The German novelist Thomas Mann once suggested that writers are those people who find writing difficult, and I suspect the vast majority of writers would agree with him (I don’t really want to know about the few lucky ones who wouldn’t!). But don’t despair. The good news I wish to bring to you today is that to be a writer, you don’t actually have to write. This is the secret no one tells you. In fact, it’s the opposite, as counter-intuitive as that may sound: if you want to become a writer, writing itself can get in the way. The key to achieving most of your life goals, as the sociologist Erving Goffman argued convincingly, is in making the right social impressions. And with this in mind, who can afford to put extraordinary daily amounts of hours into writing, like Flaubert or Nabokov did? Luckily for them, they lived in a time before the world became obsessed with continuous communication. But today, to be a writer requires so much more than merely writing. Below are some suggestions to help you in this endeavour (and trust me, I’ve tried most of them and can tell you – they work!).
Get busy in cyberspace
Open a variety of social media accounts and describe yourself in your profiles as a ‘writer’, or better still ‘author’, even if all you’ve ever published is a poem for your grandmother’s birthday on your blog. Post daily photos of yourself at your writing desk, or of your writing desk itself, or of your cat on your writing desk, or better still – all of these. Post daily updates of your (imaginary) word counts (if on Twitter, use the hashtag #amwriting), but be careful with your numbers. What you want is to earn respect amongst your peers, not their contempt or envy. Stick to moderate, yet decent, amounts – around 1000-2000 words. Sometimes, but not too often, post complaints about feeling blocked. This will earn you sympathy and even more respect – after all, Hemingway and Fitzgerald suffered this way too. And don’t forget to post as many motivational quotes from writers as possible, particularly from Anne Lamott.
The aforementioned Flaubert and Nabokov were recluses, as many other iconic writers were, but this is an indulgence of past times. It wouldn’t have served them well today. It’s not enough to stay at your desk, navigating cyberspace, otherwise you might as well just write, and forget about achieving your real goal. If you truly aspire to be a writer, please remember how very, very, very important it is to be seen – especially at a variety of literary events. Yet be strategic about your choices: this is not about following your interests, like attending some obscure reading of Rilke’s poems. That won’t get you anywhere. What you want is to become a fixture at major festivals, launches of future bestsellers, announcements of literary prize winners and panels with the latest, hottest newcomers on the literary scene. Attend these events diligently yet never come early nor leave late. After all, what you want is to make the impression that it was a major effort on your part to attend the function-in-question and while you feel obliged to grace the said event with your presence, your heart is really at your desk, amongst the pages of your masterpiece-in-progress and what you truly are is a recluse…
You are what you wear
Of course, if you are serious about becoming a writer, then you must pay careful attention not only to where you go, but also to what you look like. You’ve probably never heard about this in any of the writing courses you’ve attended, but clothes are highly important for writers. See, you write what you wear… Or something along these lines. Please forgive my rusty syntax – I’m a bit out of writing practice just now. Anyway, historically speaking, even those unfortunate writers who actually spent their time writing often paid attention to their clothes. George Sand wore trousers at a time when no other woman dared to. Anais Nin designed her own strange, alluring velvet dresses and long flowing capes to accentuate her already-exotic persona.
Nowadays, though, to create the right literary impression, such individuality is a big ‘no-no’. You don’t want to be original – originality is a death sentence for contemporary writers, who in their submissions are usually required to demonstrate to publishers that their books resemble other, already successful, ones. Clarity is what matters for our purposes. Your clothing should demonstrate where you belong. Just as the publishers want to be clear on the genre of your book, so does everyone want to be sure what kind of a writer you are. If you choose to be a poet, vintage clothes and hats are the way to go. If you are a hipster-writer who (hypothetically, of course) writes articles on gaming and alternative sexualities while also penning a gritty love story set in shared houses in Brunswick, then pierce most of your facial features and ensure your jeans sit low enough to expose your shapely bottom. If you are a so-called issue-writer of literary fiction, go for sensible shoes, and glasses with colourful, thick frames. There are many options out there; the main thing is to follow your passion and become the writer you really want to be.
Learn writers’ speak
For a writer it is not only important to be seen, but also to be heard. The key to making the right impression is in choosing your comments purposefully. It’s not compulsory to be garrulous and to dominate all conversations, although this can definitely help by demonstrating that you are a ‘natural storyteller’. Alternatively, you can just slip in occasional writerly remarks when in company. Phrases like the following are a guarantee of advancing your goal: ‘My book’s development is at a stage where the work needs me entirely’, or ‘I don’t write my characters. They write themselves.’ These are best said in a quiet tone with eyes turned dreamily towards the horizon. To expand your repertoire, listen in carefully to the conversations at those literary events I have suggested you attend.
And don’t forget to read
So far, we’ve established that, fortunately, writing isn’t as integral to being a writer as we have been traditionally led to believe. However, I don’t want you to get the impression that reading is also not a part of the deal. I’m very sorry, but if you wish to be a writer, you do need to do some reading. Still, if you follow my approach, I ensure you it’ll significantly reduce the actual time you have to spend on books.
Read only the most recently released books, and only those which draw the most reviews, media attention, prizes and sales. Such works are most likely to be conversational topics at the literary events you’ll attend and, having read them, you will be able fully participate while raising your eyebrows at anyone who hasn’t read them, thus disputing their writerly credentials while enhancing yours. And if anyone, in turn, raises their eyebrows at you for not having read Crime and Punishment or Great Expectations, you can confidently respond that the classics were written by privileged white males and for those reasons you refuse to read them. To increase your literary reputation even further, announce as loudly as you can that this year you pledge to read only female Icelandic writers, and only those ones who are vocal advocates of carbon reductions, and that you’re going to blog about this. And don’t worry, you don’t really need to write the blog: there are already too many writers’ blogs around (including my own) and no one bothers with them.
Now, enough reading – go and enjoy your writer’s life!