Writing advice: Do all the things, try all the stuff
Recently I stood in front of a colleague’s classroom of students—American Literature students, to be specific—and tried to tell them what it’s like being a writer.
I was there at my colleague’s request: some of his students were interested in creative writing, and he wanted me to talk with them about my background, my writing process, my historical novel, and how I came to the decision that writing was a career path I wanted to take.
I didn’t dress up for the visit. In fact, I wore a hoodie with a picture of an old typewriter on it, jeans, and my comfy boots lined with shearling. So, basically, I wore slippers. Why, you might ask? Well, because most of the writers I know, when they’re lucky enough to be writing, tend to stay in their pajamas.
Being a writer is not a fancy gig. Any young person interested in writing as a profession should know this to be true.
It’s always interesting talking to college students about possibility—about the potential inherent in each one of their futures. It can be hard to know what college students think of you, when you’re a professor standing before them. Some, I believe, are truly wide-eyed and open, eager for the things you have to share. Others are more jaded, unwilling to trust that what you have to say has any relevance to life as they know it, other than the role that information plays in earning them the grade they need to pass the class.
In the 12 years that I’ve been teaching in higher education, there have been many times when I’ve stood before my students, answered their questions about life, and felt like a complete fraud. What they see, at least on the surface and at least most of the time, is a dressed-up, make-up on, clean-haired, put-together woman whom they assume—or least they have in the past—isn’t so much older than they are that she can’t relate. Or, at least remember what it was like to be in their shoes.
What they don’t know is that I only manage to get dressed up on the days that I teach, and when I’m actually able to make it out the door to church on a Sunday. And that’s it. It’s not impossible to put on makeup, shower yourself, blow-dry your hair and to make yourself look presentable a few days out of the week. Also: while I do remember college with great clarity, as each year passes I find it more and more difficult to reconcile the woman I am now with the girl I was then. That, and I don’t know any of the names of the musicians to whom they listen. And, in addition, I believe that reality television plus social media oversharing—things these young people have never been without—are evidence of the devil at work in the world.
Don’t laugh. I’m serious.
Back to the college students. Basically, they tend to think that I have it all together. I spent several years liking the fact that my students thought of me in this way. The older I get, though, the more invested I am in authenticity. Now, I’m as honest with them as I possibly can be about the realities of life after college. I do my best not to scare them.
For example, take this fine group of American Lit students. Yes, I told them about what I studied when I was their age, the work that I did after college, and about my experiences in graduate school. I shared my journey to becoming a published author—how I spent hours upon hours and months upon months on research and drafting alone, and about how I can be crazy superstitious about letting others read my work too soon (bad juju).
I told them, straight up, how difficult it’s been to write creatively after having children. I told them it’s not an avocation—or heck, a vocation—for the faint of heart.
They asked questions. Good questions. When they asked me for advice, I wanted to laugh. Because there are days—most days, actually—when I feel as if I, too, am just starting out. How can I be the one giving the advice?
The best advice for college students, of course, rings true for all of us. When it comes to deciding what you want to do with the rest of your life, the only thing to do is to do it. Do all the things. Try all the stuff. Screw up, adjust, and try again. Stay open. Work hard. Be kind.
Also: I may have made an entire classroom of college juniors promise me they wouldn’t have kids until they’re 30.
Talk to Katherine: Katherine Scott Crawford is a novelist, adjunct college professor, hiker and mom.
Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.