“Getting Good” as a Writer

by Adam Reger

I recently read Richard Russo’s essay collection The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life, and really liked it. Russo had previously existed in a literary blind spot for me, where I certainly recognized the name and knew the titles of his biggest books, but had never read a word he’s written. An uncle of mine recommended the essay collection to me recently by saying that a lot of the essays, where Russo talks about being a young writer starting out as a university teacher, reminded him of me. With an introduction like that, of course I eventually checked it out.

A couple of essays in particular really spoke not just to my current career situation but to writerly concerns that I don’t see addressed very often. The title essay discusses a telephone exchange Russo has with a former writing-workshop classmate who seemed destined for literary stardom, and who, discovering that the less-talented writer he remembers from classes 40 years earlier has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, more or less accuses Russo of having stolen his destiny. It’s a thrillingly, almost nauseatingly vivid evocation of the fear and uncertainty a lot of writers have of doing everything they can to succeed, trying hard, and just . . . never making it. “The Destiny Thief” is the first essay in the book and going through it, I was a bit wary of accepting advice or sympathy on this issue from a writer as well-published and celebrated as Russo. But he handles it with a lot of sympathy and empathy, and I found I was pretty much in for the rest of the collection.

The centerpiece essay, for me anyway, was “Getting Good,” a long, sometimes wandering meditation on failure and rejection, self-publishing versus traditional publishing, democracy versus egalitarianism, art vs. craft, and, yes, getting good as a writer. (Note: I’ve linked to the essay, over at The Sewanee Review, but only the first page or so is available there and the rest is behind a subscription paywall.)

To my embarrassment, I’ll admit that I went in looking for some kind of advice, some secret, even just a pep talk. But the essay, in taking on so many different facets of the writer’s conundrum, offers a number of indirect answers and gives the reader a lot to think about, rather than serving up platitudes and pat answers. This will spoil nothing, but Russo suggests that self-publishing leads many writers to escape the process of being challenged and questioned that happens in the traditional editing and publishing process; I found it useful to hear that, though to his credit Russo also acknowledges that many self-publishing authors (whom he calls “indies,” a bit confusingly) make more than traditionally successful “midlist” authors. One of his bottom lines is, essentially, that most authors will keep writing because they’re driven to do so, not because of the money in it; it’s essentially an avocation and not a vocation. I found this encouraging and inspiring, even though it’s nothing new to me; the experience of reading the essay was to go through a lot of different elements of being a writer, considering each along with Russo, and coming at the end to accept (or perhaps not) his conclusions.

In the same vein, I recently came across this piece, in Writer’s Digest, called “How I Stopped Sabotaging My Writing Goals: Confessions of a Late Bloomer,” by Andrea Jarrell. (I’m afraid it says a lot about where my thinking and overall disposition, as a writer, are these days that I would click on such a title.) It’s very much worth your time and helped me to think more clearly about the ways in which Jarrell’s issues—shying away from “going for it” with regard to her writing goals, in part due to fear of rejection—do and don’t apply to me. Her ultimate advice, to keep showing up and doing the work, was, like Russo’s note that writing is not about the money, was nothing ground-breaking for me, but there is something refreshing and encouraging about watching someone work up to such a conclusion.

Jarrell also links to this Roxane Gay advice column to two writers who fear they’re too old to pursue their writing dreams. (Again, I hate to admit what it says about me that I so quickly clicked on that link.) It’s terrific advice—and again, nothing earth-shattering (in essence, age ain’t nothing but a number). Perhaps more illuminating is this compendium of Gay’s advice to writers and reflections on her own “overnight success” as a writer, from her prolific Twitter account. As much as I enjoy Gay’s writing, what has always impressed me most about her is her relentless work ethic. I can remember seeing her name in tons of little literary magazines before and during graduate school (ten years ago now), and I knew she was an editor of PANK.

Hopefully someone will see these thoughts and links together and find some of it useful. Spoiler alert: there are no shortcuts, no hacks or tips or tricks to instant success as a writer. If I could synthesize what I’ve learned from these various pieces, it’s this call to keep showing up, to putting in the work, day after day, and building something bit by bit. Again, there’s nothing flashy in this advice, but how few writers manage to follow it.