Words of advice from a questionable source

I leave tomorrow morning for Vancouver. For the first time ever, I’m going to be appearing at one of Canada’s major writer’s festivals, the Vancouver International Writer’s Festival. I’m appearing at an event entitled Suffer the Little Children on Wednesday, October 20, and another entitled Thrills and Chills on Thursday, October 21.

To say that I’m psyched would be an understatement.

There are a lot of reasons to be psyched. First, this is a HUGE deal. The VIWF is one of Canada’s big three fests, and I’m honoured to be invited.

Second, this is the unveiling of Bedtime Story. It’s two weeks before the official publication date (though copies will be available at the festival), and these events will mark the first time I’ve ever spoken about the book in public. No, I have no idea what I’m going to say. Yes, I’m freaking out a little.

The third thing I’m psyched about, though, is the fact that these events are likely to be attended by a number of students. The VIWF has a tremendous outreach in Vancouver schools, and word is that there are some groups planning to be in attendance.

Which warms my heart, frankly. (The curmudgeonly thing? It’s just a facade. No, really.) I remember very well how important it was to me, in my formative years, to go to readings at the local town hall, or at the Harrison Festival of the Arts. They were my first exposure to the culture of the book, and the lessons I learned there have stuck with me in the many, many years since.

So I got to wondering: if I were asked, what advice would I give, not to a random student, but to, say… me. What would almost-40-year old me say to 14-year old me?

I don’t know if this is applicable to anyone else, but here are some things that I wish someone had told me. Tough love, I guess. Emphasis on the love. Words of advice from a questionable source.

Don’t do this.
If you can do anything else, and do it well, you probably want to reconsider this whole “being a writer” thing. Because it’s hard. Damn hard. Sure, it looks glamourous, what with the on-stage discussions and the cool clothes and the newspaper articles and the readers (and you haven’t even heard of the wonder that is the Hospitality Suite yet), but what you don’t see are the hours… days… weeks… months… years of work just to get those few minutes in the spotlight. And there’s no guarantee you’ll ever see a spotlight. And it’s not even that bright a spotlight. Not bright enough to make up for the months of solitary darkness. Writing is the only job that has borderline clinical depression as a requirement. If you can do anything else, you should.

Accept it.
Of course, you and I both know that you can’t do anything else. You can’t draw, you suck at math, you can’t talk to girls, and you’d rather stick a fork in your eye than participate in sports. Not that you could, anyway. There’s a reason, and a damn good one, that you’re always picked last for teams. You know what? I get it. All you’ve got is writing. And you’re pretty good at it, and you know you can get better. You’re doomed. You have to know that, right off the top. Your life is going to be shaped by this realization: you’re a writer. Don’t say it boldly. Just accept it, and all that comes with it (the questionable jobs, the fragile mental state, the strain on your relationships, the on-going blows to your self-esteem). Accept it like it’s a terminal disease with a life expectancy of 75 years.

Do it.
You know what separates writers from non-writers, the vast divided between the unwashed masses and your mystical self?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. And the sooner you learn that, the better.
Writers write. That’s what makes them different (and as you’ll find out as your teenage years continue, “different” is NOT a good thing). So write. This is the life you’ve chosen; now do it. Write on your lunch break. Write after school. Write instead of doing your homework. Write in English class. Fall in love not with the results, but with the action of putting words to paper. Believe me, there will be a lot of hours, when you’re 50, 60, 70 thousand words from The End, that you’ll need something to keep you going, and it’s best that it’s the flow of ink onto paper. If your only pleasure is in finishing something, or getting published, your road is going to be very long indeed. Write instead of watching tv. Write instead of “hangin” with your friends. Eke out every moment you can, and write. Don’t want to write? Too bad. According to you, yourself, you have no choice. Man up, crack open the notebook, and write.

Okay, not all the time.
That entry above? That was a bit of hyperbole. (But just a bit.) Don’t neglect your life for your writing. You need something to write about. (I would discourage you, however, from blowing things up just to get material. Well, I should discourage you from that…) You also need to read. As much as you can. And read as widely as you can: classic, modern, contemporary, across genres and forms. I’ve written books inspired by a poem: you NEED to read as widely as you can.
So, that’s pretty straightforward, right? Write, read, live. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

It’s not a bad life at all. Writing is hard, but then, what isn’t? It beats plumbing, right? Grave-digging? There’s a certain pleasure in the hours at the desk, even when it’s going badly. When the writing is going well? It’s almost as good as sex. (Yes, really. No, I know you’re 14 so you don’t believe me, but trust me, it is.) Savour the life you’ve chosen. Keep your eyes open for those moments where you nod to yourself and say “Yes. This is my life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Your first newspaper piece? “Yes.”
Your first published story? “Yes.”
Landing an agent? “Yes.”
Holding a copy of your book for the first time? “Yes.”
Nominated for an award? “Yes.”
Appearing at a big-deal literary festival? “Yes.”

It’s a hard life, in a lot of ways, but there are moments that make it all worthwhile. Work hard, and cling to those moments, and you’ll do just fine.

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