Bad Advice Wednesday: The Journey Years

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Bill at the forge

Dave has talked in an earlier spasm of bad advice about the  10,000 hours an apprentice at anything must put in.  Now, perhaps, it’s time to talk about the artist’s or writer’s journeyman years, or better, journeyperson years, or better yet, just Journey Years.  These are the professional years after your apprenticeship has been served, the cruelly harder but perhaps much more rewarding years.  A friend says that after apprenticeship (after, say, the MFA is done, or once the first book is out there, or whatever marks the transition for you in your particular set of circumstances), that after the apprenticeship comes something he calls the ten years, or that Dave might call the ten more years.  The Ten More Years.  Our graduating class of 2011 apprentice writers will surely write new books and perhaps publish them in those ten journey years that will take us to 2021, but the lessons will keep coming: triumph, disappointment, joy, heartbreak, success, failure, pleasure in the process, pleasure in the success of others, heart-stabbing envy more often.  In most cases, the positive items on the list will have to float the far greater volume of the negative.  But positive is more buoyant than negative, so no matter, probably you’ll float.  It’s really your choice whether to be miserable or happy while you bob along.

Many lessons, much more to learn: that’s the journey years.  It’s like Super Mario Brothers, a video game I played once back in the stone age of video games, maybe 16 years ago.  I played it with my little niece, who is in college now, and discovered playing it that even an old uncle had to suffer quite a bit to get through Level One, which she had mastered.  But I got it after a week or so, and I remember the day my little Mario man climbed that last ladder and up to that elusive trap door that led through the ceiling into … into Level Two?!

One’s sense of triumph, of finality, of the end of things, of achievement even, is short-lived.  Because there it suddenly is, all around you: Level Two.  And you and your little Mario man have to learn a whole new set of customs and manners and self-control, just to follow this six-year-old girl into levels three through 10,000, or wherever it stops [1].  Being graduated from one’s apprenticeship is like that.  Proud as heck, you open the hatch door in what has been the very ceiling of ambition (your MFA!  Your first book!  Your second book!  That big prize!).  You stick your head up through the spider webs, expecting sunshine and bluebirds, but when you look around there’s just a whole new world of shit, and I mean it.

My wife once told me a Zen story she’d read.  Student asks the master: What is it like to be enlightened?  master says, “Well, before I was enlightened I had to wash the dishes, cook meals, clean the house.  The eager student says, “And after?  After?”  “Oh,” says the master, “after I was enlightened I had to wash the dishes, cook meals, clean the house. “

Ten More Years.  Jazz musicians talk about dues paying.  You play in the ratty clubs, midnight shift, short pay, no respect, make your way to the next thing, bigger clubs, hotter sidemen, harder riffs, the 2 a.m. shift.  There’s no end to the gradations and degradations.  R.V. Cassill talked about it another way for writers: you’ve got to make your first million words.  That’s just your apprenticeship, then maybe a million more for  your journey years.  A million beautiful, finished words.  A hundred thousand sentences, more or less.  Ten thousand paragraphs.  Something like 3300 manuscript pages.  Not quite two War and Peaces  or Infinite Jests.  Five Moby Dicks, approximately.  Eleven The Catcher in the Ryes.  Ten More Years.  Enjoy!

No, really, enjoy.  It’s not a sentence but a blessing.  Only a few get to do it.  And that means only a few understand it, will understand what you are up to and up against.  It’s like having a secret dinosaur friend.  And you don’t go around telling just anybody about your secret dinosaur friend, right, Bronto?

To make money you’ll be doing other things for a while or for life, be around people who may not get it.  Your best work may fall into the hands of people who don’t get it.  So make sure you keep your apprenticeship gang around you, that you have writer and artist and artisan friends, and that they join you on the journey.

As Joyce Johnson has written in her brilliant memoir of Jack Kerouac, Minor Characters: “Artists are nourished more by each other than by fame or by the public.  To give one’s work to the world is an experience of peculiar emptiness.  The work goes away from the artist into a void, like a message stuck into a bottle and flung into the sea.”

Nourish each other.  That doesn’t mean workshopping.  Probably you’re done with that, Journeyperson.  No, I’m not talking about more school.  I’m talking about just staying in touch, reading each other, responding to each other, writing fanmail as the work of friends appears in print, not hating better writers anymore like some cloddish apprentice, but admiring them, not disdaining the less talented, but nurturing them as you can (possibly including actual meals).  All this in order to learn how to admire yourself, nurture yourself.  All this in order to have friends in the game.  All this to help yourself get it: this is what you signed up for.  This is your reward.

We’re all experts now.  Our masters have taught us all they know, and it turns out not to be all that much.  Turns out we arrived at our apprenticeships with all the equipment we needed, and the enlightened ones just did their best to show us how to use it.  Now, as the journey really begins, there’s no one to guide the way.  And there is nothing but ways. Ten More Years.  And then guess what?  Ten more!  And so I end on a note of mathematical anomaly.  Your Ten More Years might very well take twenty, or thirty, or seventy, or even more than that[2].  Because, in fact, there’s no such thing as mastery when it comes to the arts.

It just looks that way from outside.

[1] It stops at death.

[2] See footnote 1.

  1. Susan Richardson writes:

    Thanks for kicking off my journey years Bill. You are holding true to your words by offering the nourishment of staying in touch, reading our work, and just plain being generous you. I’m off to write my essay now. Thanks

  2. Vasilios writes:

    Thank goodness for Bill Roorbach– that’s what I always say. Just as another threat of artistic stagnancy threatens to kick in, someone writes something that warms your belly and makes you continue with a smile and a step forward. Thanks man.

  3. Dug writes:

    I need this, Bill. Thanks.

  4. Great article. Thanks for posting this, this is exactly what I needed to read right now!

    My first book was accepted in March for publication in 2012. After the initial elation – Pass Go, Collect $200!! – I’m realizing that despite the many hours I will put in promoting it, it will be an uphill battle all the way. I will face empty chairs at readings, refusals to carry the book at bookstores – in addition to the continuing rejections as I write work for my second book.

    Again, thanks!

  5. Christin Geall writes:

    Lovely piece, Bill. I’ve been conference calling with the same two writer friends every 2 weeks for the past 2-3 years. Sometimes we read one another’s work, sometimes not. Gossip, self-pity, boasting, whining, humility…it’s a fine thing to have others to the share the journey with.


    • Bill writes:

      It’s true, isn’t it. Hard to find role models, but plenty of trench mates. These literary friendships are truly fine.

  6. Dave writes:

    This is great, Bill. Turns out that you really are a superhero and that you really do have a magnaminity gun.