Blue Pen on Yellow Paper: A Pocketful of Advice for Young Writers
BY MARLIN BARTON
Marlin “Bart” Barton delivered these remarks at the Alabama High School Literary Arts Awards ceremony.
I teach creative writing every week to my students at Mt. Meigs juvenile facility and to my students at Converse College, who I work with face to face twice a year and then long distance during the semester that follows. Some days I feel like I know what I’m doing; other days, when I struggle with my own writing, I wonder if I know what I’m doing at all. (This isn’t hyperbole.) But I think it’s good for me as a teacher to have these struggles and doubts because it helps me remember what my students are going through.
So I’d like to talk to you for a few minutes as both a writer and a teacher, as one who knows something about writing and having a “career” as a writer and one who knows something about the struggle to write honestly and well. (You’ll notice I used quotation marks around the word “career.” That’s because there are two kinds of careers. A career, without quotation marks, means you actually make a living at what you do. A “career” means you don’t make a living at what you do but you do it anyway—because it’s something you love. In case you’re wondering, I’m having a “career.”)
I’m going to assume, as dangerous as that may be, that all of you here take writing very seriously—it’s not something you do as a lark, is it? (Though I sometimes hear adults say, “I think I’ll write a novel someday.” I want to say in return, “Oh, really. It probably won’t take you too long. Just dash it off. There’s really no learning curve to it.”)
Those of you here in this room know that success in writing takes more than some vague desire. It takes some level of talent; it takes time (when there are a million other things you could be doing. As the writer Harry Crews once said, “The world doesn’t want you to write. The world wants you to go to the fair and eat cotton candy, preferably seven days a week.”); and it takes commitment. Some of you, perhaps many of you, are beginning to contemplate a career (or a “career”) as a writer. So here’s about a pocketful of advice from me, and a pocketful is about all I’ve got.
First, congratulations on your accomplishments, but don’t get ahead of yourselves. Enter contests and submit to high school literary magazines, but don’t worry too much about publishing yet. Right now learn as much as you can about craft. You have wonderful teachers, many of whom are in this room with you. And learn to read as a writer, not just as a reader. Pay attention to how a writer moves you from one scene to the next, how he or she moves a character across a room and keeps you riveted to that character at the same time. Not an easy trick. The nice thing about learning to read as a writer is that it won’t ruin the simple and enjoyable act of reading as a reader; it will deepen it.
When a teacher suggests a certain book or poem for you, there’s probably a reason. Read it; read it carefully. It probably parallels your work in some way—but it’s better than you are, at least right now. Learn from it. I read writers all the time who are better than me. Hopefully I’ll learn from them. Craft can be taught to a large extent, but true artistry can’t—not by a teacher. The closest you’ll come to learning artistry is through those books that are closest to your vision of the world and to what you’re trying to do as a writer.
Read interviews with writers you admire (which you’ll find in such places as the Paris Review’s Writers at Work series and the University Press of Mississippi’s Conversation with series), and when you read contradictory remarks or advice, figure out which advice is best for you and your writing.
If you pursue creative writing in college, take as many writing classes as you can, and if your school offers a major in creative writing, then do that, but don’t major only in creative writing. Be a bit more practical—double major.
You may decide to go on to graduate school and work toward a Master of Fine Arts. I took that route and don’t regret it. I learned more about craft during my time at Wichita State University than I could have learned on my own. Without my time there I don’t think I ever would have published and wouldn’t be doing the teaching that I am now. But here’s one thing to remember: If you choose to pursue an MFA, do it only because it will help your writing. It may help you in the job market—it never hurts to have a master’s degree of any kind—but the job market for teaching English and creative writing is not good. You can’t count on having a full-time job right out of grad school, but there are other types of jobs out there where writing well is an asset.
All right, I’ve tried, so far, to offer some practical advice. I’d like now to talk about something that’s a bit more difficult to discuss, and that’s criticism and rejection, which are a major part of any writer’s life.
Many of you take creative writing classes that are set up in the workshop format—where your work is discussed by your peers and your teacher and all you can do is sit and listen, sometimes to some very critical remarks, which are hopefully offered in a generous and helpful manner. The truth is, no matter when we hear criticism or how nicely (or bluntly) it is put, it hurts. Why? This may seem like a silly question. After all, no one wants to be criticized. For writers it’s because, in large part, we are what we write. It’s difficult to separate who we are from the art we try to make. Harry Crews (yes, him again) once made remarks about critics who “don’t like my work, and therefore don’t like me.” We are what we write. And criticism, whether it comes from a fellow student in a workshop, a teacher, or in a letter from an agent or a New York publisher, or from a great aunt, always hurts to some degree. A relative of Flannery O’Connor’s once told her, “I read your book. I did not like it.” (Actually, O’Connor probably was not hurt by that. She probably would have been worried if her relative had liked it.)
But criticism is necessary for our growth as writers, and it is a major part of our lives as writers. It is simply a fact of life. And a workshop is trial by fire, but think of it as basic training, like in the military. While you’re crawling on the ground under the barbed wire the people shooting are aiming over your head, and the bullets are rubber. So listen to them whizzing by. Learn from them. Grow. Become stronger.
Now, when you begin submitting to journals and agents and editors at publishing houses, it may sometimes feel like those sons-of-a-gun are shooting at you. I once received an NEA fellowship rejection the day before Christmas and a Sewanee Review rejection on a rewrite that they’d asked for the day after Christmas. It was as if they were saying, “Merry Christmas, sucker!” It felt a little like they were gunning for me. But they weren’t. It was just part of the business of writing.
I could clutter up this talk with many more rejection stories of my own, but I won’t, though I will say I know a writer who’s published thirty short stories, and it’s taken him twenty-one years and 550 rejections, and counting. (And yes, that writer is me, of course.)
I’ll end with just a couple of rejections of famous books that my wife Rhonda found on-line, and then I’ll make a few more remarks and try to leave you with some encouraging words.
Here’s a rejection of The Diary of Anne Frank: “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.” Moby Dick: “We regret to say that our united opinion is entirely against the book as we do not think it would be at all suitable for the juvenile market in England. It is very long, rather old-fashioned.” Lord of the Flies: “An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” Finally, Catch-22: “I haven’t really the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny—possibly even satire—but it is really not funny on any intellectual level.”
All of these rejections seem ridiculous now, easy to dismiss, but, with the obvious exception of Anne Frank, think how difficult these rejections were for the writers at the time, even if they didn’t see the actual critical remarks I just read. But I think what’s hardest for most writers is the fear that while they may know they have some level of talent, they suspect it isn’t enough, that they lack just that little bit that would allow them to write a truly fine book, that they don’t have quite what it takes to be published by the best presses. (Maybe writers like Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison have achieved enough success that they don’t have this fear any longer. I don’t know.)
On a bad day, the fear can be even worse. Instead of thinking you don’t have quite enough talent, you think you’re a fraud and will be found out, and that every little criticism and every rejection is proof you’re a fraud. Handling these fears can be difficult because no matter how many poems or stories or books you may publish, these feelings won’t go away, at least for most of us. But here’s the thing to remember: While these feelings may be bad for us emotionally, and they are—they are good for our writing. If you ever lose these fears, you will probably be writing poorly, and you won’t even know it.
But there is reason enough to fight through these fears. Here’s what Sherwood Anderson, an American novelist and a great short story writer, had to say in a letter to his son John who was studying art: “The reason for being an artist is that it is the finest challenge there is. It’s a man’s only possible approach to God. I mean to humbleness, decency. I happen to have given myself the challenge of a prose writer. I am going to stick with it while I live. And it isn’t because of success or fame or anything else. It’s because that is my challenge to myself.”
And finally, from a somewhat more contemporary American writer, Andre Dubus, who has sadly passed:
“An older writer knows what a younger one has not yet learned. What is demanding and fulfilling is writing a single word, [then] writing several of them, which become a sentence. When a writer does that, day after day, working alone with little encouragement, often with discouragement flowing in the writer’s own blood, and with an occasional rush of excitement that empties oneself, so that the self is for minutes longer in harmony with eternal astonishments and visions of truth, right there on the page on the desk, and when a writer does this work steadily enough to be a book, the treasure is on the desk. If the manuscript itself, mailed out to the world, where other truths prevail, is never published, the writer will suffer bitterness, sorrow, anger, and, more dangerously, despair, convinced that the work is not worthy, so not worth those days at the desk. But the writer who endures and keeps working will finally know that writing the book was something hard and glorious, for at the desk a writer must be free of prejudice, meanness of spirit, pettiness, and hatred; strive to be a better human being than the writer normally is, and to do this through concentration on a single word, and then another, and another. This is splendid work, as worthy and demanding as any, and the will and resilience to do it are good for the writer’s soul. If the work is not published, or is published for little money and less public attention, it remains a spiritual, mental, and physical achievement; and if, in public, it is the widow’s mite, it is also, like the widow, more blessed.”
These are all beautiful words, and they are true words, but I have to add, while they are wonderful to hear, they are harder to live. You have to live them every day. Because ultimately what’s most important is what we put on the page, and that does have to be its own reward.
I hope to write better, to publish more, and to have more readers, but more importantly the writing I do with a blue pen on yellow paper gives both shape and meaning to my life, and I know it does the same for you. That’s the reason we write, whether we’re fifteen or fifty.
Marlin Barton is from the Black Belt region of Alabama. His most recent book is a novel, The Cross Garden (Frederic C. Beil, 2011). Barton’s collection of stories, The Dry Well (Beil, 2001), received the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook Award for the best first volume of short stories published that year. Other books include a novel, A Broken Thing (Beil, 2003), and a second collection of stories, Dancing by the River (Beil, 2005). His stories have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies, including Shenandoah, The Southern Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Sewanee Review, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and The Best American Short Stories. He teaches in, and helps direct, the Writing Our Stories project, a program for juvenile offenders in Alabama. He also teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Converse College.