared? Happy? How about a book that you just couldn’t put down and had to finish under the covers long after midnight . . . perhaps a Harry Potter tale?
All of these stories started with writers. There are as many different kinds of writers as there are stories to tell. Writers don’t just write books either. When you watch ESPN to catch the sports scores, the reporters on those shows read scripts written by writers. Or when you watch your favorite sitcom, a writer did that as well. The words you read in advertisements and hear in the audio for video games were all carefully chosen by writers. There are novelists, bloggers, poets, playwrights, screenwriters, reporters, medical writers, copywriters, and technical writers, just to name a few. And the good news is that you can make a living as a writer. Your writing can take you all over the world if you choose, or you can create books in the comfort of your own home—even in your pj’s if you want!
Twenty-three-year-old Juli Weiner graduated from Barnabrd, a liberal arts college affiliated with Columbia University, and works as a blogger for the magazine Vanity Fair.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve wanted to write professionally since middle school. I had
become obsessed with early episodes of Saturday Night Live (1975–1980), and used to write comedy sketches in journals and take down notes while watching reruns on TV. Initially I was much more interested in screenwriting than journalism. After writing a satirical column for my high school paper, though, I came around to the idea that journalism and nonfiction writing could be just as colorful, voicey, and fun as creating characters.
What do you like to write the most and why?
My favorite type of writing to do—and, luckily, the type of writing I do most frequently—is political satire. I love following the news, sifting through sound bites to pinpoint something particularly absurd, and taking a faulty line of reasoning to its logical conclusion.
What are your goals for your writing future?
I’d love to challenge myself by doing longer pieces that involve more investigative reporting. As a blogger, I’m often strapped for time and don’t get to include as many details in my pieces, interviews, and research as I would be able to if I wrote for a weekly or monthly magazine. I also would love to do a story that involves sneaking around, using a flashlight, or wearing a disguise.
What was your first published piece (and format) and how did you feel?
My first professional published piece was a chart comparing the Palin and Kardashian families that appeared in the February 2011 issue of Vanity Fair. I was elated to see my name—and picture and biography, in the contributors section!—in print. Vanity Fair is a magazine I’ve admired since I was old enough to read, and it was beyond incredible to be included alongside the best living journalists and photographers. I felt a huge sense of accomplishment, pride, and relief—similar to what I imagine a physically painless version of childbirth might feel like.
Where else have you been published?
I’ve written a few pieces for Vanity Fair and write several smaller
pieces a day for their website. I’ve also written for Wonkette, The Huffington Post, Vice.com, Radar.com, and The Awl.
Do you write full-time, and, if not, would you like to? What would be your dream job?
I am lucky enough to write full-time. Barring the possibility of taking a time machine to the late ’80s to write for Spy magazine, cofounded by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, I can’t imagine a job better suited to my interests, strengths, and goals than my current one.
What advice would you give to a young writer?
Don’t worry about trying to write in the style of someone who’s already published or successful—that niche is already occupied! Just write however you write best. In terms of landing a job: keep in touch with everyone and be kind to everyone. Don’t get nervous when people your age get an earlier career bump than you; if you’re good, it won’t be long until someone takes notice.
And one bit of practical advice: back up everything. It’s a law of physics that computers break at precisely the most inopportune time.
Do you think reading helps your writing?
Absolutely. I’m a voracious reader of novels. The best journalism is as compelling and fluid as fiction, so just having an understanding of the way people tell stories and introduce characters (even if they’re not real people) is essential. I tend to be a completist: I try to read everything by Philip Roth, then everything by Martin Amis, and so on.
What are your favorite reads?
I read The New Yorker and New York every week, and Vanity Fair and GQ every month.
Name some of the authors who have inspired you and why.
I read a ton of political blogs and have really taken so many cues
from the deadpan incredulity of Alex Pareene at Salon.com, the unbelievably hilarious Jim Newell at Gawker.com, and Wonkette owner Ken Layne’s moral barometer.
If you like to write, you can use your talent to try lots of different things. All it takes is a desire to write and pen and paper—or a laptop. Throughout the book, you’ll hear from lots of different kinds of writers, including writers your age, about what they do, how they got there, and why they love writing.
What’s Next for You?
What do the following writers have in common?
Edgar Allan Poe
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Louisa May Alcott
S. E. Hinton
If you guessed that they were all published writers while they were teenagers, you’re right! They didn’t wait until they were adults to go for their dreams, and you don’t need to either. Add your name to this list! There are so many kinds of writing to try and so many ways to get published as a kid, why wait?
Inspired yet? Read on and find out how you can get started right now!
As a high school senior Victoria Ford was presented with a scholarship and a Scholastic Art and Writing Award, an honor previously won by Truman Capote, Joyce Carol Oates, and Sylvia Plath.
Seventeen-year-old Victoria Ford feels that writing is a healing process and credits her family as the inspiration for much of her work. An admirer of poet Larry Levis and memoirist Abigail Thomahe, Victoria plans to leave her hometown, Greenville, South Carolina, to attend the University of Pennsylvania.
Like an Event Horizon
Except I wouldn’t have quite used those words the summer my older brother Theo left Hickory Ridge. Maybe because I didn’t know enough about science or the sky to mark that night as something close to a phenomenon, some boundary in space time. But a summer like that: after a windstorm in June uprooted a magnolia tree and it soaked in the neighborhood pool for over a month, hurting the feelings of a few chubby Hispanic children who lived in my building, so much so that they would experience small bouts of rage, tossing fallen walnuts, balls of laundry lint, broken toys, and their own tennis shoes across the pool’s fence, screaming sheepishly to their mothers “Fix it, Fix it. Mama, we’re hot and sticky and the bathtub at home is no more fun.”
And there was Midnight, my neighbor’s black German shepherd, howling until sunrise on some mornings. Maybe he was starving. Maybe he was hurting from the chain that kept him incarcerated in the supply closet. And there was the yellow caution tape wrapped around our stairwell after the middle-aged couple in the flat upstairs ended the week with another fistfight—over a lost key or a missed call or whatever it took to turn people against the ones they loved. There was all of that, everything that made each of us in Apartment 75 a little more lonesome in the Carolina heat, a little more miserable.
It’s been a year since Theo left and the air conditioner in almost every apartment this week is broken. It’s hot. Actually, it’s more than one hundred degrees outside, but if you’re in here with me, watching my younger brother, Johnjohn, water a pile of leaves in the living room, you’re wishing you were in his hands, because the beads of sweat forming above your lip make your body thirst more than anything has before. I feel as though everything is beginning to take on more weight. The kitchen wallpaper unbuttons itself from the corners, rolling slowly toward the center, and the leaves on my mother’s banana plant on the windowsill sag to the floor like the neck of a swan.
My mother woke early this morning, tearing through the house and knocking over picture frames in the narrow spine of our hallway. She remembers—of course she remembers. Just last year on this day, she claimed Theo “divorced from the family forever.” I figured she felt the same angst, maybe even heartache, I had when he told me his secret: how he planned to hitch a ride back to Memphis because he couldn’t stand the thought of being around her after she got out of prison. I didn’t blame him. We hadn’t always felt this way. Before we moved to Hickory Ridge, my mother was serving a sentence of eleven months and twenty-nine days at a penal farm in Memphis. I remember the last visit we made to see her before my brothers and I moved to South Carolina. An officer patted her down in the prison’s gym right in front of us. His hands moved from her denim work shirt to her jeans and rolled down to the soles of her
bleached sneakers. She didn’t flinch. She stood there and spread her arms apart as if she waited to be raised onto a cross.
I could tell by the look in Theo’s eyes, the way his pupils twitched, that he couldn’t take it. A part of him wanted to hurt the officer. But our mother passed through the inspection quickly, and when she sat with us, I placed my hand on Theo’s shaking knee. When we finally started talking, all our mother could think about was getting out. She wanted us to tell her if she looked ready to come back into the real world. Did she look good enough to be seen by her old friends? Was she fat? I didn’t know what to say. “Of course you’re not,” or, “You look fine as you want to be.” The idea of my mother getting out was frightening, for me at least. I wasn’t ready for the drinking to start up again, the screaming, the sudden outbursts of rage she experienced if the house wasn’t clean, or if we were too quiet, or if she just felt the urge to get her hands on something, to twist or hit. Theo was the one to speak up. He held one of her hands and looked at her for a moment. I wonder if we saw the same woman. The woman who made us heart-shaped pancakes on Valentine’s Day? The woman who once chased us with a baseball bat around the house when we were ten or eleven? The woman sitting in front of us then, who had been reduced to burning colored pencils for eyeliner? Maybe he didn’t see any of those women. He just told her that she was beautiful and, honestly, shouldn’t give a damn what people thought. And we didn’t cry, just laughed at how silly we felt. All of us in that prison.