What You Need To Be A Struggling Writer

(circa 1993-1994–how precious! – ed.)

Whenever I meet someone, one of the questions that always comes up is “What are you going to college for?”, usually right after I say “Yes, I go to Marquette University”. I usually respond with “Eleven grand a year,” but I am really going to college to get my Writing Intensive Bachelor Degree. I would have been a Writing Intensive Bachelor without the help of Marquette University, but I would not have had so much fun doing it. After I explain to these newly met people that I am a writer, the proceed to give me what they think is encouraging advice.

The advice is always the same, “Hang in there. Don’t give up. Have something to fall back on”. Thank you very much, but that advice is generic for any occupation. When people get specific about it, they always tell me that it takes a long time to break into the writing business. Well, no, I’d like to point out (but I am too polite to) that Tom Clancy and John Grisham “broke” into the biz. The rest of us, or at least I, have to worm our way in. I, on the other hand, am a practicing struggling writer, and I decided that if everyone else is giving advice, I might as well jump on the bandwagon.

To help out with all you struggling writers out there, I have compiled a list of things you’ll need. Strunk and White, ages of English classes, and last month’s Writers’ Digest can give you all the technical details. You’ll need more than words to make it as a struggling writer in today’s competitive market, and here’s what you’ll need.

  1. The Idea You’ll Succeed.
    When I started, I wanted to put down “Talent,” since that is pretty important to make it as a writer, but it’s not actually necessary when you start your jaunt as struggling writer. You can pretty much start with “The Idea You Have Talent” because your writing will get better as you write, so if you think you have talent, you will write more, and it is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Then I thought of some cheap fantasy fiction and pulp detective stories. Some of the stuff I have read has been so bad that I don’t think the writer could have thought they had talent. All they could be running on was self-confidence and the dollar signs they must have been seeing, so to succeed as a writer you just need the idea that it can be done, and not much else, but if you do have talent, so much the better.

  2. Something Written.
    When I told a professor my freshman year of college that I was going to be a writer, he asked me if I had written anything. At that point I had written innumerable bad poems, a few bad short stories, and most of a bad-but-hopefully-salvageable novel. I almost laughed, but you never laugh at a full Jesuit or a full Doctor, so I merely said “Yes, sir”. Since he asked the question, I can only assume he had run across people who were going to be writers who hadn’t written anything, but that’s what they were–people who were going to be writers. You’re not qualified to be an official Struggling Writer unless you’ve written something–and don’t give me that old “Writer’s Block” excuse. That’s like saying you’re on the disabled list without ever having picking up a baseball. So if you haven’t written anything, you might as well not read on.

  3. A Lot of Stamps.
    I mean a lot of stamps. What they say is true, you should receive quite a few of rejections before you get published anywhere. If you don’t, well, I don’t want to talk to you any more. I must have gotten your share of rejections, too. And at four stamps on the envelope to the magazine, four for the SASE (for short stories and articles mailed flat), that works out to $2.32 per submission. It’s more than a lottery ticket, and this should illustrate that you do need the idea you’ll succeed (if you want to get lucky, go to Vegas) and a lot of stamps.

  4. A Stiff Upper Lip.
    And, as you receive a lot of rejections, it might hurt. You might wonder as you stare at your ceiling as the shadows of the tree outside your window dances in the wind because you can’t sleep why you bother going on when all you get are a few compliments from your friends who are probably lying anyway and form letters that were probably written by the same insensitive clod with Rejection Forms Incorporated from every magazine you ever submit to and you might be tempted to give it all up and get into a respectable and lucrative racket like flipping burgers at the local McDonalds, or maybe that’s just me. Keep a stiff upper lip, though. It just takes a while, and once you’re in somewhere, it’ll get easier. Or so they tell me. Keep trying, and if you want a bit of my personal technique, try a dash of arrogance. Remember that that poor overpaid pencil-pushing mousy looking illiterate moron of an editor wouldn’t know a good piece if it was shot through his or her window with a flaming arrow. It’s an immature response beacuse deep down I’d like to project the failure onto the poor editor rather than the quality of my writing. If you can rationalize it, use it. It works for me.

  5. A Paying Job.
    By no means confuse this with a REAL job. I realize that being able to support yourself without writing takes much of the authenticity out of the poverty-stricken living-on-the-streets romantic image of the struggling writer, but if you can almost pay the bills, it’s easier on the stomach lining. Besides, the real world experience you gain will give you ideas for stories and characters, essays and articles, and you will have the expertise to carry it off. The things I have learned as a produce clerk will be invaluable when I start my great novel featuring tomatoes and overripe watermelons as main characters.

  6. A Sense of Humor.
    A sense of humor is helpful in any profession, and it is completely necessary for a writer. Not only will you be able to laugh heartily at lawsuits (“I plagiarized WHAT? I slandered WHOM?”), but you will also look at old things in new ways and give you endless material. Plus, Reader’s Digest pays $300 for short anecdotes, and you don’t have to write them well, and if you’re shifty enough, you don’t even have to live them–just don’t tell them I told you so. A sense of humor keeps me going–I have a collection of my rejection slips that I have kept, and I take pride in showing them off to friends. No, wait, that isn’t a sense of humor, that’s masochism. Maybe I should have added “A Sense of Masochism”.

Well, there you have the official Brian J. Noggle method to becoming a struggling writer. To become a good writer or a published writer is something else entirely, and I’d give you advice on either of the above subjects if I had experience with them. Heck, if you find a good list or magic potion that will give you either of those two powers, give me a copy or mix me up a batch.