Yesterday an email popped in from a guy named Ryan who wanted to see if I had 20 minutes to talk to him over the phone about memoir writing. I immediately shot back: Do you mean you want advice or you’re interviewing me for your article? “It’s an article for Publisher’s Weekly,” he said, “You’ll be quoted.” I apologized, I said, “Sorry, I was about to jump down your throat.”
He called me an hour later and said, “You must get lots of emails from strangers about your books and stuff.” “I used to get emails about my books,” I said, “Now I get emails asking what I can do for them, how they can “get” things I have.” I said this in a joking manner, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized it was true.
I’ve been getting hit up a lot for advice lately. In the past two weeks I’ve received more emails from strangers than ever; what’s in the air right now? These emails are not about my books like they used to be, but more of, How can I emulate your career path, what do I do. I am getting these emails at a time when I’m busier than I’ve ever been. I’m teaching memoir here, personal essay here, doing my own book edits, teaching at Catapult story here, taught a teen workshop, and doing freelance stuff and one-on one editing with writers like this one. I am working furiously to keep up with my students’ work, my lectures, my own writing, my health. So when I am working on my students’ essays, and an email pops in asking me for advice, it aggravates me, because I want my time to go to the people who are paying for it.
I’m trying to figure out why this getting hit up for advice sometimes makes me cranky, and I’ve come up with a few reasons. One is that, many of the people are living more well-off than I am. Why do you want to imitate ME? I get it—I have books out. But if I told you the way I “got to where I am” (which is, HA, where? Sitting at my desk, still? Working at my dad’s store, still? Babysitting, still?) I don’t know if these people would want to try it. Last week I received an email from 2 girls from California who are living in a loft in Williamsburg writing a movie all summer. (I would kill to have that set up, but the grass is always greener, right?) The girls wanted to ask me how I “got” what I did, so here it is:
- I lived home from age twenty-four to twenty-six so I could write. This meant I had nothing. Not money, not a car, not a partner, not a bank account, not my own apartment, not my own groceries. I lived at home again shortly when I was twenty-eight. This meant I felt lazy and lame; a failure.
2. I moved a lot, leaving me unsettled and poor and exhausted and lonely, but widening my “literary community” since I lived back and forth on both coasts for a few years.
3. I took emotional risks. Big ones. I promoted and pushed my own work which you can only do in the way I did if you are young and naive enough. I gave myself permission to be a writer.
4. I chose writing over relationships.
5. I chose writing over going out.
6. I chose writing over sleeping in.
7. I chose writing over living in New York City.
8. I chose writing over finding a day job that would lend me security or benefits.
9. I chose writing over having health and dental insurance. (I’m on Medicaid now.)
10. Since I chose no other career path or back up plan or degree, I became married to writing. Since I became married to writing, my work got out there more. Since my work got out there more, I got more opportunities. The more opportunities I got, the more opportunities I got.
11. I didn’t go to college.
12. So obviously, I didn’t get an MFA.
13. I put out a book of essays without making a cent on it.
Here are some things I didn’t get:
I’ve never been accepted to a residency. I paid $300 to go the one at Martha’s Vineyard in May.
I’ve never won a contest that paid anything. I’ve never won an award.
I did win $150 from Word Riot.
Do you see what I mean? This is not exactly the “path” most people want to follow. My path is like, move home and make no money. Write for free. Have no back up plan.
It’s not linear and it has no tips or tricks. The “trick” was that I literally spent eight hours a day at my desk. I remember vividly one night my friends threw rocks at my window telling me to come out to the bars, and I ignored them. (This is not to say I didn’t spend my twenties in bars–I did, but when I was devoted to a book/essay, I was devoted.)
The 2 girls said that they wanted to ‘pick my brain’. What exactly do you mean? I asked them, I’m pretty spread thin these days, I said. They wanted to take me for coffee, they said they felt ‘stuck’ in their writing projects. They wanted to know about my trajectory. They said if I didn’t have time for coffee, would i talk to them on the phone?
When they called, I told them I had 15 minutes. They put me on speaker phone. They had 2 questions, one was “So, like, how did you get on VICE?” and another was, “How did you get literary representation?” (Mind you, these girls aren’t in the lit world, they are in the film world, something I totally cannot speak to, so I’m not sure how i could help them if I wanted to.)
Well, I GOT on VICE because the editor solicited me after I wrote hundreds of unpaid pieces over the last nine years, and I got an agent when she read an essay I wrote for the anthology Goodbye To All That and contacted me. And I GOT into that anthology because the editor of it saw something else (unpaid) that I wrote on The Rumpus. I got on VICE after writing for free for a decade. I GOT on VICE after the editor Jennifer Schaffer and I spent three months of intense edits as I wrote about my beautiful dead friend. (Are we having fun yet?!)
Imagine if I’d asked them questions back like: How did you GET a loft in Williamsburg?
I just clicked on my PUBLICATIONS page and counted them. 30 of them were published unpaid. 10 were paid.
I know this post might sound bitchy and bitter. But I want to say that when you work your ass off and are still eating canned tuna, and pasta a boyfriend left at your apartment a year and a half ago, the phrase, “How did you get” can feel really grating on your ears.
I recognize ambition in my students. I had it too. I was telling my mother the other day that I looked back on my old emails when I took Memoir 1 in NYC, the same class I am now teaching. Seven years ago, my teacher Katie Dykstra was the only woman writer in her thirties (she was the nonfiction editor at Guernica) that I knew. I was twenty-one. I wrote her incessant emails:
Hi Katie, the assignment was to write about our mom, right?
Hi Katie! Is it okay if I bring in my essay on recycled paper?
Hey Katie, what day do I hand in my pages again?
Hi Katie, can you give me recommendations on places to send my work?
Sorry to bother you Katie, but could you send me that piece you mentioned in class, Literary Laryngitis?
Hey Katie, I have a book coming out and just wanted to thank you!
Hi Katie, do you know any reading series I could read at?
Hi Katie, I’d love to submit something I wrote to you at Guernica. Can I send it over?
Katie was my only resource. I had 0 resources so i took it upon myself to seek them out. I took more classes, therefore met more people. I made friends. I wrote. I read.
Another email I got the other day: “My friend took Litreactor class with you and says you’re really nice and approachable, so I wanted to ask you for some advice.”
“Usually I AM nice and approachable!” I told her. “But I’ve been receiving a lot of these requests while I’m swamped reading my students’ essays and doing things I’m being paid for. But I’ll answer your questions really quickly.”
1. Many of the small presses don’t have open submissions- how do I get them to read my work?
CC: No idea. Send anyway? Follow on Twitter and brazenly ask? Find the publisher’s email and send the book anyway?
2. How did you deal with negative criticism once your work was out (like The Mercury review of LGLA)?
CC: I don’t know. It’s funny and interesting. Builds character.
3. What is the editing process like once your manuscript has been submitted? Do publishers often change a ton?
CC: Always different! Depends on your book and you and your publisher. No answer to this I’m sure it always varies.
4. This is a weird, personal question, but how did your family react to how personal your writing is? I know Chelsea Hodson has a rule with her dad that he can’t read anything she publishes, and I’m curious to know if you’ve had to place any similar sort of restrictions on people close to you.
CC: I’m tight with my family so was never a huge issue. I have lots of support from them so I felt safe enough to write LGLA, I guess. It will always be unnerving, but this is how I’ve chosen to live my life, so I have to deal with that. No restrictors. That seems unfair. If i’m publicly writing books, I can’t decide who reads them. It’s a surrender of control.
The family question is getting particularly hard to answer. It’s depends on your family, and unless I know your family story, I don’t know what you should do in that regard. I only know what I should do.
When I was twenty-three, my parents helped me pay to have 5 one-on-one sessions with the author Melissa Febos. I met her for coffee first at News Bar near Union Square. I will never forget she emailed me afterwards, “Chloe I know this is awkward–talking about money always is!—but the meeting we had today has to be paid for as well.”
I wasn’t old enough to be mortified, but that anecdote hangs over me now. She simply couldn’t meet young authors for coffee for an hour for free. Now, I get it. Looking back, I thought she was rich, because she had a book out. She lived in Bushwick. I also thought she was way older than me: but now I see she was only 29 to my 22. (I am now 29.)
I’ve been bribed with many coffees lately. I can buy my own coffee! I want to say.
Here’s an excerpt From Emily Gould’s “How Much My Novel Cost Me”:
During that $7,000 year I also routinely read from my work in front of crowds of people, spoke on panels and at colleges, and got hit up for advice by young people who were interested in emulating my career path, whose coffee I usually ended up buying after they made a halfhearted feint toward their tote bag–purses. I felt some weird obligation to them and to anyone else who might be paying attention to pretend that I wasn’t poor. Keeping up appearances, of course, only made me poorer. I’m not sure what the point of admitting all this might be, because I know that anyone who experiences a career peak in his mid-twenties will likely make the same mistakes I did, and it’s not even clear to me that they were all mistakes, unless writing a book is always a mistake, which in some sense it must be.
This post is making me sound like someone I am not. if you know me, and many of you reading this kind of do, you know I am generous as hell. I adore my students and give them my heart. I spend the week before each memoir class trying to pick out something we can read that will make them laugh, feel good, learn. I lie on my couch with their essays and my red le pen. Any of my Litreactor students will tell you I truly enjoy helping them place their essays, (in and out of class) and emailing with them and sending them towards the right editor if I know one. I constantly bother people telling them, “You should submit to this!” I also am generous to people who are not my students and would love to meet them for coffee, when I can. I guess I just want people to be more aware of the phrase “how did you get” because usually the person didn’t “get’ anything and while they respond to your email of how they “got” what they “got” it’s taking away from them “getting it, girl.” I got what I got because I sit here in yoga pants and acne all day working my ass off. This is not to say I am not grateful and flattered. I am. But there’s something about it that makes me feel defensive, and used, and dirty.
I watched an interview with Amy Schumer the other night. I related to lots of what she was saying: she loves other women comics, she champions them, etc. It was really nice and authentic and then this girl ruined it during the Q & A when she stood up and told Amy to Google her comedy and then made a comment like,
“And you know, you just said you love mentoring young girls so…..hit me up.”
EW. EW. EW.
I was deeply embarrassed for her. Mentorships should work naturally. They should be special. You do not ask a celebrity to be your mentor. This is called having basic social skills.
it is insulting to ask writers how they GOT on VICE, or The Rumpus, because it implies they knew someone there, not because their work is good. I got in The Rumpus and Salon because I went to their websites and followed the submitting directions. The secret to writing and publishing, it turns out, is writing and publishing. Mostly writing.
This is not to say I haven’t had some good luck! But I had the “luck” because I was doing the work. Some things I’ve done have been wonderful: I’ve been flown places and done readings in eccentric and glamorous places I never thought I would. Cheryl Strayed blurbed my first book—–because I had written it. Elizabeth Ellen bought my next book because I had written it. CoffeeHouse bought my next book because I had written it. There are zero shortcuts to writing.
I don’t want this post to be solely negative so here are some things I did do that helped me along my way:
1. I emailed authors when I was moved by their books or pieces I read online.
2. I said ‘yes’ every time I was asked to do a reading
3. I emailed hosts of readings and asked if I could read at their series (before LGLA was even out.)
4. I asked for jobs. At Litreactor, at Catapult, at Gotham, at libraries.
5. I treated writing as a job. I still wake up every single morning and head to my desk first thing.
6. I submitted my work.
7. I knew when not to submit my work (sometimes.)
8. I studied what other writers were doing and where they were publishing and sent my work to those places.
9. I got off Facebook two years ago, which has helped me to keep my head down and do my work without seeking attention all day, every day. (I use Twitter for that. : )
10. I support dozens of other writers and they support me in return. Support is not, “How did you get” support is based on mutual admiration.
The girls who I spoke to on speaker phone told me I could come hang out with them in Brooklyn anytime and listen to records. I think they wanted more from me than I could give. I think I disappointed them. But they disappointed me, too.
And if someone wants a VICE contact, they should just email me and ask. Also it’s on their website.
I’d rather have someone email me and ask me directly for an editor’s name, then flatter me just to make connections.
When you say, “How did you get” it sounds like you’re asking for a shortcut. It sounds like you’re saying, “Why you and not me?”
When I was 22 I emailed Ryan O’Connell for the editor’s name at the New York Times Townies column. He told me he couldn’t give it, because he was solicited. (So I found the editor’s name on my own: Honor Jones. I sent her my essay which she accepted, and then changed her mind–a quick heartbreak for me.)
I’m 99.9% sure, without looking back into my email, that I phrased my question to Ryan, “How did you get on Townies? How did you get in the New York Times?”