Last year, I was invited to give a commencement speech at Sierra Nevada College’s MFA graduation—advice for writers heading out into the world. Here’s the text of that speech; I hope some of what I said rings true for you:
As we prepare to send these ten graduates off into the wilderness, I’m honored to stand up here and share some of what I’ve leaned about the writing life with you all. Please note that I’m going to sprinkle some concrete pieces of advice throughout this speech, which should take exactly 12 minutes and 23 seconds, some of which has already elapsed.
My first piece of advice: When you’re invited to read on stage, stick to the allotted time!
Second Piece of Advice: Pick the right verb and you won’t need an adverb.
This is the rapid fire part of the speech, so here comes . . .
THIRD PIECE OF ADVICE: You do have time to write.
If you feel like you don’t have time to write, I suspect that your problem is that you have a life. So, do away with that.
Like, adios to yoga and the gym. Facebook is not helpful, also quit knitting, sky-diving, stamp-collecting. Most personal relationships are overrated, so do the bare minimum to maintain civil relations with the people you value. TV’s out, of course, unless it’s late and you’re comatose after writing a lot—no, wait.
No TV. Instead, read a few pages of good stuff. Take long walks with great music in your ears. Let your thoughts about writing take over crazy amounts of real estate in your mind. It’s a love affair, a very dangerous love affair.
Good news. You’ve got time to write! Isn’t that nice?
Okay, back to this speech.
News flash: Writing is not an inherently brave act. But showing your writing to strangers, or worse still, showing it to loved ones? That’s brave AF. It’s personal, even when it’s not, even when you’re writing about vampires, or whatever. Your subconscious sneaks in, anyway, revealing your weird joys and proclivities and vulnerabilities.
And after opening that vein, failure is the norm. That’s the kicker. Only a massive sense of humility will allow you to withstand an inevitable waterfall of rejection—it’ll be raining down on your head all day and night.
I would love to tell you that you will not have to deal with a waterfall of rejection, but that would be a lie, and you’re not supposed to lie during commencement speeches.
Personally, I applied to 13 MFA programs and got into one, which awarded funding to students based on our “literary merit.” No pressure. Bad news: I received the least amount of funding from my cohort of 10 fiction writers.
Almost everyone else in my group got a full ride their second year, with a small stipend for living expenses. I got a pat on the back: “Good job, keep trying!” I exited the program with about $28,000 in student loans. It was humiliating.
On the upside, I left the program with a draft of a novel. Isn’t that nice?
Alas, that novel didn’t sell. No takers. Sent it around, no bites.
I’d also written a novel before I started at the MFA program, and showed it to a friend, who said to me, with a commanding seriousness, “Show this to no one else.” He was right.
Writing is an outrageous thing to do, if you think about it, and not just because of the certain vulnerability and failure. It’s a rough situation to get into on purpose. It takes a kind of bravery, I dare say. And you graduates embody that.
When you do publish something, you’re asking strangers to pay for the privilege of reading your poems or prose. A full book can take like 20 hours to read—so you’re asking this stranger if you can bend their ear for 20 hours, and by the way, they should pay about $30 for a hardcover version of this experience. And if they don’t mind, maybe they could write a nice Amazon review.
That’s some hardcore hubris we’ve got here, friends.
But that’s not the whole story. When you get past the craziness of this undertaking, a piece of writing is an offering to a reader. The act of reading puts that fellow human in a deep collaboration with you. You’re in cahoots, but the experience happens entirely inside their head. Every person who reads your writing brings their own motley collection of personal baggage to that experience—your subconscious is talking to their subconscious. As David Foster Wallace said, of fiction, “We all suffer alone in the world. But a piece of fiction can allow us to identify with a character’s pain, and imagine someone else identifying with ours. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.”
Every person who reads your work will experience something different. It’s magical. As writer Heather McCue said: “I began to write because I was too shy to talk, and too lonely not to send messages.”
Okay, Fourth piece of advice: Writer’s block is no excuse for not writing.
When faced with a seizure of creative energy, some writers turn to alcohol, or Adderall, but please follow the prescription directions under medical supervision. Most writers I know don’t drink and write, actually, but do what you must. End of the day, you need to sit down and write sentences. Sentences self-propagate through asexual reproduction like amoebas. So try writing a bad sentence, the worse the better. Then another. Another. Keep going until they’re not so bad.
Once they’re not bad, try to keep them that way.
Back to my speech. The reason I wasn’t able to publish the first two books I wrote was that they were awful.
A few months ago I exhumed the second one and quickly hacked 50 pages out of it—the ease with which they were cut was, perhaps, a red flag—and sent it to my agent. She’s very polite, so after she read it she said, “When you’re famous, this will be of great interest to academics.”
By the time I finished my MFA at the age of 30, I’d also written and revised and submitted about 20 short stories, and had received—I kid you not—approximately 1000 consecutive rejections. I’ve kept them all in two large boxes.
But at some point my writing improved. I’d read my peers’ work closely, and kept writing and writing and writing, and reading and reading and reading. For YEARS. The thing that really accelerated my improvement was specifically sitting around with the other writers in my MFA program and talking about writing. Through the process of reading their work critically, and having them read mine critically, I began at long last to have a real sense of control and purpose on the page.
Fifth PIECE OF advice is something that I saw on a poster, it was a picture of a cute kitten, or maybe Winston Churchill, but it said, “If you find yourself in hell, keep going.”
Because at some point you find yourself exiting hell.
By the time I graduated from my MFA program, despite being in many ways at the lowest place in my professional life, and feeling humiliated and foolish, I was able to write with a sense of aliveness and intentionality. I made craft decisions on purpose. Before that, if something was good, it was just a fluke.
These days I still get rejections, but most of what I’ve written since I graduated has been published—two novels, fifteen essays, about as many short stories.
What happened was I realized—here’s concrete advice #5, or maybe it’s #6—I realized that you must win over the reader, sentence by sentence.
This is, after all, an offering to them. It’s not for me. It’s for them. And I started to accept that readers are not naturally inclined to care about what I’m saying. I have to make them care.
They’re eager to watch The Walking Dead, which is understandable, and I’m trying to convince them to stay and read the next sentence. It’s a tug of war. Me versus those flesh-eating zombies. You’ve got to try hard, of course. I fail all the time, still. We all do. But it’s helpful to know what you’re up against.
Another piece of advice—this is #7, I think: There are always more words.
Most emerging writers assume a failed attempt—maybe it was too long, or scribed in Klingon, or no one likes it, not even their mom—but tossing that failed work in the trash means you’ve lost something precious.
This notion is born of a sort of "scarcity mentality," as opposed to an "abundance mentality." That is to say, emerging writers understandably feel that their "pile" of writing is small, and it is: because they haven't written much yet. They feel overly protective of those pages because they don’t have a stockpile of pages.
Instead of hoarding your iffy Klingon romances, try to just assume that there’s much more where that came from, and it won’t take long to write now that you know how to write. Keep building the pile and don’t look back. And once it’s ready, send it out and expect rejection, and keep your head down, don’t stop.
Here’s the thing: You are going to fail a lot, and you have to continue anyway. As Dory says in Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming.” But Dory is blessed with the inability to remember anything.
Which is your final Tip—number 8 if you’re keeping track: Amnesia is helpful.
Because I tried quitting writing. Honestly, I did. But living without writing is not living. Colors drain. I get dumb. As Joan Didion said, “I don't know what I think until I write it down.” If I’m not writing, I’m not thinking.
I’m unable to stop myself from writing. I love the exhilaration of actually composing a piece of writing—usually I would rather write than go to a party, and I like parties. I love how the prose comes alive. It’s the one truly mystical thing I know of.
My characters are often funnier and smarter than I am. How is that even possible?
It has to be magic. The subconscious mind out-singing the conscious mind. I’m so delighted to hear that voice, which isn’t supposed to be audible.
Publishing is fine, it’s nice, but it’s a means to the end. The end, for me, is having the time to write. I don’t write to publish. I publish so that I can write—so that I don’t have to get a day job.
But writing is lonely, and it’s almost impossible to improve without community. You have all been blessed with this beautiful community here—keep in touch with each other, even if it’s difficult. These people will be your core literary community for the rest of your life. Make new community, too, of course, and lean on each other, offer to read your friend’s work, and read with generosity, but also read critically. But most important of all, please, please…beware of adverbs.
They’re not your friends. Just find the right verb.
Peter Mountford Consulting offers writing coaching, classes and speaking services in Seattle, Washington and beyond. I work with clients to develop a writing approach, revise work and submit writing for publication. I help you develop your unique writing strengths, and offer the writing tools and assistance you need to become a successful writer.