At The Awl: “Jesus, My Struggling Writer Friends Never Shut Up!”

20May13

Hilarious (‘cuz it’s the truth) Ask Polly column at The Awl. Excerpt below:

What’s interesting is how often writers wander about, whining softly about how they need help and they need guidance and they need someone to give them a chance or hold their hand or read their pitches or stop ignoring them or tell them why their pieces are wonderful. All they need is an agent who’ll mold their genius into something saleable, who’ll go out there, onto the mean streets, and champion their brilliance! Someone who’ll smack those publishers in the face, and shove that manuscript under their moronic noses and say, “This genius is entitled to an enormous check that you’ll probably never recoup by selling this genius’s books!”

But let’s be honest. Collaboration and support are not always all they’re cracked up to be. If you’re in this questioning, needy state—”Is this a good idea? What do you think? Can you help me? Do you want to publish this? What would you change?”—you’re throwing the doors wide open and inviting every friend or editor or agent or publisher into your overheated kitchen, and you’re asking them to stick their grubby, shit-stained fingers into your half-finished, tasteless pie. (These editors’ fingers are shit-stained because they’re also editing zany, unfunny “Oh silly, awkward me!” memoirs and magazine articles about people with really incredible DUMBO lofts.) How many people do you know who have better ideas—much, much better ideas—than you do? How many people are smart enough to take what you’ve written, and mold it into something that’s a little more interesting and vivid and cooler than what you had before?

I love the smart, imaginative editors I’m writing for right now. They make me sound like I’m smarter than I am (and that’s pretty goddamn smart, too, huh huh!). But let’s be honest. The world is filled with smart people who will quite cheerfully turn your original weird ideas into horse shit. They won’t do this because they’re evil or because they’re crass capitalist slobs or because they’re fucking morons, either. They’ll do it because you’re standing there saying, “Well? What should this be? What should I be? Who the fuck am I anyway? Do you even love me anymore?” They will show you how to turn what you have, which is strange-ish and not fully formed and maybe a little sloppy, into the average of everything that came before you. They will inadvertently point you straight at the Least Common Denominator, either because you haven’t indicated that you’re capable of more than that, or because they haven’t had a second cup of coffee yet, or because they just heard that someone got a big advance for something a little bit like what you’re doing, only way stupider.

So this is something you’ll want to tell these writer friends in order to shut down their sad donkey eyes and their quiet mewling. You’ll want to tell them to take full responsibility for themselves and move the fuck forward. You’ll want to say that no big break is going to make it easier to get up in the morning and write. What makes it easier is trusting your own instincts and noticing that you have giant ideas percolating in that herd-animal brain of yours, you just have to dig in and find them. After you find them, you have to write something terrible that eventually, through a lot of editing, over and over and over, becomes something great. If you go pawing and kicking at doors of editors and publishers and agents and all you have is the creative equivalent of a half-eaten burrito from yesterday’s lunch, you shouldn’t act surprised when they want to turn that pile of cold beans into, say, a book about candlemaking, even though you couldn’t give a shit about candles. You aren’t owning your stupid writing career. You’re being a lazy sack of fuck that wants a Mommy to make a little color-coded schedule for you and to stop you at lunchtime to spoon-feed you your Spaghettios.

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