This post originally appeared on October 23, 2012.
Some of you may have noticed that my author bio reveals that I’ve recently changed my institutional affiliation—I have left Chowan University in North Carolina and accepted a position teaching creative writing and literature at my alma mater, St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. I’ve written before (though not for this blog) about my undergraduate years and the vital role that my professors played in turning me into the writer and thinker I am today, so you can probably understand that I’m quite excited to be back, teaching alongside the scholars and artists who inspired me when I was an 18-year-old, flannel-clad Gen-Xer who had a vague idea that he wanted to be a writer, but didn’t quite know how he was going to get there.
I’ve been thinking a lot about 18-year-old Bradley these past few weeks. Part of me almost expects to run into him, walking across the quad or coming out of the dining hall. Part of me feels like I already have run into him—or run into his doppelganger from 2012, at any rate. I’m teaching two creative writing classes and one literature class this semester, and these students are—for the most part—really enthusiastic about what they’re reading and writing. I’ve taught thoughtful and ambitious students before, of course, but never so many at one time. So it’s been an exhilarating experience.
One thing I’ve noticed about the undergraduate writers I’m teaching this semester is that many of them seem savvier about things like publishing opportunities and grad school programs than I was when I studied here. I’ll be giving a talk later this semester to the students who work on the campus literary magazine, and one thing that the student who organized the talk told me they’d definitely be interested in hearing about was how I got editors to pay attention to my work, and what advice I have to give about getting creative work published.
On the one hand, I admire these students for their work ethic and foresight. It didn’t really occur to me until my senior year that I might try to publish some of the stories and essays I’d been writing, and even then, I didn’t actually bother buying envelopes or printing out the stuff I had on my hard drive. Playing Mortal Kombat on my roommate’s Sega Genesis seemed like a much more productive use of my time. These students know about literary magazines and are familiar with small presses, and I think that’s really cool. They know stuff about their contemporary literature scene that I didn’t know about mine when I graduated 13 years ago. I’m pleased to see that—it suggests a dedication to reading and knowing good creative work, and who knows? Such knowledge among the younger generation might be enough to save our literary culture.
At the same time, though, I worry a little bit about this focus on publishing. I’m concerned that the students have sort of picked up on and internalized the “publish or perish” mentality that their professors are working under. If you want to call yourself a writer, this mentality insists, you’ve got to get stuff published. Submit to a magazine. Send query letters to agents. Most importantly, write the kind of stuff that other people want to read.
Of course, it’s important for student writers to be mindful of audience, but I fear that this focus on publishing and “getting the work out there” could be bad for their development. We don’t get too many opportunities in life to just do what we want to do, to “chase our muse”, if you want to be all writer-ly and precious about it. When I think back at my own undergraduate writing, most of it was probably pretty terrible, but it was still stuff I was excited about, and it represented my very best attempts at articulating stuff that mattered to me. I wrote a short story about a barfly whose lost love—dead for decades—returned to him one dark and stormy night. I wrote a screenplay about love and jealousy and murder. I wrote a play that absolutely wasn’t about my break-up with my college girlfriend the summer before our senior year (okay—it kinda was; don’t tell her, though). I wrote an essay about feeling humbled when I saw the Aurora Borealis on the university’s golf course late one night. I wrote a comic book script about an amnesiac superhero who wound up owning a comic book store in upstate New York. I wrote several poorly-conceived performance art pieces. The less said about them, the better.
I doubt I’m ever going to revisit these pieces, or write anything like the again. Although I have been dabbling in fiction lately, I remain pretty committed to creative nonfiction forms—particularly the essay. But I’m glad I had the experience of spending those years trying out different things, experimenting with style while searching for my own voice. I’m afraid if I had known that what I was working on—and pouring a ton of effort into—was ultimately “un-publishable,” I might not have bothered. And that would have been terrible for my writing.
I finished my undergraduate career at St. Lawrence during the summer of 1999, after taking some time off due to health problems. I spent a lot of that summer hanging out and talking with Bob Cowser, who at the time was a young new creative nonfiction professor and who, over the years, has become a close friend and valued mentor. By that point, I’d seen enough of the world beyond college that I knew I had to think more seriously about the future if I wanted to be a writer. One afternoon, after he had given me some positive feedback on an essay I’d shown him, I asked, “Do you have any thoughts on where I should send it?”
“Why?” he asked.
I was surprised. By that point, I knew I was going on to grad school. And I knew that if I wanted to be a Real Writer, I would need to publish stuff.
“You’re 23-years-old,” he told me. “You have your entire life and career ahead of you. Right now, you don’t need to worry about publishing—you need to worry about honing your craft and becoming a better writer. Seriously, man—give it two years. Start sending stuff out when you’re 25. In the meantime, work on getting better. You probably could start publishing now in smaller magazines—you’re good enough. But if you wait and continue to get better, you can make sure that, years from now, you can be proud of every publication you list on your CV.”
At the time, that advice kind of stung. In hindsight, though, I think it’s the most valuable advice Bob could have possibly given. The truth is, I’m glad some of those early attempts didn’t wind up published for all the world to see. They were important for my development, but they weren’t fully-formed pieces that I could really take pride in. As it happened, I didn’t really start publishing until I was 27, but the stuff I’ve published since then has been stuff that I’m pleased to call my own.
I think, when I talk to those student writers in November, I’ll tell them about cover letters, and reading the magazines they want to send stuff to, and all that. But I’m also going to give them the same advice Bob gave me. “Slow down. Try different things. Write like you have another 50 or 60 years to worry about publishing. The work that results may not be brilliant, and it may not be publishable, but you’ll have learned something about your own style, and the voice you find might be your own.”
What advice do you have for student writers anxious to get started with their careers setting the world on fire with their prose or verse?