The Tricks: For a Graduating Writer

Do you have any advice for writers on the verge of graduating, and searching for the writing-related dream job?


The economy is turning over like an iceberg so I have no idea what the market will be like for journalists, or essayists, or really any kind of writer, in the near or the far future. But I would say that, if it really is your “dream job,” then whatever it is you should start doing it immediately, without getting paid, and put it everywhere. 

The internet is a resource nobody had before us, and it’s democratizing in a lot of ways. But one of the ways in which it’s most helpful is that it forces you to think in terms of your brand, your integrity, your public behavior, your worth as a writer, your ability to cross the page from you to the person who is reading you.

And those are the nasty, dirty little details that make a writing career such a tricky proposition. So first of all, you have to ask yourself what you’re willing to give up and what you’re willing to let slide, who you’d sell out to, what you absolutely will not compromise, who you’re interested in writing for, who you are NOT interested in writing for. 

And then you need to think about, if you were going to write for those people, how would you make them sit up and clap their hands. 


Because it takes an ass to fill every seat, and nobodyleast of all youis too good for that kind of labor. The sooner you start thinking of yourself as a brand, a product, an army of one, the less it’ll hurt once you have to start chopping parts off.

So once you’re accustomed to writing things that you are passionate about, in your particular voice, in the particular format that is most appropriate to your subject — all without pay, all without any reward of any kind — you need to develop regularity. Habits. The habit of writing, of calming and centering yourself and being honest at the drop of a hat. This has always been true, but again: The internet demands it. Consistency is all we want of a blogger, and simply by posting at the same time every day or couple of days, you will see readers proliferating like magic. I don’t know why it’s true, but it is true. Then you learn to walk the line between being friendly and marketing yourself, and being obnoxious by marketing yourself.

All of which is the business of writing, none of which is shameful in any way. And if you are still lucky enough to disagree with that, I wouldn’t read further. It gets worse.

Because Academic Creative Writing is its own genre. Your heroes in that arena will not help you outside of it. Your personal voice coming out of that system has more markers and smells on it than you realize, which — if you think about it — is not something anybody inside that system would be able to tell you. And no matter how many instructors have tried to go Dead Poets on you about this, they are still selling you the same images and voices. None of them are yours.

Self-reference, structuralist and post-structuralist references, deconstruction, metafictional rabbit holes and any other self-regarding literary tricks from the Sixtiesyour Nabokov and Pynchon, your Barth and Barthelme, your David Foster Wallace, even your Pound and Eliotwork in spite of their brilliance, not because of it. They run on the tension this provides; it powers a generator in a sub-sub-basement that a formalist or hermeneutic or structuralist approach doesn’t even know how to look for.

And this tension arises from the fact that opposing even the most dazzling wordplay is, somewhere in there, an emotional truth that is greater than the sum of its gleaming parts, and this is something without an art, because it is without artifice. It is something naked, without any prior semiotic scaffolding around it, because it is a thought that a person has never expressed before, in the history of humans. 

It is a feeling we all know, and recognize the minute we see it in your words, but which we never consciously knew about until that moment you revealed it. That is the measure you’re aiming for, and if it is, then go with God. Because if you’re going to play the trick, you need to earn it — not use it as a substitute for insight.

I’m not saying these things as general writing hints ‘n’ tips, I’m saying them in answer to your question: The best thing that you can do when you graduate is forget everything you learned. You can trust that you will keep it with you, but only as part of your body and the way that you speak and think language. It’s a tool in the toolbox, not the toolbox itself. Because your voice is specific to you, and only when you find it — only when you have made your peace with being deeply uncomfortable for the rest of your life about the things your voice and truth reveal about you — can you expect people to start handing you the success to which you were born feeling entitled.

The tricks will not help you get there, because it’s blood magic. Any job done right is worth bleeding for, and this one is closer to crazy than almost anything else you could have picked for your calling. You cannot think yourself there, no matter how brilliant your big fat throbbing brain is, because there is always just past where that brain, those tricks, can take you: It’s a Dark Scary Forest, and your college career has been about staying on the path, getting gold stars for writing the best literary fiction.

Or, if you’ve chosen the other clichéI did, I did bothgoing nuts, because that’s what artists supposedly do. Both of these are bullshit: All you’ve been learning are the skills and tools to make the rest of your life easier, not the secret to anything in particular. (There is no secret to anything in particular. Nobody ever goes in the same forest as anybody else. The only secret is that it will probably, hopefully, hurt.)

The tricks can help you express yourself — eventually — but until then, they are a wall of knives pointing toward yourself from yourself, because there is nothing that combats the fear of being vulnerable quite so well as the self-satisfaction of being clever. The first thing you do in the forest is start whistling, because you have something to prove — and the tricks are just another form of the same. For the same reason that the smartest crazy person stays the craziest — because the detours around the Dark Scary Forest are infinite in number and immeasurably useless — the best-trained academic tells the shallowest stories, and this is because she knows the tricks.

So you forget the tricks. They’ll come when called.


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3 thoughts on “The Tricks: For a Graduating Writer

  1. This is beautiful, Jacob, and so true. May I tumblr it?

    “The best thing that you can do when you graduate is forget everything you learned. You can trust that you will keep it with you, but only as part of your body and the way that you speak and think language. It's a tool in the toolbox, not the toolbox itself. Because your voice is specific to you, and only when you find it — only when you have made your peace with being deeply uncomfortable for the rest of your life about the things your voice and truth reveal about you — can you expect people to start handing you the success to which you were born feeling entitled.”

    Your POV is like church to me.

    Like

  2. This is beautiful, Jacob, and so true. May I tumblr it?

    “The best thing that you can do when you graduate is forget everything you learned. You can trust that you will keep it with you, but only as part of your body and the way that you speak and think language. It's a tool in the toolbox, not the toolbox itself. Because your voice is specific to you, and only when you find it — only when you have made your peace with being deeply uncomfortable for the rest of your life about the things your voice and truth reveal about you — can you expect people to start handing you the success to which you were born feeling entitled.”

    Your POV is like church to me.

    Like

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