A couple of weeks ago, my friends’ oldest daughter graduated high school. I can still remember the joyous phone call when the father told me his wife was pregnant. I can also still remember the first time I met the newborn infant. The mother was sitting on the couch in the apartment they were living in at the time, and the little girl was cradled in her arms, sleeping. Now, the little girl has grown into a young woman, getting ready for college.
Because moments like these make me feel nostalgic, lately I’ve been thinking about my own high school graduation. Just like this young woman, I was excited about going to college, learning new things, and meeting new people. I was also ready to take the literary world by storm. In fact, at the time, all I wanted to be was a writer. I didn’t think I was going to need a “real job” once I graduated college because my first book was going to be published before then. Now back in 1991, it was very unusual for anyone between the ages of 18 and 22 to have a short story published in a major publication (never mind a full-length book), but it didn’t matter: I was going to change the rules.
That fall, I wrote a weird little short story called “The WORMS Are Taking Over,” which was published in my college literary magazine the following spring. (If I ever find the magazine, I promise I’ll republish the story here.) Of course, this was a very exciting moment for me: My first story in print. Back then, not many people had heard of the internet (never mind using it), so I had to spread the word by carrying the magazine around with me everywhere and showing it any friends that were around. Looking back, it was no masterpiece, but I certainly thought it was the beginning of a big literary career.
Now, the next logical step after that would be to write and submit more stories, right? After all, wouldn’t it make sense for a student who wants to publish a book before he graduates from college to do that, especially if he has no other post-college plans?
But I didn’t. Sure, I continued to write, but I wasn’t focused, and my writing was all over the place. Instead of focusing on one big project, like a short-story collection or even a novel, I was trying to write all kinds of things – stories, novel chapters, stage plays, screenplays. I even wrote and published a zine, which only lasted six issues.
No matter what I wrote, though, I was never as happy with the end results as I was with “WORMS” simply because I didn’t take the time to develop these works properly. Just as I was starting a project, I was already thinking about the next 10, so I would rush through things. Most of the time I wouldn’t even both finishing one because I got bored with it so easily. That is why when I finally graduated from college in May 1996, I didn’t even have enough material for a book (or at least a book that made sense), never mind publish one.
Now, it was tough enough to swallow the fact my literary career hadn’t taken off before graduation. But because I hadn’t really thought about what I was going to do for work after college, I spent a few years trying to figure that out. Keep in mind that at the time, the economy was great. People were prospering, and all of my college friends were getting great jobs and moving out of their parents’ homes and even getting married, yet I had a really difficult time just finding a full-time job.
Fortunately, things did work out in the end. Two years later, I got a full-time job at a newspaper, beginning what would turn out to be a rather eclectic post-college career. At the same time, my personal life improved: My wife and I started dating. We eventually got married, moved out of our parents’ houses, bought our own, and had a child. Not to brag, but right now, life couldn’t be better.
Even though I may never end up publishing a book, I’m also happy with the way things are going with my writing.
That’s because I learned from my mistakes and I’m now doing everything I should have done during college. I no longer rush through projects. I workshop them and consider every comment and suggestion carefully before revising them. (I plan to talk more about this in a future post.) Even though lately I’ve been working on poems that are only about 100-150 words each, I want to make sure that every single word counts.
So if I had a chance to talk to my 18-year-old self today, I would give him this advice: Stay focused, both in writing and in “real life.” Sure, writers need to write but they also need to take care of the other important things in life. Once those needs are met, use your writing time wisely. Pick one project and stick with it, at least until the first draft is done. Sure, sometimes you need to give yourself space between drafts, but don’t abandon a project – complete it. If you come up with another idea in the meantime, write a note somewhere and then forget about it until your current project is done.
Another thing I would tell my 18-year-old self is don’t write in isolation. Writers are not always the best at judging their work, so it’s good to get some feedback from others. But if you do, be considerate of what others have to say. I’m not saying you have to follow every piece of advice someone gives you, but you shouldn’t downright dismiss it either. These people are taking time out of their busy day to help you out. Even if you don’t find their feedback useful, you should at least be polite and say “Thank you.” Finally, try to repay the favor whenever possible, either by helping someone else with a work-in-progress or taking the time to read something he or she published.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, time passes too quickly to be spent wandering aimlessly as I did during my college years. But the good thing to know if you do find yourself in the same position, you can get yourself back on track and then graduate to the next phase in the journey of life.
Till next time,