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Petina Gappah's Letter to a Young Writer

An Elegy for EasterlyPetina Gappah relaxes in a pubPetina Gappah‘s success with her debut collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly, has caused a furrow full of advice-seeking prospective writers to open in her literary garden. She has written them a letter containing the heretofore unrevealed key to the writers’ kingdom, and has generously shared her notes with BOOK SA. It’s a terrific piece:

Do you want to be a writer? Then read this, because here, I reveal the secret to success!

I have been getting a lot of emails and Facebook messages from people who want to write. A lot of people want to know what the magic thing is that you have to do to be a writer or get published. Is it the right agent? Luck? How do you get the right agent? The right publisher? How do you get a publisher? Others ask me to read their work or write introductions to their books. The most recent email I got was from a guy who said he had been working on his novel for years, and wanted to know at what point he should stop.

I cannot always review people’s work; when I have time, I am happy to do it because I love editing, I love it when I can help someone make their work better. I used to be very active on the Zoetrope Virtual Studio, and one of the thrills was when I lit upon a story that showed promise, and I helped to make it sing. I am also happy to recommend writers to my agent, she does not take many new people, however, so I will only do this when I feel the writer has a reasonable chance to be taken on. I was delighted earlier this year when she took on someone I consider one of the most talented writers I have read and whom I had recommended to her.

But it is easy to give this sort of guidance to people who have something in the hand, easy to recommend them to an agent, easy to help them make their work better so that it is accepted by an agent. A lot more people just want to know how they can be “real”, and that word keeps coming up, how they can be “real” writers. It is to these aspiring writers that I now reveal the secret to writing success.

Write.

That’s it.

Just write.

A writer is a person who writes.

Talent is overrated. Luck is overrated. The right agent is overrated. It helps to have all three, but they are all worthless without that thing in your hand, the manuscript, the thing in your hand that may become a book for which trees will die and that will be published and primped and pampered and put on bookshelves and paid for by people.

And this is what is underrated: the sitting down and grinding it out part. Because that is what writing is. You, at your computer or with your notebook, writing, and writing, revising and writing, and revising again.

As Henry Fielding says, examples work more forcibly on the mind than precepts, so let me introduce you to two of my writing friends.

Meet Zoey and Xavier. They live in two different countries, one is tall and fat, the other is short and thin, one is black and blue, the other is yellow and green, one has a low but loud laugh, the other a high but quiet one … they could not be more different to each other. They have this in common though, they are both outrageously, ridiculously talented at turning out a sentence. Xavier, is, quite frankly, one of the most musical writers you will ever read, his is the kind of writing that flows into itself and then out at you … like Pachelbel’s Canon in D, it wraps itself around your head and enters your blood stream and speeds up your heart rate. If his writing could be patented, it would cure heart disease. Zoey has a brain larger than the Grand Canyon, she can generate ideas faster than your nearest McDonald’s churns out Happy Meals, she is brilliant and brain-buzzingly original.

Xavier has written a couple of stories. Zoey has published three stories, including one that was chosen in an internet poll as the best story to be published on the internet in the last 1000 years. It was that good. Both of these writers were headhunted by agents. This was 7 years ago.

They have not written much since then.

What have they been doing in those 7 years? Well, Xavier had a bit of a set back when he applied to the creative writing programme at Iowa and didn’t get in. It took him more than three years to recover from the disappointment. In fact, he is still recovering. Zoey fell in love, but not with Xavier, even though they were in love with each other’s minds. She got marrried, she had a baby, and then fell out of love and then had a divorce. Then her country collapsed and she spent all her time writing angry, brilliant and brain-buzzlingly original short essays about that. Then she set up a blog and wrote short but brilliant and brain-buzzingly original posts about the chaos of her life. In between, Xavier and Zoey sent each other emails mocking those who had published books. Xavier was inspired by these emails to set up a blog in which he reviewed, usually scathingly, books published by other writers, concentrating his vitriol particularly on writers who had been on the Iowa writing programme.

The clunkiness of the prose, exclaims Xavier!

And talk about passé, says Zoey.

You would be so much more original, Xavier says to Zoey.

And you can write better than that in your sleep, says Zoey.

They could do so much better, they agree.

Well, maybe.

Possibly.

Very likely, in fact.

Except they won’t.

They won’t do better and they haven’t written anything better because they haven’t written at all.

A writer is a person who writes.

So, this is the answer in its beautiful and stark simplicity. You can have all the talent in the world, but this is nothing if you do not actually write.

So write. Just write.

The rest can take care of itself, but without that thing in your hand, that manuscript that could be a book, that thing in your hand that comes only after hours of sitting down and doing it, you will never give yourself the chance to be a “real” writer.

Just write.

Because a writer is a person who writes.

That is the beginning of everything.

Book details

This post originally appeared at PetinaGappah @ Blogspot. It is reproduced with permission.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    November 9th, 2009 @16:40 #
     
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    A delight. Am going to bookmark and forward to the many who coming knocking at my cyberdoor with similar queries.

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    November 9th, 2009 @16:49 #
     
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    Just the tonic for someone who wants to get started, isn't it?

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  • <a href="http://mayafowler.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Maya</a>
    Maya
    November 9th, 2009 @20:54 #
     
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    This is exactly it, and I'm so glad someone has finally formulated it so succinctly.

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  • <a href="http://byronloker.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Byron Loker</a>
    Byron Loker
    November 10th, 2009 @14:57 #
     
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    "The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair." - Mary Heaton Vorse

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    November 10th, 2009 @15:23 #
     
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    Brilliant, Byron.

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