THREE SECRETS TO CREATE THE WRITING LIFE YOU WANT
by Lisa Bubert
The question is a familiar one, full of angst and hand-wringing, one I often asked myself but never out loud: How do you do it? How do you become a writer?
There are more questions contained in this question—Where do you get your ideas? What should I write about? Where should I start?—and all these questions lead to the ultimate question: Is there a secret to this thing that I am not privy to?
Yes and no. Yes, there are secrets. It wouldn’t be an art if there were not. But no, they are not secrets you couldn’t be privy to. It only takes knowing who to ask and learning that the person to ask is ultimately yourself.
Almost five years ago, I decided to write for real. I had always written in journals, blogged, tried my hand at stories, poems, even a novel that never got past ten thousand words—but on May 24th, 2014, three weeks after my wedding, I decided that I would not feel whole if I did not make the writing a thing that I did for real. I had an idea for a novel, a very basic one. My grandmother had died the previous year and I was in grief. I had suffered the panic and anxiety attacks of the early “what am I going to do with my life” twenties and had started seeing a therapist. I wanted to write. More specifically, I wanted to be a writer, if only because I didn’t want my life to come to its end without having really tried for it.
So, I started to write. For a year, before the sun came up, 500 words before my day job at the library. My novel stayed very basic. I wrote, re-wrote, tore up pages, re-wrote again, read about false starts and gnashed my teeth. The story changed and changed again. I was learning—but I was also completely and utterly alone.
No one knew how important this was to me. Why I couldn’t stay out late with friends because I needed to wake up early and work on this project no one knew about. I didn’t even really tell my husband what I was doing—oh, the shame of him knowing I was trying at this! And that was exactly it—that I was trying. I was unsure of my work. Nothing I produced felt like it was that great, though it definitely felt good in the making-my-life-whole sense. But if I were really to make my life whole, I needed someone to know I was doing this. So after a year of writing alone, I joined a local critique group.
My first shared reading was a nerve-wracking one. I could see all the imperfections in my work. They were judging me on this one piece. All of this had been private and if I failed, I failed silently, with no one watching. (Of course, it hadn’t occurred to me to define what this failure was—being rejected? Never having my work shared? If that was the case, I was already failing.)
Nauseous as I was, they finished the piece and declared it worthwhile—beautiful even. Sure, it had some things to improve on—all drafts do. But the bones were there and that was what mattered. I was hooked.
All of this is to tell you the first secret of becoming a writer—put yourself out there. Find your fellow writers and share your work. Get used to sharing things you know are not ready because you need to learn and you must be in the student’s seat to do so. Tell your loved ones this is a thing you want and that it is important. Because until you can admit this to the world, you won’t be able to convince yourself.
After a year of struggling alone with the book, I declared to my husband and my closest friends that I was writing. I finished the first draft mere months after joining the group.
Finishing a draft is well and good. So is editing that draft. But if a novel is to become published in the traditional sense (which is what I wanted), then I needed to do more. I needed to know how to query agents. I needed publishing credits. I needed to expand my network (we had just moved to Nashville so my lovely critique group was now gone). I needed to become a professional. And to do all this, I needed to become accountable.
Here is where knowing yourself really comes in handy. What I knew was this: I liked goals, lists, checking things off those lists, calendars, spreadsheets, and I was a morning person. (Yes, I am that person.)
Before, I threw my organizational prowess into my job at the library, other projects at home, and everything that wasn’t my writing (because my writing was art! you can’t organize art!). But I wanted this. So when January rolled around, I took an index card and wrote down the goals for the year:
- Finish the novel and begin querying.
- Submit three new pieces to journals.
- Receive more than 100 rejections.
Each of these goals required planning. Finishing the novel required I actually work on the novel. Submitting new pieces required I write them. Receiving that many rejections meant I needed enough pieces to submit widely.
I came up with two ways to remain accountable to finishing my novel and completing the other goals on my list. 1) Stick to a daily word quota (500 words), or 2) stick to a daily time quota (an hour and a half five days a week). When I was drafting, the word quota was the best goal to shoot for. When I was submitting or editing, the time quota worked best. The point was to close out each day being able to say that I accomplished my duty, whether it was the 500 words and/or the time spent at the craft. (Gold stars on a calendar help. As does an internet blocker.)
Let me digress here to share a real trade secret: Duotrope, an international database of publisher, agent, and literary journal listings and statistics.
None of us come with a head full of great journals perfect for our work. We may have a few dream places—Glimmer Train and Tin House to name my two, and yes, I am still grieving the announcement of their upcoming closures—but everybody must start small on their path to greatness. There are literally thousands of wonderful journals out there just waiting for your work. The world is your submission oyster—and Duotrope is your path to the acceptance pearl.
It will give you the low-down on each participating journal—if they’re open to submissions, what kind of work they publish, word limits, editor interviews, how long the wait is for responses, and (the best part) comparative listings of similar journals. So if you’re submitting that weird, experimental piece you feel would only work for Conjunctions, Duotrope can suggest other journals to check out based on where other writers who submitted to Conjunctions have also submitted. And the other best part is Duotrope’s list of top 100s. Top 100 most approachable journals, most exclusive journals, most likely to send a personalized response, most likely to not respond at all. It takes some of guesswork out of submitting and is a godsend when you’re getting started and learning the literary landscape. It does require a paid subscription to access the listings but it is beyond well worth it. I’ve used it for the past three years and it is the singular reason I have been able to submit as widely and as accurately as I have. (I promise they’re not paying me to say this. I just really love Duotrope.)
I got obsessive about my goals. Probably too obsessive. I noted daily word counts and watched them grow. The more I worked, the more I wanted to work, the easier the words came, until the end of the year when I had a novel on query and stories on submission. The rejections came on their own. I finished out the year with 99 rejections, seven requests on my manuscript from agents, and three published pieces in journals I was extremely proud to be in.
Secret, the second: understand that art is work and work is art. It’s magical, it’s allowed to be—but it requires professional diligence only earned by committing time to the task. You have to do the work every day, even on the bad days, and even on the really bad days. All the talent in the world can’t override the fact that you must get up early or stay up late, you must forgo seeing friends, watching TV, you must keep your mind clear, you must put your hands on the keyboard and type. The more time you invest in the work, the more inspiration can find you. Like Pavlov’s dog and the ringing bell, only your work is the bell and you, my friend, become the drooling dog. This is the magic of the work. This is how you welcome the spirit.
Fun fact: Publishing is hard and there are plenty of other writers trying to do it. Being successful has very little to do with talent and everything to do with how you hustle (although talent helps.)
The thing about hustling is that the personal becomes professional. Creative writing of any kind means the world sees you very intimately. You have to be okay with people you don’t know and people you love dearly seeing you in a vulnerable state on the page. Which is why it’s so hard to be rejected.
But that’s why hustling is so important. That thick skin they talk about only callouses up when more rejections and more edits are received. It doesn’t make you love the work any less. I’ve found it makes me love it more because I care about it enough to advocate for it. That’s all hustling is anyway—advocacy.
Which brings me to secret number three: Advocate for yourself by showing up.
The single most important thing I do for my writing is to show up, especially when I don’t want to. I showed up when I joined that first critique group. I showed up when I made my writing public. I showed up every morning in front of the keyboard, when I submitted work, when I went in search of a new writing community once we moved.
In this singular year of showing up, I have become known in my community as a writer to be respected, someone who can be counted on, as capable and competent, as talented, yes, but also as a hustler.
Ultimately, this is a business. Only you are going to bring yourself success (as you define it). Only you are going to advocate for yourself. The more you produce, the more you submit. The more you submit, the more acceptances you will receive. The more acceptances, the more confidence you gain. The more confidence, the more you will produce. And so on and so forth. It’s a vicious cycle. Vicious and delicious.
So show up. Hustle. Tell the world what you want. Ask for help. Ask for celebration. Give help when asked. Give help without having to be asked. Your dream writing life awaits—no special instructions required.
Lisa Bubert is a writer and librarian based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Washington Square Review, Carolina Quarterly, wildness, South 85, Barnstorm Journal, Spartan, and more. Her story “Formation” was named a finalist in the Texas Institute of Letters Kay Cattarrula Award for Best Short Story. She is the leader of Lit Mag League, a literary journal reading club organized though The Porch, Nashville’s lead writer’s collective, and now also leads Draft Chats, the Porch’s new group for critique and writer support. See more of her work at lisabubert.com.