Beginning Is Terrifying Business

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


I’ve been thinking a lot about apprenticeship lately, though I’m not sure exactly why (old age? sentimentality?)  I don’t think I ever actually used the word “apprentice” when I was one: all I really knew or thought about was making the book I was working on great, and getting it published so that it would change the world forever.  As it turned out, I wrote three books before getting the fourth one published, which ended up taking about thirteen years, and the world did not seem particularly changed.

Of course looking back I somewhat romanticize the time before book.  I’m not a groovy type, and I don’t pay lip service to “process” over results, but I do think the period of working hard without any rewards was perhaps the most important, if not the most pleasant, period of my life. It is important, too, for my job today, since I spend a lot of time with young writers who are in exactly the position I was in then.  When I work with them, I try not to forget what it really felt like: the energy, the frustration, the thrill of small breakthroughs, the bitterness.

Since I’ve been thinking about it a lot, I thought I’d kick off Cocktail Hour with a few pieces about apprenticeship, that is, about getting started.  The first is Bill’s great essay, “On Apprenticeship,” which gets right to the  heart of the matter.  The second is a piece I wrote just a couple of weeks ago, a direct address to young writers with the timeworn title of “Letter to an Apprentice.” I’m worried about playing Polonius in this essay—“O Listen to me, the wise old sage”—and I’m worried that I’ve ripped you off, Bill, since a lot of what I know about so-called apprenticeship is stuff I’ve learned/stolen from you and your books.  But I’m going to publish it anyway.

The last piece I’m more confident in.  It’s called “Pep Talk” and it’s in my new favorite genre to work in, the cartoon essay.  It springs, as it says in the cartoon, from a recent talk with two former grad students, though I should point out the cartoons of the students intentionally don’t look like them, to preserve their anonymity (so don’t worry about anyone recognizing you, Emily and Kimi.)  This is the first of a monthly cartoon series I will be publishing called “Talking to Ghosts,” which you can find in Bill and Dave’s Lounge.

By the way, there’s lots of other stuff in our lounge (or at least there will be soon).   For instance, Bill will be filming a monologue about his days as a musician called “I Used to Play in Bands” and we will post podcasts and movies and a bunch more cartoons.  Since we are writers, most of it will focus on writing, but we hope to swerve away from the subject into whatever else we feel like talking about.  Bill and I have found, during the dozen or so times we have run into each other, that we love getting together to talk, often over drinks, and that love was a large part of the inspiration for this site. Since Bill lives in Maine and I live in North Carolina, we thought the site might serve as a meeting place, a place to shoot the shit with each other and other writers.  “The ritual of cocktail hour represents the communion of all friendly minds separated in time and space,” wrote Conrad Aiken.  That’s it exactly.  And this site, we thought, would be a good place for our virtual cocktail hour.

So, cheers.  And here, without further ado, is “Pep Talk.”

  1. Steven Stafford writes:

    “Talking to Ghosts” is awesome. I’m basically doing the same thing you did. I’ve written three unpublishable practice novels; I force myself to read 60 books a year; I think about literary theory when I’m in the shower and I have the urge to smash every TV on Earth.

    Thanks for making me feel less strange! Great stuff.

  2. John Jack writes:

    After browsing Cocktail Hour’s content and cogitating on it, I’m pleased to say it’s delightfully different from run of the mill online writing discussions. Other writing discussion forums get caught up in the twin traps of overtreatment and indifference. Overtreatment from flogging dead horses of writing conventions (ie., show don’t tell) without defining what any given convention means and fault finding for fault finding’s sake. Indifference from emotionally insensitive browbeating commentary from the lofty heights of accomplishment of once or twice published authors.

    Other common junk stuff at other writing discussion forums, spoiling and spoofing one-upmanship, uncalled-for personal criticisms (argumentum ad hominem), point by point refutation arguments (argumentum ad nauseam), and the hypocrisy of indicting others for malefeasances that everyone is guilty of (argumentum tu quoque).

    Also, I’m pleased to see Cocktail Hour’s writing discussions arching over the needs of narrative craft for both fiction and nonfiction presented in an encouraging light.

    I’m especially tickled by the manner in which Cocktail Hour depicts the concept of apprenticeship as it applies to creative writing. Apprenticeship has a self-referential context related to writing. Metatextual. Young adult literature involves most commonly the life stage of initiation and apprenticeship into adult self-identity formation separate from parentally imprinted identity.

    Yet aren’t all of life’s stages an ongoing initiation and apprenticeship into self-identity formation? New jobs, new relationships, new places, new life perspectives and viewpoints. New and old, for that matter. Those around us are constantly refashioning identity and we adapt and change as well or try very hard to resist change, and fail. Self-identity building and preservation, crises of conscience, existential crises, aren’t those at the core of all narratives’ dramas?
    Recently, for years actually, I have had a string of crises of committment to writing. Some one or another screening reader commented that my writing lacked emotional appeal. In the same breath said that graduates of writing programs tend to write mechanically flawless but emotionally flat narratives. I’m a graduate of an undergraduate writing program looking to get into a graduate program.

    Well, what the heck does lacking emotional appeal mean? It’s been a tough couple of years figuring out some answers. Related to apprenticeship by study, application, and mentoring, audience rapport is the answer I found. When a narrative’s topics, characters, settings, and events resonate with an audience’s self-interests, when an audience empathizes with a narrative’s insuperable dilemmas, when a narrative artfully raises suspense questions, audience rapport is assured.

    Rapport is the top level architecture of narrative structure over even plot and character development. It’s the hardest writing convention to teach, to learn, to grasp in all its complex ramifications due to its aesthetic complications. I wish I could send what I now know back in time to my eleven-year-old self who’d just received his first rejection letter, so he could start his apprenticeship with studying up on audience rapport. I see it now in my reading. I’m getting there in my writing.

    • Dave writes:

      Wow. These are great and thoughtful responses. I only wish I could say thank you in the only way I know how: by drawing you the tiny cartoon heads I promised.

      Sadly, we are still working on the tiny head technology. But it will be coming soon…

      One thing that occurs to me is that two of the main threads here are connected. Commitment to writing is much harder if you do not believe that that writing will eventually have an audience. The private and the social elements of the thing are always battling it out.

  3. Dan Dunnagan writes:

    I think new media does makes a difference, and when a “taste” proliferates, it influences reading conventions. The style guide I edit for online-course content aims to strike a balance between the traditional, “academic” style of the Chicago manual and the conversational, Web-savvy voice students expect from a commercial-art college. If readers can change the tone of academia, they can change the literary world. New media will influence not only how but also what people choose to read, and that will change how people write. When I’m working at home, I’m not restricted to the short paragraphs recommended for Web pages, but I can’t help but ask myself what a long, luxurious paragraph means to those who might read my work. That’s the subtle yet persistent influence new media is having. Writers strive for intellectual and emotional honesty, but it would be dishonest to pretend that I live and write in a vacuum.

  4. Dave writes:

    Jason and Dan,

    Thanks for chiming in first. I agree with your agreeing. I think it’s easy to say, “be yourself,” but most of our selves need some revising–and help. Which leads to my response to Stan:

    I have always worked at the writing first but having a large audience is vital to me, too. Despite a lot of striving, however, I haven’t had great luck in that department. I’ll keep trying. One way, I’ve tried to embrace the “new media” is through things like this website. I’ve learned that for me the assault has to come in lots of different forms. For instance, the one and only piece I had in the NYT magazine came about, in part, because an editor there has seen my youtube video. It’s a strange new world.

  5. Amelia writes:

    Dear David,
    Barely a year out of the safety and community of an MFA program and I totally needed a pep talk. I LOVED this cartoon/essay hybrid version you gave. I definitely need to believe “we are not completely the creatures of the environment in which we were placed.. that there are openings to something more spacious through the large written record that we call literature.” so THANK YOU! and I look forward to coming back to the site for more inspiring adventures.

  6. Bill Roorbach writes:

    Oops, I already gave up the day job… I wasn’t tenured at Holy Cross, but occupied an endowed chair, and my five years ended last May. I quit my tenured position at Ohio State back in 2000 so I could write full time and not be trapped by so-called security, had three good years of it, wrote most of Temple Stream, took the chair at HC, now back to writing all the time again, nice, slowly going broke. I think you’re arguing with yourself here, because I don’t really disagree with you… The breadth of media has changed dramatically, but drawing an audience hasn’t, has it? There are only so many readers no matter how you slice things up, and that was always true…. My point is that the act of writing has to be rewarding, because there may not be much further reward, and even when there is, you still have to wash the dishes, make your bed, etc. I can appreciate your anxiety–I have certainly shared it at times. As for editors, some turn out to be partners in art–it’s not all adversarial. I don’t sign a contract if I don’t like the terms… Then again, I’ve been bent over a barrel so many times I’ve got curvature of the spine…

  7. stanley colbert writes:

    “I don’t think new media makes a difference…”? That sounds like someone enjoying the pleasures of tenure. It’s changing how writers reach readers. Of course “…the goods still have to be good…” It’s the “…drawing an audience…” that has changed dramatically. It’s affecting what editors choose to support and publish and the spheres in which they want to be custodian of rights in your work in the new modes of reaching readers. It’s great to find satisfaction in striving to write “…the best the world have ever seen… ” If that’s all there is, then don’t give up the day job.

  8. Bill Roorbach writes:

    I guess the one thing that matters is whether the writing is any good. And of course, what good means is open to discussion, also taste. It’s smart to have a council of readers–one of the blessings of grad school–and smart to listen to the people who piss you off the most, listen carefully, try the advice before you reject it. And then, having tied yourself to the mast and listened to the critics, you have to change, not only the work, but the person, change and grow and get where you’re going, without wasting time on rivalries. One form of change, by the way, is to trust yourself, trust your vision, hear all advice in the light of that vision. Your place as a writer is yours alone if you’re any good at all, and only you can get in the way of your reaching that place. Or then again, bad luck and dreary jobs and demanding spouses and jealous colleagues and stupid editors and a lot of other things can go wrong…. But that place? It’s still waiting for you. I don’t think new media make a difference, not really. The goods still have to be good if you’re going to draw an audience. As for academia, that’s the last thing you should be thinking about when you’re sitting at your desk…. Publishing, too, and the woes of the publishing world. You’re just making sentences and paragraphs and pages, with luck the best the world has ever seen, and even those could use some revision.

  9. stanley colbert writes:

    From Maine to North Carolina there’s a revolution in publishing that makes conventional publishing yesterday’s news. It affects writers who are already published, and those who will be seeking an audience for their works in the future. What are each of you doing, in your spheres of influence, to prepare your accolytes for what’s going on, and what’s ahead. Do you really need a conventional publisher to reach your audience, or can the web, combined with Kindle, IPad, etc., put you in touch with your readers. And will academia recognize this as legitimate evidence of publishing for its browny points?

  10. Dan writes:

    Some of the best feedback I ever got came from someone who didn’t like what I was doing but gave such a thorough and nuanced account of her reading that I could see not only the weaknesses but also the strengths of my work. We wouldn’t have talked to each other at a party, but I eagerly awaited her criticism. My worst reader is my brother, because he anticipates what I’m trying to do instead of reading what’s on the page.

    But I really just want a tiny cartoon head.

  11. Jason writes:

    Okay, I’ll go first. Just to highlight one significant piece of advice from “Letter to an Apprentice,” here’s your passage on the importance of finding a balanced circle of first readers:

    It has often been said that one of the goals of grad school is to find one or two readers who can really understand and respond well to your work. I was lucky enough to find my wife, who became and has remained my primary reader. But be wary of determining too quickly who your best readers are, and be wary of your criteria for deciding this (for instance, “She likes my stuff” had better be balanced by something sterner.) Also, don’t worry too much if your work does not pass workshop muster. One danger of grad programs is that the readers of your writing may not be real readers themselves. When they question you, this is worth questioning: what have they read? Who do they admire and emulate? Have they read beyond the restrictive realm of their own time? What are the aims of their work? If what they read and what they aim to do are worlds apart from your reading and aims it will be no wonder that they don’t understand what you are attempting to do. I have a friend who, when she has reaches a certain point on any project, sends her work out to five or six fellow writers. She is a masterful writer herself and a good reader of others’ reactions, and you can be sure she picks those readers carefully, knowing that she will get something a little different from each reader, knowing their strengths and weaknesses as readers just as they may have begun to know hers as a writer. The question for you is “What minds and what voices are you echoing your voice off? Who are you listening to?” The ability to react to these reactions, to listen in places and ignore in others, becomes an art in itself.

    I (Jason) think that’s an especially good thing to point out to any apprentice writer and even to many journeymen and journeywomen. I’ll go so far as to say that learning to value and seek out the responses of good critical readers is one important step that separates the wannabe writer from the professional one. To improve your writing, it’s crucial to know what doesn’t yet work the way you intend it to. Only a good reader can tell you.

    Thanks, David.