The Only Way to be a Writer

Penguin Random House UK has published a digital booklet entitled “How To Get Published.” It is a guide to “navigating the publishing process as an aspiring author.” You can read it here and get PRH’s advice on how to plan your writing schedule, fit your writing life around other commitments, decide whether or not to take master courses or go to writer’s retreats, manage the financial challenges of writing, get an agent, and work with an editor at a publishing house, or you can stay here and get better advice.

Most of what I know about how writers become writers I learned from Mordecai Richler, the late award-winning novelist, essayist, and screenwriter, who was the first big-time author I knew well. I loved him as a writer and a human being, and I studied his method. It was surprisingly simple and applicable to all kinds of writing—fiction, poetry, non-fiction, journalism. He worked at it.

Mordecai did not go to school to be a writer. He dropped out of university and started writing. He did not go to writers’ retreats. He did not believe writing could be taught—it was learned in the doing. He apprenticed himself by reading writers he admired, gleaning what he could from them, and writing his own stuff. He spent long days at his desk honing his craft, page by page, chapter by chapter. Even into his late sixties he was still writing for eight hours a day, every day.

If you follow Mordecai’s lead, you don’t have to worry about fitting your writing life around your other commitments. Writing is your commitment, your vocation, your chief employment. Everything fits around it. You might have to do some kinds of writing you aren’t especially proud of to pay the bills but you never stop writing. (He wrote about his checkered film-writing career.)

Mordecai didn’t waste a lot of time worrying about getting the right agent or the right publisher. For most of his career he was his own agent. (Read “Do You Really Need An Agent?” here.) He worried about doing his best work and had confidence that his best work would find him the publisher he needed, and it invariably did. He was conscientious about maintaining relationships and building the right bridges but always on the strength of the work.

He had a reputation as a drinker, because he drank. The drinking became something of a Mordecai trope. Someone once wrote a one-man play about him in which he was never without a drink in his hand. The first time I had lunch with him he had two scotches before we were served, two glasses of wine with the meal, and two cognacs after, and I was afraid to return to the office with my expense report. You could get the wrong impression about Mordecai’s lifestyle from moments like that, and many did. He was as disciplined as anyone I’ve ever met. When he was writing, which, again, was most of the time, he did not drink until he had put in a full day, and then not a lot. He tended to drink more on the infrequent occasions when he was away from his desk, in less comfortable environs, either conducting business (as on our first meeting) or relaxing with friends. You don’t write twenty-some excellent books and thousands of articles without discipline.

If you don’t like Mordecai or know his work, or need a larger sample to convince you of the rightness of his ways, I refer you to Stephen King’s On Writing, justly celebrated as a how-to masterpiece. King has a lot to say about avoiding adverbs and the passive voice but his strongest messages are to read a lot—“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write”—and to throw out your television, chain yourself to a hard chair in a cold basement in front of a cement wall and pound away at a keyboard, day after day, until you produce something decent. Then start your revisions. Here’s Abidemi Sanusi saying much the same.

It is always about the work. Some people seem to think that by declaring themselves to be writers and making themselves available as writers or having an agent anoint them as a writer that a writing career is sure to follow. I’ve heard, “Like Woody Allen says, eighty percent of success is just showing up.” But that’s not what Woody Allen meant. I asked him. What he meant was that eighty percent of success was showing up to work, day after day, at your craft. The hardest thing is to show up and put in the hours, diligently, repeatedly, but if you do you are far more likely to find something worthwhile in your output. (His answer didn’t make the final cut of our interview. Too much good stuff about Scarlett Johansson and how to eat a banana.)

Writers write, and the best writers are usually those who work hardest at it. No, it won’t kill you to acquire a credential or hire an agent but without the work all else is useless. So get to work.